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Teiresias in Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” Essay

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Updated: Aug 17th, 2021

Teiresias, the most famous soothsayer of Greece, was born at Thebes. He was the son of Eueres and Chariclo, a descendant of Udaeus of Sparti. He was blind, and there are many stories about the cause of his blindness (Stewart 1).

The widest accepted tradition was that at age seven, the Gods blinded him because he revealed certain things that had to be kept secret from men. Teiresias was from the city of Thebes and played a major role in the story of Oedipus; when Oedipus asked him how to lift the pestilence from Thebes, Teiresias replied that Oedipus was the cause of all their problems; this answer almost cost Teiresias his life, but Oedipus had sympathy for Teiresias’ age and blindness and spared him (Stewart 1). Thesis: Teiresias symbolizes conflict at various levels: while being blind, he can see the past, present, and future, and while being a seer, he does not act as a seer and tell what he foresees, and it is this conflict that is used to maintain dramatic tension in the play.

The Oedipus Rex by Sophocles has many characters and criticizes oracles and seers than in any other Greek play (Mikalson 111). Teiresias is considered to be Apollo’s spokesman in this play and is the character-revealing that Oedipus is Laius’ murderer. He has to face the disbelief, wrath, and criticism of Oedipus because of his revelations. In the end, however, the oracle about Laius and all else predicted by Teiresias come true. Oedipus had killed his father, did marry his mother, and, as Laius’ killer, was the cause of Thebes’ pollution (Mikalson 112).

According to the Chorus, the gods, here Zeus and Apollo, “know more” than ordinary men, but the same is not necessarily true of seers (498-501) (Rosman 2). The only ones who can truly see are blind. This is a popular theme throughout Greek literature, especially in “Oedipus Rex.” Sophocles holds that only one must not only be able to see something, but one also must be able to understand it. Teiresias, the only physically blind character, is the only person throughout the play that can actually see the past, present, and future.

This ability is his major strength. At the beginning of the play, as Oedipus argues with Teiresias, Oedipus says: “You sightless, senseless, witless old man!” In response, Teiresias makes his first prophecy: “there is no one here who will not be cursed you soon, as you curse me.” Teiresias’s second prophecy occurs as he is leaving the palace and calls Oedipus: “A blind man, who has his eyes now.” Upon the death of his wife/mother, as Oedipus blinds himself, the prophecies of Teiresias come true.

The ability to foresee things is a major asset of Teiresias. On seeing Teiresias approaching, they refer to him as a ‘godly prophet, in whom alone of all men truth lives by nature.’ Oedipus, for his part, greets Teiresias as one who ‘grasps everything, things that can be taught, and things that are unspeakable, things that are in heaven, and things that walk the earth.’ (Rosman 2). These words of Oedipus and the Chorus indicate that the main strengths of Teiresias are his intelligence and ability to see and understand things in a superhuman way.

Knowledge is represented as darkness and light in the play. Oedipus, at the beginning of the play, says, “I must bring what is dark to light” in reference to the mystery of Laios’s death. Sophocles refers to the fact that Oedipus is blind to the truth, just as Teiresias is blind to the world. Teiresias charges Oedipus: “but I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind!” he makes the reference not to his present physical state but to his mental state. Teiresias also says: “you do not even know the blind wrongs you have done,” referring to Oedipus’s unknown incestuous relationship and the murder of his father. Teiresias thus has the courage and honesty to tell Oedipus the truth.

At the beginning of the play, when Teiresias comes walking with disappointment, the Chorus advises Oedipus to seek the help of Teiresias in finding out the murderer’s identity from the god Apollo. This was because they said that Teiresias had access to Apollo’s thoughts: ‘I know that lord Teiresias sees things in the same way as Lord Apollo, from whom anyone examining these things might learn most clearly.’ What is important to note here is that the word “might learn” is used. This shows tentativeness. The Chorus says that one ‘might learn’ the murderer’s identity from Teiresias, not that one will learn it. This indicates that Teiresias has the ability to know things that cannot be easily expressed and passed on to another.

Seers of those days were expected to do their best to avert catastrophe by sharing their knowledge with those who should benefit from it. Teiresias is not such a seer. He is most reluctant to share his knowledge. Oedipus, distraught by the plague that has infected the city, greets him with respect and implores his assistance. But Teiresias is not moved by this touching pleasure. He responds: ‘How dreadful to have wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that is wise!’ Teiresias makes it clear that he came against his will and better judgment. Initially, he refuses outright to divulge what he knows (Rosman 3). Then he reveals it bit by bit, in a gallingly opaque manner.

Despite being a seer, Teiresias exhibits not seer-like behavior (Rosman 8). This is the perceived conflict in Teiresias. This conflict serves two key functions: it helps sustain dramatic tension in the plot, and it highlights the limitations of human knowledge, which cannot alleviate suffering in a world in which destiny is in the hands of the gods (Rosman 2).

When Teiresias refuses to cooperate, Oedipus calls him “a contriving magician, a deceitful beggar priest who has eyes only for profit and none for his craft” (387-389). Oedipus critically asks why Teiresias in earlier days had failed to help Thebes against the Sphinx and to make the proper investigation of Laius’ death (Rosman 1). Here Teiresias may be seen as a grumpy person unwilling to share his knowledge, as is expected of a seer. This is the weakness of Teiresias. Teiresias’ unwillingness to make full and straightforward disclosure of what he knows creates conflicts within Oedipus while at the same time projecting Teiresias as recalcitrant, egotistical, and unwilling to help his community out of its dire straits.

Teiresias is nonspecific in his accusations against Oedipus. He omits a key link in the chain of argument: Oedipus killed Laius, Oedipus was the son of Laius, and Oedipus is now living in incest. Teiresias never states the second of these acts, and therefore the third, the taunt of incest, comes out unattached, seemingly only a wild and brutal slur. This creates conflict in the mind of Oedipus.

Despite being blind, Teiresias was able to predict the future. Again, despite being able to predict the future, he does not reveal everything to Oedipus, though as a seer, he is obliged to do so. Thus we find that Teiresias is the center of intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts in Oedipus Rex.

Works Cited

Stewart, Michael. “People, Places & Things: Teiresias”, Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant. Web.

Rosman, M. Hanna (2003). Teiresias, the seer of Oedipus the King: Sophocles’ and Seneca’s versions. Leeds International Classical Studies 2.5.

Mikalson, D. Jon (1991). Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC. Publication Year.

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