Next week, I will be teaching the story of Tiresias in my Mythology class here in Sewanee. Two recent items of local connection will be informing my lecture–a documentary and discussion at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee school, and an op-ed in today’s New York Times by my friend, David Haskell. All of this is unfolding within the context of a nation-wide conversation about same sex rights, interestingly enough. Time and again, classical myth proves to be timely.
Tiresias’s story is one of gender-bending, and I’ve made reference to it before in an earlier post. As told by Ovid in the first century AD, the story goes as follows (and if you don’t recognize the Latin original, perhaps you know it from the footnotes to The Waste Land):
Forte Iovem memorant diffusum nectare curas
seposuisse graves vacuaque agitasse remissos
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 utraque nota.
As it happens, they say, Jupiter one time, a little tipsy from wine, had put off his cares and was idly joking with Juno. “There is no doubt,” said he, “that you women enjoy greater pleasure than their husbands do.” She denied it. They decided to seek the opinion of the learned Tiresias, for Venus either way was known to him.
The story’s preposterous, of course. Tiresias, as a man, had struck a pair of copulating snakes with his walking stick and been turned into a woman; seven years later, she saw the snakes again, struck them again, and was turned back. When pressed by the gods, Tiresias agrees with Jupiter that women enjoy sex more. For this, Juno blinds him but Jupiter rewards him with the gift of prophecy. Tiresias’ androgyny is not simultaneous, of course. There are other classical figures, however, whose intersexuality is still clearer–Hermaphroditus, for instance, the off-spring of Venus and Mercury (right).
Ovid’s tale is comic in tone, but nonetheless “of great anthropological interest,” as T.S. Eliot says. As it happens, I went to see a screening earlier this week at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee school of “Two Spirits,” a documentary about Fred Martinez, “a male-bodied person with a feminine nature, a special gift according to his ancient Navajo culture” (trailer below). In 2002, Fred was brutally murdered at the age of sixteen, one of the youngest hate-crime victims of contemporary times.
The film tells Fred’s story, but also looks back at the traditional Navajo belief that there are four human genders: feminine woman, masculine man, male-bodied person with a feminine essence (nádleehí) and female-bodied person with a masculine essence (dilbaa’). The Navajo are not the only Native American culture to make this recognition. Among the Lakota, transgendered persons are called winkte, many of whom can foretell the future, according to Lame Deer’s book, Seeker of Visions. The parallel with Tiresias seems quite clear.
After the screening, St. Andrew’s chaplain, Bude Van Dyke, led a group discussion about the film and related issues of sexuality. He asked a simple question. “By whose authority do you decide matters of gender?” Sometimes simple questions are the most thought-provoking, and the conversation that ensued was far-ranging and informative.
I’m not sure that many of our lawmakers or judges have bothered to ask themselves this simple question, and instead rely upon unexamined assertions about nature. As I noted above, David Haskell has a brilliant op-ed in today’s New York Times, entitled “Nature’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage”, which should be required reading for all interested in the matter. Haskell urges us to look at the natural world as it actually is, not constricted and rigidly-defined, but instead rich in sexual diversity. Among many other fine points, David notes,
Downstream from the Mall, at the outlet of the Potomac, marine snails called slipper shells add yet another twist: they begin life as males, before maturing into females.
The snails on the trees graze on fungi that further enrich the Mall’s sexual diversity. … Some of these fungal cells — like the slipper shells — can’t resist the itch to switch types.
… Human biology joins in this rejection of binary claims of male and female. There is controversy in the scientific literature about how many people are intersex, but some estimates put the figure at up to 2 percent.
What to make of all this? Simply put, it seems that Nature does not play by the rules we devise, but rather it is we who are constantly playing catch up, as we try to understand even the snails and fungi. Human nature, too, is hard to grasp, though perhaps we might make recourse to ancient myth and belief for guidance in this area.
From T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land:
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest –
I too awaited the expected guest.