The Lost Myth of Tiresia's Womanhood
“Your eyes are beautiful, brown flecked with gold,” his head was framed by puffy white clouds moving across a deep blue sky. “You have that far-off look my princess, tell me what is going on in that pretty little head of yours.”
“I was thinking of my old life, my prince.”
Antipollos the merchant thought of himself as a prince, and liked his concubine to play along.
“I would like to hear of that old life of yours.”
He was in the mood for a yarn. This time she would tell him a true story. He would not believe her of course, but she knew him well enough to think the strangeness of it would tickle his perverse fancy and besides, she had trotted out quite enough tales of nymphs ravished by gods.
“I was born,” she said, “not as you see me now, but more like your princely self.”
“Ha!” he snorted, “how’s that, wench?”
She smiled and swatted him playfully to shush him. “Yes, I was born into a great house in the region of Boeotia, but not as a maiden. I was born the true son of a king.”
He threw his head back and laughed but did not interrupt. He rolled off her and lay next to her in the grass. Despite all his shortcomings, Antipollos was a good listener for stories. He looked at her expectantly, like a very polite dog waiting for table scraps.
She told of her youth in her father’s palace and how her town had fallen, compelling her and her best friend Archilochus to become mercenaries. She spoke briefly of the battle that killed Archilochus, reliving the sorrow all over again and then moved to her unlucky encounter with the goddess in the cave. She recounted, with particular detail, the orgy of the goddess with her serpents. That forbidden sight had brought about the punishment of Tiresias. In her mind’s eye, she saw the gruesomeness of the metamorphosis, but for this pretend prince, whose tastes were gentlemanly if his heart was not, she moved ahead.
“I awoke to find that I was no longer bound and could move without pain. All that remained was the memory of pain, like a ghost haunting an empty palace. Slowly I sat up and looked around me at the soft morning light filtering through the singing forest. Then, with a start, I jerked my head around, thinking to see the mouth of the goddess’ cave, but the opening was now just a blank and seemingly immovable rock face. So I assumed it had merely been a nightmare.
“Then a strange sensation caused me to look down at myself. A foreign body—a female body with plump breasts and nothing between my legs—confronted my bulging eyes! I ran hands over these breasts in frenzied consternation. Tiny scars crisscrossed my soft flesh, but it was as if they were years old. A fit of hysterics convulsed me. I sprang up and felt sure that I must have died and been reborn or that I had always been a woman, a lunatic who’d thought she’d once been a man.”
The madness was true and lasting. She sometimes still questioned her sanity. Tiresia’s life had been cleaved into two distinct parts to which she/he was just now becoming accustomed.
“It is difficult to say how long I stumbled naked and out of my mind through the forest, when I ran headlong into a man. His lust was immediate and unstoppable, but as he worked on me, my terror and revulsion withered his surprised arousal. After what seemed like a thousand pitiful thrusts, he looked down and pulled away from me, disgusted. ‘Blood!’ he exclaimed. Then the poor man turned away from me and finished his business as lonely shepherds have always done. Facing me again, he demanded to know what I was doing running around naked with moon’s blood on me.
“When he had thrown me down, I had shouted and the scream that emerged from my lips shocked me into silence. The woman’s voice was foreign and terrible to one used to a man’s voice since his boy’s changing. So now, though I wanted to defend myself, I did not want to hear that stranger’s voice come out of me again. But shepherds are by nature patient, so he waited until I stammered, ‘I--I am...or was...a virgin.’
“He stared in my face for a long time and saw that I was not lying. ’Just as ever,’ he muttered, ‘the gods deliver me a false gift. I took you for a wonton nymph and find you to be an unwilling maiden.’ He hung his head. Then he rummaged in his sack for his mantle. He tossed it to me and told me to cover myself. With a gruff, ‘If you want to eat come with me.’ He turned and strode away. I wrapped the rough wool around me, while watching his back recede. After a moment’s mindless indecision, I followed.
“We came to a steep valley. The sun setting behind purpling mountains divided a little cluster of sheep into fluffy shadows and creatures of light. We ate hard bread smeared with olive paste and drank well-watered wine. The valley grew dark and stars twinkled. We were silent. Speech was as disconcerting to the solitary shepherd as to me with my new maid-voice. We communed only with the passing of the wineskin.
The following day, we set out for Corinth and arrived here just in time for the festival of Adonis. He said that I might find work at the temple helping the women plant doomed seeds in broken pottery. Of course, my prince, that is where you found me and took me for your own.”
“You were the loveliest Aphrodite-in-mourning I had ever seen. I knew that I must have you,” he said and kissed her. “And now I know why you were so sad!” He snorted, “You were morning your own lost boyhood, not the dead Adonis at all!”
“I cannot argue with you my prince, for who was Adonis to me? I was more concerned with being discovered. I had never taken part in women’s festivals before! I should have known that no one would have suspected a singular metamorphosis lurked behind my incompetence.”
He laughed once more and gave her a squeeze. She had come to the end of her tale and it was time to satisfy him.
After two years of being a woman, it still felt strange, sometimes, to be the receiver, though it grew less strange, which was, perhaps, strangest of all. Most disconcerting was how her body had conformed so easily to its new role, and how the mind had followed. Only the memories of having been on the other side acted on her imagination and made her feel that she was living a double life, seeing a double sun and double moon, everything doubling and threatening to triple if she did not keep her wits wound tight around the spool. If she lost her memories, she might forget who she was.
* * *
“He is so beautiful,” she said admiring a tiny marble statue with gold hair and sapphire eyes. “He looks just like a boy I once loved.”
The Artificer polished the figurine and handed it to her. She paid him with her prince’s coin and thanked him. The Artificer’s handsome stone-face did not change expression or speak, but he nodded his acceptance of her thanks and she left his shop.
Tiresia walked up the hill to the Temple of Zeus. She had been thinking a lot about her boyhood friend lately. How different her love would be for him now! She would be one of those countless dear-hearts that had glowed in Archilochus’s presence, she felt certain.
With her new body had come new desires. Her eyes were opened to the attractions of men, not her prince particularly, but for men generally. It was as if they had suddenly appeared. Where had they all come from, these men? As a youth, Tiresias had never looked upon Archilochus or any other boy or man with anything more than simple friendly competition and companionship. Her new girlish inclination for men did not, however, smother the memories of boyish love. Rather, the new desires seemed to expand her capacity. The yearning for motherhood seemed also to have come with the body. Marriage as prologue to fatherhood had not yet crossed the mind of Tiresia. But now Tiresia ached to be full with child.
She did not have any illusions about making babies with her pretend prince. Even if she wanted to, she could not have a child with Antipollos. He had nearly a dozen legitimate sons and daughters with his unlovely wife and had no interest in convoluting the already stretched lines of inheritance with bastards. So she, like most of her fellow concubines, had become very friendly with the Corinth witches, who had brews for ridding oneself of unwanted babes.
She arrived at the temple of Zeus and handed her little figurine that looked like Archilochus to the priest as dedication in the name of Antipollos the merchant. For every voyage his ship completed successfully, he dedicated a glorious bauble to one of the gods. It was his concubine’s duty to take care of this business, for women are notoriously better at commissioning and carrying out such pious acts especially since they involve visiting the artisan shops to gawk at all the beautiful objects. At least this was the way her prince saw things.
This self-styled prince of hers had not a drop of royal blood in him. More like his lineage was stocked with pirates and slaves. He had enough money to buy a kingship if he so desired, but he preferred not to be in the obvious place of power. The king of Corinth was always in danger from the other kings, but the one who held the purse feared nothing and gained all.
Tiresia dreamed of being free of Antipollos and his greedy heart that enmeshed her, but getting away from him would not be easy. It frightened her to think of the rumors she heard about the jealous wrath of Antipollos. It seemed everybody in Corinth knew some poor girl who had been hurt or supposed lover made to disappear in the wake of some infidelity, real or imagined. If Tiresia were to run away, she felt she would want help. Perhaps this is why she dreamed so often of her lost companion Archilochus. They would escape together into the woods and live simple lives of love. Tiresia knew that this was as bizarre as it was impossible. The idea of her youth’s dear companion being her lover scrambled her thoughts, and so she pushed it away.
All she needed, Tiresia told herself, was cunning and patience, and patience was not a difficult virtue when one found oneself the concubine of the wealthiest man in Corinth. The days slipped by. She wandered from the shops in the market to the temples and then home to direct a plain meal for herself or a more elaborate meal for her prince. Sometimes, perhaps once a month Antipollos had her organize a symposium with all the finest delicacies and entertainment for the great men of Corinth and their concubines. But there was no real work to be done, she simply directed her servants.
Tiresia felt no urge to return home. She found her feet retracing their steps to the market and stopped to purchase a jar of wine at the wine shop. Walking out with some unanticipated exuberance, she felt compelled to revisit the Artificer. In his workshop he rarely spoke. The most words she’d witnessed in there were proclaimed silently by the engraving on his black enamel drinking vessel: “I belong to The Artificer.” Nonetheless, at the symposiums of Antipollos, she had noticed how he came to life with wine. The Artificer always arrived sullen and remained taciturn till the cups were filled thrice. Then suddenly he would burst out of his shell and enliven the event tenfold with his genius and wit. She thought she might test her theory today.
“I am back,” she said upon entering, “and I bear a gift!”
The Artificer took the jar of wine and opened it. He dribbled a tiny libation on the dusty floor and then drank deep. Finally he said, “Would you like to see my Aphrodite?”
Tiresia felt a little thrill of excitement run from her loins to the base of her skull and ignite something dangerously lovely. She had seen during her visits how the delicate limbs were carved out of stumps of ivory and affixed to the wood frame and the gold pounded thin as cloth. But, for several months the statue that would grace the Temple of Aphrodite had been hidden by a large tapestry hung in front of the door that led to the inner courtyard while the finishing touches were put on.
She followed the Artificer behind the curtain and gasped at the chryselephantine goddess. Aphrodite stood as tall as a tree and glittered from head to toe. Amber beads and garnets piled in loose ringlets atop her head and twinkled in her eyes. Clusters of pink-gold roses dotted with diamond dewdrops spilled from one ivory hand and gathered at her perfectly sandaled feet. The dress of gold draped from one shoulder, leaving bare the tops of smooth breasts, lovingly carved. Her lips were painted rosy and left partly open in a small inviting smile.
“The goddess herself could not be more beautiful,” Tiresia said earnestly.
“You think not?” said the Artificer.
Tiresia was surprised at the playful challenge in his voice and thought hard about what he might really be asking. “I cannot say what the Immortals look like to each other, but it seems to me that this marvel of yours dazzles the mortal eye almost beyond its ability to perceive.”
“Perhaps it is because I made the thing, but I cannot think of it as anything more than bits and pieces of bone and metal fastened to a stick figure with nails and a damnable amount of effort.
Tiresia had nothing to say to that. After a pause he continued, musing, “I wonder about the gods and our understanding of them. How can they look so much like us and act exactly as frivolous and petty as we do and still call themselves gods? The stories we tell about the immortals cause me to wonder if perhaps our poets invent all to soothe our worries. That either there are no gods or that they are so beyond our comprehension that they resemble our ideas of them as nearly as this chip of elephant tusk here on my workshop floor resembles the finished sculpture. Maybe even less than that.”
Tiresia thought of the goddess who had, despite her tiny stature, wielded such gigantic power and shuddered inwardly. Perhaps the gods were, after all, nothing like how we imagine them. She could not say what goddess that might have been. Or, if she had merely been some unnamed nymph or witch, then what dread hand or eye belong to an Olympian! She wanted suddenly to tell the Artificer what had happened to her. To him. Tiresia thought he might understand. If he could be made to believe. But she thought that he, a creator himself, would need more proof than she could furnish.
She smiled and said, “As one who has seen a goddess with one’s own eyes, I must agree with you. They are not at all how the poets make them out to be.”
He looked at her confused for a moment then laughed. “That is precisely what I’ve been thinking of late. We know nothing. We humans pretend all.”
“Yes,” she said, “our knowledge must be just as primitive as that stick figure hiding behind ivory and gold.”
He, enthusiastic now, took another giant swig of wine and said, “That is exactly it! Our thoughts are put together with crude nails and splintered wood. We cover over all our deficiencies with ornate carving! But that primitive pile of sticks should also be likened to our bodies. Yes, we hang pretty things to cover over its roughness and decay, but the luxuries also decay. So we must always be scrambling to replace the bits and pieces and must maintain an army of slaves to polish and mend the illusion.” He drank again and looked thoughtful. “But if the wood is the body and the pretty outer layer nothing but pretense, what could be the soul? It must be the idea of the finished statue, the Aphrodite that guided my creation. And so, if my conception of the goddess is itself a fantasy dreamed up by mortals, then perhaps we too are only ideas, not soul-animated creatures at all.”
Tiresia felt that he was running away without her, as she had seen him do with others less timid than she. She ventured, “Perhaps the soul is all of it.”
“All. . . of what?”
She wasn’t sure but tried, “All of the pretty bits of gold and jewels, all the ugly bits of beams and nails, all the ideas of the gods generally and Aphrodite in particular, all the creative spirit in you, all the gathering of the cheap parts and the hoarding of the precious parts, all the work of assembling and carving and hammering and fastening, and all the. . . “
“Stop!” he said laughing and threw his arm around her impulsively. Tiresia, elated and petrified, stiffened in the familiarity and he took his arm away embarrassed. “Yes, yes. You are quite right. The soul is but a composite of everything up until the point of complete dissolution, I’m sure.”
Tiresia felt so much confliction and distress ossifying her flesh, as if she were turning to ivory, that she could not speak. Not only did she suddenly suspect that what she had said was true, but she also saw with sudden insight that she loved the Artificer and that he loved her too. This must not be. Despite her urge to flee, his look of concern rooted her to the spot.
Regarding the statue and sipping at the vanishing wine, he said, “You see those garnets? In her hair and eyes?” She looked and nodded. He continued, “It has taken years to collect enough for this silly statue. They are the rarest kind of garnets that change color with their situation. In bright sunlight they are a gold flecked brown and in candlelight a deep dark purple. Almost as transfixing and changeable as your eyes.” When he looked back at her, Tiresia saw his feelings, undisguised and terrible. She saw now that he recognized the doomed inevitability of their love as well as she did.
Tiresia tore away from that look of love, mumbling something about needing to get home. She rushed head down, almost in tears, to the door and ran into a body just entering. “What’s the trouble, my princess?” The arms that gripped her were those of Antipollos.
He looked from her to the Artificer, back to her, and then to the enormous statue. “This Aphrodite of yours is stunning,” he said to the Artificer. Then to Tiresia, “In fact, his goddess of love looks just exactly like you, my dear.” He spoke the endearment with clenching jaw. “If not for the golden robes covering her, I might be certain. The tops of her breasts, at least, resemble yours my princess. And the eyes also. What a marvelous coincidence.”
The Artificer stammered something about having used a model from Athens who resembled, now that he thought on it, the merchant’s princess, while Tiresia attempted soothing Antipollos with kisses and caresses, all the while sensing that they were acting as if they were actually guilty of that which they were suspected. Perhaps their hearts were guilty enough to suffer whatever might come. For his part, Antipollos grew stiff and unemotional. He stared from one to the other of them and then back at the statue.
At last he said, “I have come, I remember now, with a commission for you Artificer. You have heard of the bull Daedalus fashioned for Pasiphae’s lust?” He waited for the small nervous nod and continued. “Well, I believe Zeus would be pleased if we honored him with such a gift. Yes, but ours shall be a heifer. A great brazen heifer.” He looked at Tiresia with evil eyes. “Yes, a brazen heifer. Hollow and big enough to fit a heifer of flesh and blood inside. We shall present her to Zeus for his festival. Yes. That will be an extraordinary spectacle. I shall inform the priests of their good fortune.” He encircled Tiresia’s waist and kissed her with cold lips.
* * *
The servants bathed Tiresia and rubbed scented oil over her body till she shone. Her hair was crimped and laced with gilt roses. They wrapped her in a soft linen robe, trimmed with the thinnest ropes of gold. For her feet, golden sandals. She was to play a central role in today’s festival of Zeus.
Her Artificer had insisted she must disappear at this festival. She had protested, “How can I disappear in the middle of that crowd? Every man woman and child in Corinth and the surrounding villages will be there!”
“First,” he had argued, ”you will be inside the brazen heifer so there will be time for the magic herbs to take affect without a soul to witness, and second, no one will even know that you are inside. The secrecy your prince—"
“Don’t call him that.” She had interrupted him peevishly.
“I’m sorry.” He had said and kissed her. “I hate the man more than I can tolerate. As I was saying, Antipollos has created such secrecy around his dedication that when you do not emerge from the damnable cow, scarcely anyone will know anything has gone amiss. And he will not be able to do a thing until the ritual is over and the crowds dispersed. Finally, when your disappearance becomes undeniable, servants will be suspected before magic herbs.”
“You will also be suspected.”
“Do not fear, my love, I will be beyond his clutches by that time.”
Tiresia was to emerge from the great brazen heifer just before the sacrifice. This was Antipollos’ clever dedication to Zeus. It would be the penultimate climax in a day’s worth of festivities. She would be given the sacred knife and walk it into the inner circle to hand it to the priest who would then cut the throat of the bull. After that, the fat and bones would send their grateful odors to the god and the meat would be cooked in great pots while the people danced and participated in games. She guessed her Artificer was right in thinking that halting the festival to search for one man’s concubine--no matter how powerful that man--would be virtually impossible.
But Tiresia detected something left unsaid by her Artificer, as if there were an even darker secret under all the layers of secrets. She suspected he must be protecting her from some further danger, perhaps putting it onto himself, but she could not understand what it might be. She was the one who had to enter, and spend no little time in, the brazen belly.
She sat in the innermost chamber of the temple gulping wine. The old witch had warned her that, although the vanishing would not be unpleasant, the reconstitution of her flesh and bones would be painful. “It will be best to have only wits to swallow my herbs and no more. So drink up little one,” she had advised. “Just, no sleeping!”
Tiresia had laughed and said, “Do not worry Wise Mother. I will not swoon, no matter how much wine I drink, for I will swallow the herbs the very instant the cow door shuts on me!”
“No,” her Artificer had said, “You must wait until you are brought into the temple courtyard and set down. Then you must wait for silence. Finally, you must yell out three times. Then you may eat the herbs." He told how he had fashioned a set of pipes that would convert human sounds into those of a cow. Antipollos had insisted on this part of the performance.
Her Artificer was right to think Antipollos would pounce soon. Though he remained outwardly kind, she could see that he no longer trusted her. She must get away from him before he punished the crime, which, when it had drawn his attention, existed only as dark seeds buried deep in their hearts, but since had bloomed. Tiresia thought how unfair it was that their love was discovered by Antipollos in almost the same instant that it was discovered to them. Why could they not have had even one day to savor it before it was tainted by jealousy and fear?
The women escorted her to the hollow sculpture and helped her in. Immediately upon entering her heart began to pound ferociously in her chest and she feared she might vomit or pass out. The former would have to be endured, the latter must not happen or all would be lost. She willed herself to envision the happy reunion with her Artificer atop distant Mount Helicon. The idea of freedom with her love nearly tempted her to take the herbs. Never mind the cruel Antipollos and his spectacle. But then she felt herself lifted by unknown servants, and she was jostled mercilessly against the rough innards of the brazen heifer.
She felt a sudden surge of anger at even her beloved Artificer. Why had he insisted on this mode of escape? And why had he not polished her chamber? Perhaps put a few pillows in here for her to recline upon until the magic disappearance? Damn them all she thought drunkenly. She realized then that she was very drunk indeed. If there had been pillows, she would certainly be falling asleep. She pictured herself flopping out of the side of the cow just in time to embarrass Antipollos at the height of his glory and giggled. The giggle bounced about her chamber and she heard a faint echo, like the plaintive lowing of a cow. It startled her bearers so that one leg dropped. She was flung forward against what must be the pipes.
If the servants who carried her were frightened by the sounds she made, what of the rest of the population? Wonder if something went wrong? “Hello!” she cried with her human voice and heard only the “Moo” of a cow emerge. “Please" she mooed, "let me out for an instant of air before we arrive at the courtyard!" Panic surged. She screamed and heard her bearers pray to the gods to protect them. Then they were outside the temple.
The din of the crowd, pierced by the shrill ololuge of the priestesses, engulfed her and threatened to smother her remaining wits. Tiresia concentrated on her instructions, clutching her pouch of magic herbs.
As soon as she was set down she heard the chanting cease. The priest had gestured for silence. Tiresia opened her mouth to scream as she had been told to do when heat flared under the belly in which she crouched. The flames licked her sides. Fire! No one had said anything about fire! They were cooking her! She fumbled at the saving herbs. She smashed them into her mouth and swallowed. She felt the dissolution of self that she thought must be death.
But some part of her remained hovering above the brazen heifer in the temple hearth. The crowds resumed chanting. The shrill “ololololo!” shot from the mouths of women. She saw Antipollos standing near the king, out of the way of the ceremony but engaged with all his evil heart, eyes intent on the burning sacrifice that had once been his concubine. She looked with her hovering sight for her Artificer. At first she could not see him. Then she did. He was inside the burning belly of the brazen heifer. It was now his voice that screamed with a plaintive cow’s “Moooooo!” That had been the secret. Of course. Magic demands balance. Her Artificer paid the price of her life with his. No! Her voiceless-self shouted, as it vaporized into nothingness.
She materialized on the mountain, her flesh crackling as if she were roasting with her love. But her eyes gazing up at angry skies told her the magic had worked. She was free. She cursed Zeus. He answered with thunder blasts and spikes of lightning. She lay in the mud, letting the rain pound her without mercy.
Tiresia melted into the ground with tears of remorse. Why had he traded his life for hers? How will she survive this wracking guilt? Suddenly her questions and accusations yielded the vision she had not known she was seeking. She saw herself big with child, and inside that swollen belly lived her baby girl. Tiresia turned her back on the sky and kissed the earth. “Please, help me. I promise to be a mother worthy of your pleasure.” She lifted her head and saw a cave. She crawled through the mud towards it. She would take shelter here tonight, and tomorrow she would begin another new life.