I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
218. Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a “character,” is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem. The whole passage from Ovid is of great anthropological interest:
‘...Cum Iunone iocos et maior vestra profecto est
Quam, quae contingit maribus,’ dixisse, ‘voluptas.’
Illa negat; placuit quae sit sententia docti
Quaerere Tiresiae: venus huic erat ultraque nota.
Nam duo magnorum viridi coeuntia silva
Corpora serpentum baculi violaverat ictu
Deque viro factus, mirabile, femina septem
Egerat autumnos; octavo rursus eosdem
Vidit et ‘est vestrae si tanta potentia plagae,’
Dixit ‘ut auctoris sortem in contraria mutet,
Nunc quoque vos feriam!’ percussis anguibus isdem
Forma prior rediit genetivaque venit imago.
Arbiter hic igitur sumptus de lite iocosa
Dicta Iovis firmat; gravius Saturnia iusto
Nec pro materia fertur doluisse suique
Iudicis aeterna damnavit lumina nocte,
At pater omnipotens (neque enim licet inrita cuiquam
Facta dei fecisse deo) pro lumine adempto
Scire futura dedit poenamque levavit honore.
As translated by Ted Hughes in Tales from Ovid:
One time, Jupiter, happy to be idle,
Swept the cosmic mystery aside
And draining another goblet of ambrosia
Teased Juno, who drowsed in bliss beside him:
“This love of male and female's a strange business.
Fifty-fifty investment in the madness,
Yet she ends up with nine-tenths of the pleasure.”
Juno's answer was: “A man might think so.
It needs more than a mushroom in your cup
To wake a wisdom that can fathom which
Enjoys the deeper pleasure, man or woman.
It needs the solid knowledge of a soul
who having lived and loved in woman's body
Has also lived and loved in the body of a man.”
Jupiter laughed aloud: “We have the answer.
There is a fellow called Tiresias.
Strolling to watch the birds and hear the bees
He came across two serpents copulating.
He took the opportunity to kill
Both with a single blow, but merely hurt them —
And found himself transformed into a woman.
“After the seventh year of womanhood,
Strolling to ponder on what women ponder
She saw in that same place the same two serpents
Knotted as before in copulation.
‘If your pain can still change your attacker
Just as you once changed me, then change me back.’
She hit the couple with a handy stick,
“And there he stood as male as any man.”
“He'll explain,” cried Juno, “why you are
Slave to your irresistible addiction
While the poor nymphs you force to share it with you
Do all they can to shun it.” Jupiter
Asked Tiresias: “In their act of love
Who takes the greater pleasure, man or woman?”
“Woman,” replied Tiresias, “takes nine-tenths.”
Juno was so angry — angrier
Than is easily understandable —
She struck Tiresias and blinded him.
“You've seen your last pretty snake, for ever.”
But Jove consoled him: “That same blow,” he said,
“Has opened your inner eye like a nightscope. See:
“The secrets of the future — they are yours.”
For another translation, see Ovid's Metamorphoses on the references page.