On the slopes of Mount Cyllene in the mountainous Peloponnese region of ancient Greece, the young shepherd Tiresias saw two snakes mating and decided to amuse himself by beating the defenceless reptiles with a stick.
Hera, the Queen of Heaven, punished him by turning Tiresias into a woman. With a heavy heart he, now a she, abandoned his wife and infant son to serve the goddess in atonement for his, now her, crime.
Although the poets blame Hera for Tiresias’ spontaneous sex change, the god Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, may have been responsible. Hermes was born on Mount Cyllene and his herald’s wand, the Caduceus, was decorated with two intertwining serpents. As a trickster, and a god of transitions, Hermes was ideally placed to administer such an imaginative penalty.
Some versions have Tiresias becoming a renowned courtesan, presumably because he/she knew what men wanted. In others she becomes a dutiful wife and mother. Seven years later she once again chanced upon two copulating snakes and reverted back to a man.
Later in life, the king and queen of the gods asked Tiresias to settle the argument about who got the most out of sex. Hera maintained it was the man, whereas her husband claimed it was the woman.
The two seldom saw eye to eye, but in this instance both agreed if anyone should know it would be Tiresias. After the merest hesitation he replied, “Of the ten parts of sexual pleasure a man enjoys one only.”
Perhaps Hera expected more loyalty from a former priestess, or perhaps she simply hated losing to her philandering husband. Whatever, she was so furious she blinded Tiresias on the spot.
Zeus, unable to reverse his wife’s sentence, granted Tiresias second sight and seven lifespans in recompense. Zeus, however, forgot to award eternal youth with his seven lifetimes, which meant Tiresias grew old and stayed old for a very, very, very long time… which sounds to me like more of a punishment than a reward.
He lived so long that by the end of his life, his name had become synonymous with soothsaying and all fortune tellers were referred to as Tiresias.