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Tiresias, Hera, Zeus: a Trans* Philosophical Reading

Updated: Jan 23, 2023


Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo of the ancient Greek mythological cycle of Oedipus, is regarded as one the first transgender characters of Western culture. As the latin poet Ovidius (43B CE - 17/18 CE) writes in his Metamorphoses, years before becoming a prophet, “wandering in a green wood he [Tiresias] had seen // two serpents coupling; and he took his staff //and sharply struck them, till they broke and fled. // 'Tis marvellous, that instant he became // a woman from a man, and so remained // while seven autumns passed.”[1] During these years, Tiresias experienced life and pleasure ‘as a woman’, became priestess of Hera and gave birth to the prophet Manto. After seven years, they met the two snakes again, and similarly struck them: “as he struck // the same two snakes, his former sex returned.”[2] As Ovidius says, Tiresias’ genitiva imago returned - literally, the shape they were born with, or, as we would say today, their assigned gender at birth. During those seven years, Tiresias actively lived as a gender different from their natal one - which is enough to qualify the prophet as transgender. As we will see, however, Tiresias’ transgender identity goes well beyond such simplistic binary portrayal.

Hera and Zeus’ Divine Binary: Metamorphosis, Eros, and Violence

Tiresias’ was once summoned by Hera and Zeus, who were fighting: Zeus claimed that feminine pleasure was much greater than the masculine one, while Hera firmly denied it. Thus, they agreed to ask Tiresias, who knew the pleasures of both. Tiresias confirmed Zeus’ position: feminine pleasure, they said, is nine times stronger than the masculine one. Hera, furious, punished Tiresias: “enraged, decreed // eternal night should seal Tiresias' eyes”[3]. To console the poor mortal, Zeus endowed them with the gift of prophecy.

What is going on here? Why did the goddess Hera react with such apparently unreasonable violence when Tiresias, who was once her priestess, confirmed that her own pleasure is greater than Zeus’, instead of taking pride in her superiority? Clearly, Hera knows the truth (in Greek, a-letheia, un-veiling), but this is not the kind of truth that can be revealed or admitted publicly - not by a mortal, nor by a deity.

A veil stands between the two gods, or at least an unspoken obligation not to tell. Is this a mere anthropomorphisation of the two deities, or is there more? It surely is for Ovidius: their discussion is iocosa[4], a joke, and Hera is represented as “unreasonable,”[5] hysterical even. But the reality is that, for the Greeks, feminine pleasure, and femininity altogether, is something which must remain hidden. In the words of Italian writer Roberto Calasso: “The unspeakable erotic, for the Greeks, was passivity in coitus. [...] But it is the woman’s pleasure itself, the pleasure of passivity, which is suspect in itself, and maybe conceals a deep evil.”[6] As he elaborates: “A reverent and ominous silence seems to reign around what women can do, when they are alone and away from the male gaze. [...] The suspect, seared into the [Greek’s] minds, [was] that women might have had an indecipherable erotic self-sufficiency, of which those rites and mysteries they celebrated excluding the men were a sign.”[7] Must Tiresias be punished, for they unveiled what had to remain hidden? The Greek male gaze fears feminine pleasure, as it is autonomous and excludes the male. It would seem, it is the man who wants to keep it secret - and yet, Hera here is offended, not liberated. However, it is not simply about pudor or internalised misogyny. Were they punished for discovering femininity by themself, or for giving voice to that discovery, which is the discovery of a difference? Why is Hera so susceptible to it? Are Hera’s and Tiresias’ truth (and pleasure) really the same?

If we go back to one of the first chapters of Greek mythology, the relationship between Hera and Zeus is radically different. Children of Chronos and Rhea, the two siblings shared an immensurable incestuous love[8]: unbeknownst to their parents, “Zeus loved [Hera] for three-hundred years.”[9] Hera is here the goddess of the thalamos, the nuptial bed: “The bed was, for Hera, the primordial space, the enclosure of erotic devotion”[10], a kind of love that will never be matched by Aphrodite. One day, however, Zeus cheated on Hera, seducing Hera’s own priestess Io. As priestess of Hera’s temple, Io was required to ‘resemble’ the goddess. “She was a copy attempting to imitate a statue. But Zeus chose the copy, he desired the minimal difference, which is enough to put the order out of joint, to produce novelty, meaning.”[11] Hera’s revenge and jealousy are proverbial: from that moment on, she will vent her rage on innumerable women. From Io to Europa, from Pasiphaë to Ariadne, they are all victims of masculine patriarchal violence, whose destinies, however, are orchestrated by Hera herself. In Greek mythology, from that moment on, Hera punishes her own gender.

Zeus’ betrayal is disruptive of an order: what is this order? And what is thus created? It is Hera’s order. This order represents a perfect equilibrium with no internal articulation nor difference, pure circular sameness. The incestuous nature of their love signals its almost auto-erotic character: Zeus and Hera are not other to each other, but rather, within Hera’s thalamic order, they are one and the same - precisely: one, not two. Sexual or gender difference here is not yet instituted or registered, any oppositive and binary masculine and feminine principle is always already absorbed in this union. This union is very different from a kind of ‘taoistic’ one, where yin and yang are united and separated at the same time, where there is a bit of one inside the other. Hera and Zeus’s incestuous love does not even allow the emergence of a difference. Moreover, within this one-ness, we could say, there is no secret between the two deities. As they are one, knowing themselves and knowing the other are not distinct, and so are giving and receiving pleasure, activity and passivity: the relationship is perfectly symmetrical, they mirror each other. Zeus’ betrayal introduces an asymmetry between the two: he desires something else - not something so radically other it cannot be compared to Hera, but the minimal difference, her own copy as such. In this way, the circle is broken.

Before going back to this rupture - almost a mythological genesis of binarism - we should introduce another mythological circle: the circle of metamorphosis - perhaps, also Tiresias’ metamorphosis. French philosopher Catherine Malabou can help us understand the ‘circular’ logic of transformation. Malabou notes that, in Greek mythology, deities and humans can be transformed only within a limited and circular range of possibilities:

Metamorphoses circulate in a cycle that links them, surrounds them, arrests them. Again, this is so because metamorphoses never carry off the true nature of being. If this nature, this identity were able to change deeply, substantively, then there would be no necessary return to prior forms, the circle would be broken, since what came before would suddenly be lacking in the ontological tangent it pursued. Transformation would no longer be a trick, a strategy or a mask always ready to be lifted to reveal the authentic features of the face.[12]

Metamorphosis, understood in this way, does not really change the subject’s own being. Their appearance shifts, moves across the circle of all possible shapes, to eventually go back to its original form. According to Malabou, such movement is made possible by a kind of plasticity, the ability of a subject to assume different shapes while maintaining their ownmost being unaltered.[13] As Malabou argues, this shape-shifting usually plays two roles: it either serves an attacker (think of Zeus assaulting Europa while disguised as a bull, or Leda, as a swan), or it saves a victim. Think of the nymph Daphne, who, chased by Apollo, being unable to run fast enough, is turned into a laurel tree and thus ‘saved’: “paradoxically, the being-tree nonetheless conserves, preserves, and saves the being-woman. Transformation is a form of redemption, a strange salvation, but salvation all the same.”[14]

Now, gender-wise, the prophet’s life also looks like a circle: they are a man, who then turns into a woman, and then into a man again. Through this circularity, however, Tiresias gains a secret knowledge which encompasses ‘both’ genders and forms of pleasure. While deities learn nothing through their transformations (Zeus is always the same, no matter what animal he turns into), Tiresias does not really go back to their previous state. How is this new ‘identity’ qualified - especially as a form of ‘gender identity’? The new Tiresias is in themself the bearer of a secret, a truth, which must remain concealed, and whose revelation rouses Hera’s wrath: “here [they are] touching a secret, the kind of secret that seers are called upon to guard rather than reveal.”[15]

Hera rages against Tiresias, but at the bottom of her anger lies Zeus’ original betrayal - the introduction of the difference that dis-identifies the two siblings and lovers. In the same way, behind every violence perpetrated from masculine deities towards feminine characters, stands Hera’s revenge. Transformed into a heifer, Io (Hera’s priestess) was forced to wander the world without rest, tormented by a gadfly sent by the goddess.[16] Europa was later kidnapped by Zeus disguised as a white bull. Her niece Pasiphaë was cursed by Poseidon, so that she would lust for another white bull, disguised herself as a heifer to mate with it, and gave birth to the minotaur. Pasiphaë’s daughters, Phaedra and Ariadne, were both victims of masculine figures like Theseus (who subdued the bull of Marathon) and Dionysus (who first appeared to Ariadne as a bull), and ended up killing themselves. This recurring animal, in Greek mythology, is the symbol of Hera’s vengeful plan: “Would the story [of Ariadne] ever have been born without that gadfly, instrument of Hera’s revenge? Everywhere, in the matters of heroes, we encounter the goddess’ firm and implacable gaze, that bovine eye that never seems to close.”[17] From that moment on, as witnessed by the Greek verb phtheirein, ‘seduction’, ‘destruction’ and ‘deception’ mean the same thing. To ‘seduce’ the mortals, Zeus often has to take the form of an animal, of golden rain etc. But also, Io is a form of minimal ‘deception’, a copy of Hera. In this sense, all the feminine figures we have cited are ‘copies’ of Hera, insofar as they inherit Io’s curse, and because of this, their fate of ruin is sealed. By transforming Io into a heifer, and condemning the others to similar transformations, Hera’s retaliation takes Zeus’ betrayal to the extreme.

Tiresias is different. They do not transform to escape a god, like Daphne, nor to seduce a mortal, like Zeus. Nor their metamorphosis is a mere punishment (while their successive blinding is). They truly acquire a new identity: their very being is ‘enhanced’, as they get to experience the truth of a differently gendered existence - first and foremost, its pleasure. There is no deception nor destruction in Tiresias’ eros, and therefore, in their metamorphosis. For this reason, their transformation is not perfectly circular - it does not simply conceal an inner unscathed (perhaps ‘cisnormative’) being, but it changes it. Tiresias gains the knowledge of a difference, the experience of a disparity.

We should not necessarily read the disparity of ‘pleasure’, or eros, in literal terms, as if immediately referring to the ‘anatomical’ differences between the sexes, according to a cisnormative view of ‘sexual difference’ (although this meaning was surely present in the mythological narrative). So, the difference here is not that between the ‘penis’ and the ‘clitoris’. Recall what the real difference between femininity and masculinity is, for the Greek patriarchal gaze (a difference that “separates her [Hera] even from Zeus”[18]): passivity contra activity, but most importantly, autonomy contra dependency. ‘Masculine activity’ necessitates a sexual object - that is why, for example, Athenian sexual ideology is mostly cismasculine and homoerotic, codified as a game of seduction where an older lover (erastes) has to convince a younger loved (eromenos) through the art of speech. ‘Feminine passivity’, on the contrary, does not seem to require a subject, an ‘active counterpart’, it is self sufficient. Note that such self sufficiency does not equate necessarily to masturbation or, as Calasso points out, lesbian sexuality.[19]

Zeus’ betrayal is the genesis of this disparity. Before that, in the immediate equation of Zeus and Hera, no difference is possible. Why is masculine pleasure ‘lesser’? Is it because it always loves a mere copy, and it never reaches the ‘real thing’ and their pleasure (à la Lacan, il n'y a pas de rapport sexuel)? And why is the feminine one ‘superior’? Is it because it represents some form of perfect ‘reconciliation’? It is tempting to read Hera’s thalamic order and its rupture following the patriarchal fantasy of an originary unity and its loss. Following Freud, we might posit an incestuous lack of boundary between the ego and its object (the child and their mother), where an ‘oceanic feeling’ of being ‘one with everything’ reigns.[20] Then, we might note the constitution of the subject as separated from their desired object, whose irremediable incompleteness is soon translated into anxious misogyny - or nihilism and distrust towards a (feminine) alien, cold universe, that “never gave a thought to the happiness or unhappiness of man.”[21] However, we should refute this paradigm, not only because it generally reiterates the fantasy of the ‘feminine’ as responsible for the ‘masculine’’s incompleteness and pleasure, but most importantly, because it overlooks Tiresias’s specifically trans* perspective. Hera’s truth - her innermost unsaid - erupts with full force only when voiced by the transgender prophet, which discards the binarism behind the rhetoric of superiority.

Tiresias’ Human Non-Binary: Transition(s), Critique, Truth

Tiresias knows the ‘superiority’ of feminine pleasure, but this does not mean that they identify with it, nor that this ‘superiority’ is in itself justified, natural, or originary. Tiresias knows the disparity, therefore, in a way, they know about Hera and Zeus’ vicissitudes - we could say, they understand the deep logic behind every erotic (patriarchal) matter, from Io and Europa to, years later, Oedipus. It will be Tiresias the one to disclose to the king of Thebes the incestuous nature of his marriage.[22] We could ask ourselves: if Tiresias knows that the pleasure they experienced during the seven years of ‘femininity’ was superior, why did they strike the snakes again, hoping to revert to their ‘original’ form? Was it an attempt to escape the state of subordinate femininity? Tiresias surely is not who they once were, but nonetheless, they appear to side with Zeus. The logic of metamorphosis seems to be at play here. Caeneus, an invincible hero who - having been born a ‘woman’ and turned into a ‘man’ by Poseidon - “returned to their previous form”[23] when they died. Does Tiresias have to similarly regain their original masculinity? Such a view would be reductive: as we have stated, Tiresias is no cis man.

To read Tiresias’ myth with binary lenses would belittle the depth of their truth, and the reasons for Hera's violent reaction. Tiresias signals an impasse, which does not only affect the goddess’ thalamic order, but mostly, lies within the very difference between Hera and Zeus. Tiresias’ truth is fully non-binary. In this sense, does Hera’s violent outburst express (or rather, fail to express, to articulate) an ancient Greek unsaid, a discomfort towards what we call ‘queer’?

The snakes struck by Tiresias offer an interesting symbolism. According to a version of the myth, the future prophet is disgusted by the two mating snakes, the first time they meet them. For the Greek imaginary, the two snakes, so closely entwined, resembled a two-headed double animal, endowed with both sexes simultaneously - a perfect confusion of the two. Tiresias is disgusted, and in striking them, they introduce a sudden separation, or failure, in that union. We might see here Hera and Zeus’ gesture repeated: the separation of a perfect union, and consequently, an erotic metamorphosis. But while the union is perfect for the primaeval deity, it is disgusting for the mortal - an obscene and uncanny display of a kind of ‘sexuality’ which cannot be tolerated by the man Tiresias. The reversal of this uncanny is, naturally, nostalgia for the primordial union - something akin to Aristophane’s myth of the Androgynous in Plato’s Symposium[24], where the recognition of the dual nature of the perfect creatures (andro-gynous, both masculine and feminine), however, betrays the incapability of thinking of an undifferentiated state that fully precedes the binary.

According to a version of the myth, it is Hera herself who, as a punishment, transforms Tiresias for the first time, forcing them to become her priestess. Tiresias’ first metamorphosis, introduces the seer to a differently gendered experience: transformation here is a gesture not of concealment (unlike Zeus’, who once even transformed into Artemis in order to ‘seduce’ Callisto[25]) but of discovery and truth. Tiresias’ metamorphosis is not a predatory deception, but rather, an authentic concretion of their Spirit: we can call it a transition.[26] In particular, Tiresias’ transitions are ‘two’: their acquisition of the ‘feminine’ form; their non-binary re-acquisition of the ‘masculine’ form (which is nothing ‘masculine’ in itself).

We can hardly interpret Tiresias’ reaction against the snakes as a mere reflection of the deep-rooted misogyny of the ancient Greeks, characterised by “fear and revulsion”[27] for the feminine. The ‘androgynous’ and Heratic snake symbolism is so disgusting and uncanny not because it is ‘feminine’, but because it allows a sort of ‘encounter with the Real’ which Tiresias’ initial male gaze cannot anticipate.

Their first transition offers Tiresias a critical insight into the ideology of feminine ‘superiority.’ Before her encounter with Zeus, Io could not have subjectified herself in a similar manner, as she was the priestess of a pre-binary thalamic order. On the contrary, the seer (who indeed had been, for all intents and purposes, a man), experiences at once Hera’s priesthood (taking the place of Io) and feminine pleasure; the two things are connected. They see that the superiority of the feminine pleasure is nothing but a patriarchal projection - Hera’s own curse upon Io, “who betrays her goddess [...] in the sanctuary where she lived”[28], and all of the Greek heroines, from Helen, who betrayed Menelaus, to Antigone, who betrayed Thebes.

Roberto Calasso shows that the feminine gesture at the basis of the Greek patriarchy is a form of negation: “as a spiral, feminine betrayal coils in on itself, constantly repudiating what is given. It is not the negation of frontal and fatal collision, but a negation that is a slow splitting from oneself, opposing oneself, annihilating oneself in a game that can exalt or destroy, and generally exalts and destroys.”[29] This exclusionary power reaches its acme in Euripides’ Bacchae, where the Menades end up dismembering king Pentheus in their erotic fury. But there is nothing subversive in this ‘autonomous passivity’ (like Antigone’s, who reclaims her autonomy from the city and her passivity to divine rules). Rather, feminine destiny is one of total ruin.

It is Hera herself the one who is first and foremost caught in this negation: Hera’s nostalgic and vengeful eros is ‘superior’ (therefore, still different) only insofar as it is nostalgic and vengeful. As Calasso puts it, “the more insignificant the difference [between Hera and her copy - Io, or Tiresias], the greater the revenge,”[30] and thus, her pleasure. That is why Tiresias portrays her superiority in such a deeply symbolic way (appropriate for a seer: we should not neglect the symbolism!): nine parts out of then, therefore, incomplete, a failure. We could go as far as to say that, in the end, there is no real pleasure but Hera’s, lived as a copy and immediately lost at every fatal betrayal.

Is Hera, then, envious of Tiresias, who finally also rejects the intoxicating pleasure of her cosmic retaliation? Tiresias’ second transition is profoundly critical of the erotic gender binary. Here, they are not just saying that there are no men nor women, or that their erotic economy is irreducible to binary categories. Their truth is, in a way, a rejection of the basic equation at the core of Greek eros, that of seduction, destruction and deception. Not only they refuse Zeus, but they also refuse to play into the conservative fantasy of the feminine.

We can imagine Tiresias, summoned by the two gods, pointing their finger at Hera and speaking these words:

The ‘secret’ you have been hiding, the ‘superiority’ of feminine eros - which every man in Greece knows about, even Zeus! - is but a patriarchal lie. I have lived it. This ‘autonomy’ is only staged for the male gaze. This ‘passivity’ is only a denial of your own violence. I have transversed both states, and I have seen the false dichotomy between masculinity and femininity - between Zeus and you, Hera. Hera, you are the supreme enemy of us mortals. We are all Io, twofold victims. You believed that love could not bear the otherness. You shamed the victim of Zeus’ violence, and created two genders, placing yourself, as a veil of fantasy, between them. You justified violence through nostalgia, exacerbated anxiety through disparity. I have rejected you as a man, and I have rejected you as a woman, and now I reject you beyond all of that.

The goddess must not have taken it well.


[1] Ovidius, Metamorphoses, 3, 324-327. [2] Ivi, 3, 330-331. [3] Ivi, 3, 334-335. [4] Ivi, 3, 332. [5] Ivi, 3, 333-334: ““gravius Saturnia iusto // nec pro materia fertur doluisse.” [6] R. Calasso, Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia, Adelphi, Milano, 1988, p. 98. [7] Ivi, pp. 98-99. [8] Homer, Iliad, 14, 296. [9] Callimachus, Aitia, fr. 48. [10] R. Calasso, op. cit., p. 38. [11] Ibidem. [12] C. Malabou, Ontologie de l’accident, 2009, eng. trans. by C. Shread, Ontology of The Accident. An Essay on Destructive Plasticity, Polity Press, 2012, p. 9. [13] In the same essay, Malabou introduces the concept of destructive plasticity, a kind of plasticity which allows for a radical ‘inner’ change within the subject. I do not wish to suggest that any of these two concepts can be used to interpret changes and transitions pertaining transgender identity (contrary to what TERFs think, transitions are neither ‘deceptive’ nor ‘destructive’, and this is frankly out of discussion). Here, Malabou’s contribution is only her insight into the logic of metamorphosis in Greek mythology. [14] Malabou, op. cit., p. 12. [15] R. Calasso, op. cit., 99. [16] Aeschylus, Suppliant Women, 291 [17] R. Calasso, op. cit., p. 37. [18] Ivi, p. 99. [19] See ivi, p. 98. [20] S. Freud, Unbehagen in der Kultur, 1929, trad. eng. by J. Strachey, Civilization and Its Discontents. [21] G. Leopardi, Operette morali, Dialogo della Natura e di un Islandese 1827, trad. Eng. by C. Edwardes, Dialogue between Nature and an Icelander. [22] Sophocles, Oedipus rex. [23] Virgil, Aeneid, 6, 449-450. [24] Plato, Symposium, 189 c 2-193 d 5. [25] See Ovid, op. cit., 2, 409. [26] I hope I will be excused for dropping the academic tone for a moment: fuck the TERFs. [27] R. Calasso, op. cit., p. 97. [28] Ivi, p. 86. [29] Ivi, p. 87. [30] Ivi, p. 38.

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