The Twisted Tale of Tiresias

Published August 2, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

When I was telling you about the appallingly titled Whores, Harlots & Wanton Women by Petrina Brown, I mentioned that there was, towards the very end, a very unconventional version of the Tiresias myth presented to the reader. I want to quote that now, and then explore both its unusual take on the story, as well as the (usual version of the) story itself, in a way that is slightly more analytical than my previous posts on the subject. (One of which was more accusatory, and the other was more just, you know, telling the story.)

Greek myth has it that a man called Tiresius was blessed to spend seven years as a woman. He was invited to share his thoughts on the experience with Zeus at Mount Olympus and concluded that women enjoy sex more than men. For bringing this unwelcome message he was blinded!

First off, yes, that’s how she spelled it; I did not insert a typographical error there. (As I said before, the book was sorely in need of a good editing.)

Second, given how women lived/were treated in ancient Greece, I don’t think there is any way, shape or form in which you can consider that a blessing.  Today’s world, yes.  Then, no.  Not in Greece.  Scythia, maybe.  Greece, no.  Sorry, just plain no.

Third, notice that she’s removed all mentions of Hera and the argument between her and her husband from the story, despite that said argument was the only reason Tiresias was being given the honor of speaking to the gods in the first place.  Apparently in Brown’s version, the conversation ran something like this:

Zeus: So, I hear you were a woman for a while.
Tiresias: Yes, it was quite the miracle.
Zeus: What was that like?
Tiresias: Oh, I’m glad to be a man again.  But the sex was better as a woman.
Zeus: How dare you say it’s better to be a woman!  Be blinded!
Tiresias: Wait, what?!

Gotta say, the actual myth does make more sense. Especially since her version left out the whole thing of Zeus giving him a “second sight” to make up for the regular sight that Hera had taken away in her anger. After all, Tiresias’ power as a seer was kind of vital to a lot of other myths, seemingly half the Theban myths, in fact.  (Also to the Odyssey…)

Presumably, she thought this modified version fit her point better, but I’m not sure why she would have thought that, considering the context and all that had come before it.  (Perhaps she was just trying to protect Hera from the misogynistic side of the story — it was her temper that caused Tiresias to lose his sight, after all — but considering the argument was over Zeus claiming that he had the right to sleep around because women have a better time in bed than men do, I think Hera’s anger was well justified, and any author worth her salt could easily portray the myth and show her anger as justified, rather than simply excising Hera from the myth. That’s the lazy way out.) Like most modern authors who bring up the story — especially ones writing for a general audience — her point was just to say “see, even the ancient Greeks had noticed that women have better orgasms than men do!”

There was literally zero analysis of why there would be a full myth about who has better orgasms.  Seriously, why is that?  (Not “why is there never any analysis?”  Rather, “why is there such a myth in the first place?”) It’s not like they cared if their wives were happy with their love lives; ancient Greek girls were married off without any say in the matter to men they didn’t meet until their wedding night, so there was no chance that either party was in love, or even in lust.  If they had cared if their wives loved them, they wouldn’t have had marriage practices of that nature.  (In fact, given ancient Greek marriage practices, it’s surprising that there are as many myths as there are about men falling in love with women and pursuing them with the aim of marrying them.  According to what one reads in the history books, that didn’t often happen in reality.  But I suppose it happened more often in the Late Bronze Age, when the myths were first being forged.)

Don’t let the Odyssey fool you; Penelopes filled with love and devotion were likely exceptionally rare in real-world ancient Greece.  Her cousins Helen and Clytemnestra were living out the fantasies of many a real-world Greek wife, I’m sure; many of them must have dreamed of running away with a handsome, exotic prince, or of butchering an unfaithful brute of a husband on his return home. (Actually, come to think of it, that was kind of the Odyssey’s point, that Helen and Clytemnestra were more typical than Penelope.  That’s actually why I don’t like it as much; its sexism is a bit too overt.)  But I’m getting off topic here.  (Again.)

If the myth of Tiresias’ judgment regarding the relative quality of male and female pleasure in bed wasn’t to assure themselves that their wives were enjoying sex even more than they were, then what was it for? Perhaps some of them observed their wives/mistresses/concubines having an orgasm and reflected that it looked like they were enjoying it far more than the man making the observation ever did.  Sharing their observations, they might have come to the conclusion that women had better orgasms than men.  They probably thought it was a gift from Zeus, to ensure that his conquests fully enjoyed being conquered.

But I’m not convinced by an explanation of that sort, either.  I think it tied in to another myth about the sexual nature of women, one that has been told in one form or another in most — if not all — human societies, despite being patently untrue.  That myth, of course, being that all women are sexually ravenous, uncontrollable beasts of desire.  The Tiresias myth could be used as justification for that, pointing to it as a reason that women are so lecherous, because it feels so much better, and that’s why they have to be locked away.  (Okay, they weren’t literally locked up, but they were confined to the home at almost all times.)

Most feminist authors have tended to look at that myth as men seeking excuses for their own behavior, particularly as looking for any reason to suppress women.  (While I’m not an author, that’s usually been my take on it as well.)  Apparently Freud (according to Brown) saw it as a reflection of woman’s need to be loved.  I don’t see that in any way, but I usually take issue with most of what Freud had to say about the sexes, so that’s hardly surprising.  I found a refreshing analysis of that myth in a very surprising place, however:

One often feels that these lustful nymphs that lustful men (in both ancient Greece and Papua New Guinea) are so fond of representing are not so much misogynistic images, i.e. reflections of sincere contempt for women’s inability to control their lusts, as alter egos—that by projecting insatiable lust onto women they are trying very hard and very obviously to eject lust from the field of men, insisting it’s not manly to behave like that, because they fear it probably is.

I call it a surprising place because that was in one of the end notes on the conclusion to The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson. (Yes, eventually, I will stop talking about it. Eventually. It’s just that kind of book. There’s a lot there to talk about. I haven’t even scratched the surface, believe me. (Well, it is 645 pages long.))

I’m going to try to accept that kind of reasoning as being behind both myths, since it believes the best of humanity in general, and I’d like to stop being a misanthrope.

But no promises.

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