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Greek Myths 3 - The Breasts of Tiresias                by: Debbie Cybill

 

This is a somewhat flippant retelling of the story of Oedipus and the part played by Tiresias. In essentials it agrees with classical sources, especially with Ovid’s account - except that no two classical sources agree, even over the names.

Snakes are lucky in one way - every male snake has two pricks, not just one, and every she-snake has two holes. It may be a bit of trouble to manoeuver both in at once, but they do it somehow. But snakes are sacred to the Great Mother Goddess, and it is dangerous for a mere man to see two snakes copulating. In many parts of India today people believe that if a man sees snakes getting it off he will immediately become a confirmed homosexual, or even transgendered. Most villagers believe that every gay man, every transvestite and every transsexual has at some time seen snakes copulating, even if he does not know it, perhaps having witnessed this as a child before he even knew anything about its significance.

But let me tell a tale of a different country and a different era, Greece of three thousand years ago, and the city state of Thebes: Thebes defended by the Sacred Band of warriors, where every man was paired with another and all were gay. Each pair of warriors of the Sacred Band consisted of one older and one younger man who would defend each other and the rest of the Band to the death. In one famous battle every member of the Sacred Band was slaughtered, each man falling in his place, never retreating. Thebes was also the site of a famous oracle, whose priestesses could predict the future.

Now, most seers and precogs were women, all priestesses of the Mother Goddess, Selene, the moon goddess. The temple and the palace of the ruler of Thebes both had their own house snakes, pythons that lived in holes and would come out each day to drink milk that was laid out for them in sacred bowls. Indeed, all the great houses of Thebes and of most of Greece at that time had sacred milk-fed house snakes, but those of the palace and of the temple were the largest.

Tiresias was arrogant, proud of his sexual prowess, a gymnast, a warrior (though not a member of the Sacred Band) a great huntsman. I will let Tiresias tell his own tale.

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THE BREASTS OF TIRESIAS

In those days I despised women: they were mere toys to me. I enjoyed using them, screwing them and discarding them. The priestesses of the temple hated me but respected me because I could foresee the future better than they could. I am still a better seer than any of them, and did not, at that time, hesitate to let them know it. They have one or two useful tricks to produce a trance, and I have adopted them, so for that reason among others I frequented the precincts of the temple. I am not superstitious, though I respect the gods, especially the Great Mother Goddess Selene, to whom the temple of Thebes is dedicated.

I enjoyed life. I was rich, with a good house and land and many slaves, with a great reputation as a prophet. Kings came from far and near to consult me.

Then a monster started to ravage the land, destroying crops, eating people, immune to every arrow shot at it, every spear with which the army tried to stab it. Queen Jocasta, queen of Thebes, summoned me to the palace.

"The priestesses have been unable to tell me what is happening. I command you to discover what is going on. What is this monster that is ravishing the land? How may it be destroyed? What does the future bring for me and for my people.?"

At first I refused to answer, then I demanded my price: "Give me three slave girls and a purse of gold."

With some grumbling Jocasta complied. After tucking the purse in my belt and selecting the girls I wanted I began the preparations for my prophetic trance. I threw a handful of green bay-laurel leaves on a brazier and inhaled the smoke. I chanted a hymn of praise to Selene. My eyes rolled up into my head and the chant changed.

"The monster is the Sphinx, sent by the goddess Athena to punish you for your impious behaviour."

"And what is the Sphinx?" asked Jocasta.

"The Sphinx is a beast with the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a woman. She is a daughter of the Titans and, with the protection of Athena, she cannot be killed."

"How may this monster be destroyed?"

"The Sphinx has now begun to stop all men passing by and asking each of them three riddles. If any man answers them all correctly then she will be summoned back to Hades, but if he answers wrongly then she eats him." I paused for a moment and took another whiff of the smoke from the brazier. "A young man approaches the borders of the state. His is known as Oedipus. He will kill king Laius, your husband, and answer the three riddles. He will then be greeted as the saviour of the state and will marry you, the queen."

"Oh, well, I was getting tired of the king anyhow. He is old, fat and impotent, no fun in bed any longer."

At just that moment the king’s coach was moving along a road near the border of the city state with a small escort of warriors. The king did not use the Sacred Band for his escort, because he despised gays; it would have been better for him if he had been escorted by members of the Sacred Band. "Out of my way, varlet," cried the leader of the escort to Oedipus.

Oedipus looked at him, and without saying a word drew his sword and struck off his head. The remainder of the escort scattered, instead of staying to guard the king. Oedipus reached into the coach, grabbed the king and dragged him out, not meaning to kill him, but just to scare him. The king however was a coward and fainted away, falling on the rocks and breaking his neck. Oedipus had no idea who it was who had died at his feet, "Arrogant boor," he said to himself and walked on.

Soon he came to the rock where the Sphinx had her lair. She stopped him, as she did all passersby. Her first two riddles were easy enough, but her third, which has since become famous, was, "What has four legs in the morning, two at noon and three in the evening?"

Oedipus thought for a moment and answered, "A man, who crawls on all fours in the morning of his life, walks on two legs in the noonday, and uses a cane as a third leg to walk in the evening of his life." The Sphinx gave a loud scream and disappeared leaving a smell of brimstone behind.

Oedipus walked on to Thebes, and a parade of the peasantry gradually formed around him as the news of his success preceded him. He was escorted into Thebes in triumph and led to the palace where I was waiting in attendance on Queen Jocasta.

"Who are you, young man, you who has destroyed the Sphinx?" asked Queen Jocasta.

"I am Oedipus, the son of the king and queen of Corinth," he answered proudly. "I left home because it was prophesied that I would kill my father, the king."

"Did you meet anyone on your way here, before you met the Sphinx?" was my contribution.

"I met a carriage escorted by six soldiers, just inside the borders of the territory of Thebes," said Oedipus. "The leader of this party ordered me off the road and called me a varlet."

"And what did you do about that?"

Oedipus began to fear that he may have put his foot in it at that point, but he answered honestly, "I cut off his head with my sword, just as he was about to strike me with his. The rest of the escort ran away, the cowards."

"And then?"

"I hauled the occupant of the coach out of his carriage, but he was as much of a coward as the rest of them and fainted dead away. He struck his head on a rock and died."

"He was Laius, King of Thebes," I said.

Oedipus turned pale, thinking that he would be executed, but Jocasta went on: "I was tired of him, anyway. He was no use in bed, and if you had not killed him I would have been obliged to put him to death." She looked at him appraisingly, thinking him a robust and virile young man, a cocksman if ever she had seen one, and said, "You must take his place and marry me." For that was the custom of Thebes: if anyone killed the king he had to marry the widow and take his place.

Oedipus did not answer for a moment, looking at Queen Jocasta, who in his eyes was a woman old enough to be his mother. But she still looked lusty, even wanton, as if she enjoyed good sex. And anyway what choice did he have? "Let it be so," he said.

I went over to the temple, rejoicing that my prediction had proven right, and wanting to gloat over the priestesses there who had been unable to foresee the future in this matter. I stopped when I had crossed the threshold and found a circle of priestesses around the walls. In the center two very large pythons were copulating. I was a little uneasy at this, though I tried not to believe the old superstition about men not seeing coupling snakes. Still, I could not totally shake it off. Then in a fit of bravado I stepped forward, seized the female snake by the tail, swung the two of them around my head and dashed them to the floor, killing the female and injuring the male.

Immediately I felt my chest changing and my loins pulling in. I put my hands to my face as I staggered, and found that I no longer had any trace of a beard, no stubble even. My hips grew wider, my buttocks became more rounded and buxom. Breasts developed on my chest, large, prominent breasts (of a size that in later years might have been said to be 42D - but women did not wear bras in those days). My hands flew to my groin. Where had my manhood gone? I could find no prick and balls. I stared as the hair on my legs and thighs dropped away, then, as I probed my groin once more I realized that I now had a slit where before I had a bulge, and I realized what it was when I felt a growing dampness in that region.

The curse of the copulating snakes was far worse than I had ever believed, but then my offence against the Mother Goddess was worse than merely seeing snakes in copula: I had actually killed one of the sacred temple snakes during the very act of copulation, and the female snake at that. Selene had punished me by turning me into a woman. I turned and fled, and only just in time, as the offended priestesses rushed at me. At least I was still fleet of foot, and could evade the pampered priestesses who rarely left the precincts of the temple, and were physically unfit.

I reached my home, and knocked. The porter, one of my older slaves, answered the knock, but the fool failed to recognize me. But then who would under the circumstances? He tried to close the door in my face, but he was an old man, and I was still muscular, even in my new female body, and I was able to thrust the door open. Then I used my voice of power to overwhelm the porter and obtained admission to my own dwelling.

There was hell to pay the next morning. None of my household staff recognized me at first, and it was only my voice that remained recognizable. Then word arrived from the temple about my transformation into a woman, and they finally accepted me as Tiresias.

I lost none of my arrogance as a result of this transformation, nor did I lose my horniness, which had always been a byword in Thebes. As a man I had fucked every woman in sight; now I slept around as a woman.

The years passed. Oedipus and Jocasta had several children. I remained a woman, and had a reputation as a very loose woman. But I had lost none of my ability to foresee the future and remained a respected advisor, counselor, and prophet. Then a famine hit the land, a great drought, locusts and grasshoppers eating the crops, worms destroying the vegetables, what there were of them under these conditions of drought. Famine began. It was all very local somehow. Neighbouring city states only a few miles away had enough rain, and no locusts. The priestesses at the temple were no help. They could not avert the famine nor explain how it had come about.

Jocasta summoned me and I went into my trance in my normal way with the help of the smoke from bay laurel leaves on a brazier, a technique that I had actually learnt from the priestesses at the temple.

"The gods are angry with the king and queen, with Queen Jocasta and King Oedipus. That is why they have sent a plague and famine to the land."

"What can we do about it, Tiresias?"

"The queen must die, and the king must be exiled."

"Why? What have we done?"

"King Oedipus has murdered his father, King Laius, and bedded his mother, Queen Jocasta."

Jocasta put her hand to her mouth, and in anguish cried out, "But Oedipus is the son of the king and queen of Corinth. He is no son of mine."

"Not true. The bastard son that you exposed on the hillside many years ago, Jocasta, while Laius was away besieging Corinth, did not die. He was found by a shepherd and taken to Corinth where he was adopted by the king and queen who had no children of their own. He is now King Oedipus, son of Jocasta and Laius."

Jocasta ran from the hall and hanged herself. Oedipus seized her sewing needle, thrust it into his eyes and blinded himself before fleeing the country, led by the hand by his daughter. Jocasta’s brother, a member of the Sacred Band who had no children, became king. Immediately the rains came, the drought was broken, the locusts disappeared and the crops began to grow again. Famine was averted.

Once more Tiresias had triumphed where the priestesses had failed. I was more arrogant than ever and began to boast that sex as a woman was ten times better than sex as a man. Like everyone else, the Mother Goddess Selene became fed up with my boasting and decided to punish me. If I enjoyed sex as a woman so much, then the obvious punishment would be to turn me into a man once more. And that is what she did. Well, almost. She left me with my breasts on a man’s body, but removed all sensation from them, so that I could no longer get any sexual satisfaction from them when my lovers played with those glorious orbs.

And what did I do about all this? As arrogant as ever I sought out Selene in her sacred grove, where no man was supposed to go. There I intended to beg her to change me back once more into a woman, since I had enjoyed it so much. Quietly, on cat-like feet, as I had been trained as a warrior, I made my way through the sacred grove. I trod on no twigs, scuffed no dry leaves, made not a sound as I approached the center. There flowed the sacred stream where Selene bathed each morning after she had guided the moon across the sky. I crept nearer, intent on getting close enough to present my plea before she was aware of me. Selene removed her robes as I watched and started to bathe.

Suddenly she became aware of me and pointed her hand at me with two fingers extended in the classic gesture to avert the evil eye. I was struck blind and it took me three days to find my way out of the sacred grove.

I lost my arrogance and lived the rest of my long life a blind man with large womanly breasts. My prophesies became famous throughout all of Greece, and children would creep up to me to touch my breasts for luck.

* * * * *

To the present day in many Mediterranean cultures to say out loud, "The breasts of Tiresias," (much as we might say "Knock on wood,") is supposed to bring good luck, and in the twentieth century the French composer Poulence has written a piece of music entitled "Les mammelles de Tiresias."

 

 


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