P12 – Jennifer Neidhardt

Jennifer Neidhardt is a PhD student and research assistant at the department for Comparative Literature at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf. Their research interests include queer theory, theories of intertextuality and reception as well as theories of graphic narratives, popular culture and participation. Their current dissertation project examines revisions of Greek mythology from the perspective of queer theory, focusing on the (de-)construction of transgender narratives in classical literature and its reception.

The Three Lives of Tiresias: Revisiting ‘Transgender’ Myths and Their Reception[1]

We are perfect because of our imperfections.
We must stay hopeful;
We must stay patient –
because when they excavate the modern day
they’ll find us: the Brand New Ancients.[2]

Why queer myths?

“Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering a text from a new critical direction – is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival,”[3] Adrienne Rich concludes in her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” (1972). Feminist revisionist literature challenges narratives which are incorrectly perceived as ‘timeless truths,’ critically reevaluates archetypal images associated with womanhood and unmasks the misogyny underlying classical literature. Recent novels such as Nathalie Hayne’s One Thousand Ships (2019), Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018) and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (2018), for instance, retell the Homeric epics from the perspective of their neglected female characters, and Fiona Benson’s poetry collection Vertigo and Ghost (2019) reimagines Zeus, the king of Olympus infamous for sexual aggression, as a 21st century serial rapist.                                                               

Judith Butler, however, warns her fellow feminists “to be careful not to idealize certain expressions of gender that, in turn, produce new forms of hierarchy and exclusion”.[4] While popular works of literary feminist revision rightfully criticize the normalization of sanctified rape and misogynistic archetypes employed in classical literature and myth, they sometimes tend to present myths as a unified corpus while neglecting their transformative potential. Myths, however, are not contained within a single canonical text: not unlike Butler’s concept of gender performativity itself, they are “imitations without an original”[5]. Instead, they rely on complex processes of transmission, translation and (re)interpretation, and variations of myths often heavily depended on local traditions.[6]

Conservative scholarship has often attempted to establish a monolithic picture of classical myths and antiquity intrinsically tied to heteronormative masculine ideals. Cultural elements at odds with this worldview, ranging from ancient proto-feminist thought to homoerotic relationships and expressions of gender fluidity, were deliberately edited out in this process and are consequently rarely featured in contemporary mainstream retellings.[7] By focusing on the oppression of heterosexual cisgender women and neglecting the potential for alternative outcomes, mainstream works of feminist revision sometimes ironically risk subscribing to a worldview they attempt to challenge. They neglect not only the diversity of sexuality and gender underlying ancient source texts, but the narrative fluidity of myth itself.[8] Queer reception studies thus attempt to reclaim this subversive potential while retaining a critical stance to myth’s problematic aspects, both engaging with contemporary receptions and revisiting classical texts from a fresh perspective. They do not attempt to create an idealized or even utopian view of antiquity, but instead explore the ways in which queer writers create an active counter-discourse to challenge hegemonial narratives and their underlying power structures. [9]

The three lives of Tiresias.

The blind seer Tiresias is an archetypal helper figure featured prominently in Greek and Roman myth. While some variations claim that he was blinded by the goddess Athena for seeing her naked body,[10] more prominent sources offer a queerer backstory[11]: as a youth, Tiresias strikes a pair of coupling snakes with a stick and is turned into a woman for seven years before ‘regaining his male form’.[12] After the second transformation, Tiresias is ordered to settle a divine dispute between Zeus and Hera, who argue whether it is men or women who gain more pleasures from sexual intercourse. Tiresias, having experienced sex both as man and woman, is considered a worthy judge for the matter. ‘He’ sides with Zeus, pronouncing that if sexual pleasure were to be divided into ten parts, women would enjoy nine, while men only enjoy one. The enraged Hera blinds Tiresias, and Zeus bestows ‘him’ with the gift of prophecy as a compensation. In ancient Greek epic and tragedy, the blind seer functions as a mentor to (anti-)heroic figures such as Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, Oedipus in Sophocles Oedipus Rex or Pentheus in Euripides’ Bacchae and is generally portrayed as a liminal figure. Situated between life and death, male and female, divine and human, blind and seeing, Tiresias escapes binary dichotomies of gender, (dis)ability, space and time. 

This myth has always been a popular source for poetic inspiration, particularly among early 20th century modernists – T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland or Virginia Woolf’s Orlando being among the most prominent examples.[13] Kae Tempest’s poetry collection Hold Your Own (2014) engages with this literary legacy as it reimagines the myth of Tiresias from a contemporary genderqueer perspective. Tempest, who recently came out as non-binary themself,[14] combines epic narrative with highly personal autobiographical elements and social critique, queering Homeric language with elements of contemporary rap and hip-hop.[15] Rather than fixating on an oppressive past and neglecting the present, Tempest’s poetry poses the question: how can we use the past to create a better future?[16]

Hold Your Own effectively obscures the identity of its speaker. Are they Tiresias or an autobiographical version of the poet themself? Male, female, both or neither? Ancient or modern? In each poem, the blind prophet seems to fulfill a different role. This plurality of identities is at the collection’s core: “Tiresias, you hold your own. | Each you that you have ever been” (23, own italics). It vividly reflects the reality of life beyond the gender binary: While superficial concepts of transgender identities often presuppose a one-way journey – from male to female or female to male –, the reality of many transgender (and intersex) lives is often considerably less linear. Some might identify as a woman at one stage of their lives, as a man in another, and as neither in the next. Some undergo gender reassignment surgeries in late adulthood and experience a second adolescence in their fifties. Others are assigned male at birth but develop breasts after hitting puberty.[17] By employing the figure of Tiresias, Tempest’s poetry draws attention to the never finished fluidity of gendered bodies; the non-linear relationship between ancient past and contemporary discourse only underlines their queer temporality. It quite literally dissects the body of Tiresias and finds it neither male nor female, but merely human: “Be all that you are, all woman all soft. // All man. All soft. All flesh. All bone. All organ” (82).[18] Hold Your Own does not attempt to create a monolithic version of the Tiresias myth and refrains from affirming oppressive worldviews. Instead, it uses myth as a means of exploring and embracing the perpetual multiplicity of one’s own self: “Tiresias – you teach us | What it means: to hold your own.”[19]

[1] Following postmodernist theories of sexuality by Foucault or Halperin, it is crucial not to project contemporary labels onto historical or literary figures. I put the ‘transgender’ in my title into quotation marks for this reason: there are no ‘transgender’ people in ancient myths since the concept of ‘transgender identities’ did not yet exist. Yet, I would argue that figures such as Tiresias are transgender – beyond gender. 

[2] Tempest 2013: 3.

[3] Rich 1972: 82.

[4] Butler 1999: viii.

[5] Butler 1999: 179.

[6] Pausanias Description of Greece (2nd ct AD) is a vivid example for this diversity of myths. He connects his geographical study of Greek provinces to local variations of myths reflected in artworks and customs, often adding his own opinion: “the cuckoo perched on the scepter [of a statue] is explained by a story, that when Zeus was in love with the maiden Hera, he changed himself into this bird […]. This and similar stories of the gods I record, though I do not accept them.” Cited from Trzaskoma, Stephen M. et.al. (eds) 2016: 305.

[7] Cp. duBois 2001: 18f.

[8] More nuanced examples include the poetry of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad (2005), which highlights the unreliability of oral traditions and explores the class relations between Penelope and her maids, or Nikita Gill’s recent poetry collection Great Goddesses: Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters (2019), which equally problematizes rape narratives and explores underlying themes of feminine power and female homosocial relationships.

[9] Here I draw on Per Faxneld’s definition and scholarly approach to counter-myths in his study about (queer)feminist revisions of the Christian devil, cp. Faxneld 2017: 11-22.

[10] Cf. Callimachus, Apollodorus.

[11] Cf. Hyginus, Apollodorus, Ovid.

[12] This ‘return to a male body’ must be taken with a grain of salt – although English translations use “he/him” pronouns for Tiresias after the second transformation, ancient source texts such as Ovid’s Latin Metamorphoses refrain from using gendered language. A similar observation can be found in Rebecca Begum-Lee’s reading of the myth of Iphis in Ovid, cf. Begum-Lee 2020.

[13] Cp. Hargreaves 2005: 81-85.

[14] Tempest, Kae. “Pic.twitter.com/YHscxqovCo.” Twitter, 6 Aug. 2020, twitter.com/kaetempest/status/1291396030794260483. (14.09.2020)

[15] Cp. Spiers 2019: 110.

[16] Cp. Spiers 2019: 108.

[17] Cf. the concept of queer temporality in Halberstam 2005 or Pryor 2017.

[18] Cp. Spiers 2019: 119.

[19] Tempest 2014: 24.

Works Cited
“Tiresias (myth. s. of Eueres) Τειρεσίας.” Topostext, Web. https://topostext.org/people/468 (14.09.2020)
ANTOSA, Silvia. “Performing Epic in Contemporary British Poetry: Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients.” Textus, Vol. 2 (2019). 195-214.
APOLLODORUS, and Robin Hard (transl). The Library of Greek Mythology. Oxford University Press, 2008.
BEGUM-LEES, Rebecca. “Que(e)r(y)ing Iphis’ Transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” Surtees, Allison and Jennifer Dyer. Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World (Intersectionality in Classical Antiquity). Edinburgh University Press, 2020. 106-117.
BRISSON, Luc. Le mythe de Tirésias: essai d’analyse structural. Brill, 1976.
BUTLER, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 2nd edition. Routledge, 1999.
CALLIMACHUS and A.W. Mair (transl). Hymns and Epigrams. Lycophron. Aratus (Loeb Classical Library Volume 129). William Heinemann, 1921.
CAMPANILE, Domitilla et al. Transantiquity. Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World. Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2017.
CASE, Ellen-Sue. “Classic Drag: The Greek Creation of Female Parts.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 37, No. 3, (1985). 317-327.
COUPE, Laurence. Myth (The New Critical Idiom). Routledge, 2009.
DUBOIS, Page. Trojan Horses. Saving the Classics from Conservatives. New York and London: New York University Press, 2001.
FAXNELD, Per. Satanic Feminism. Lucifer as the Liberator of Women in Nineteenth-Century Culture. Oxford University Press, 2017.
FOUCAULT, Michel and Robert Hurley (transl). The History of Sexuality. Random House, 1978, 1985, 1986.
GILL, Nikita. Great Goddesses: Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters. Ebury Press, 2019.
HALBERSTAM, Jack. In a Queer Time and Place. Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
HALPERIN, David. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love. Routledge, 1990.
HARGREAVES, Tracey. Androgyny in Modern Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
HYGINUS and Mary Grant (transl). “Fabulae.” ToposText, Web. https://topostext.org/work/206 (14.09.2020)
MASTERSON, Mark et.al. (eds). Sex in Antiquity. Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World (Rewriting Antiquity). Routledge, 2018.
OSTRIKER, Alicia. “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking.” Signs, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1982). 68-90.
OVID, and D. A Raeburn (transl). Metamorphoses. Penguin, 2004.
PHILLIPS, Kim M. et.al. (eds). Sex Before Sexuality. A Premodern History. Polity, 2013.
PLATE, Liedeke. “Remembering the Future; or, Whatever Happened to Re‐Vision?” Signs, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2008). 389-411.
PRYOR, Jaclyn I. Time Slips. Queer Temporalities, Contemporary Performance, and the Hole of History. Northwestern University Press, 2017.
RICH, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” College English, Vol. 34, No.1 (1972). 18-30.
SPIERS, Emily. “Kate Tempest. A ‘Brand New Homer’ for a Creative Future.” Fiona Cox and Elena Theodorakopoulos (eds). Homer’s Daughters: Women’s Responses to Homer in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. Oxford University Press, 2019. 105-124.
TEMPEST, Kae. Brand New Ancients. Picador, 2013.
TEMPEST, Kae. Hold Your Own. Picador, 2014.
TRZASKOMA, Stephen M., R. Scott Smith and Stephen Brunet (eds). Anthology of Classical Myth. Primary Sources in Translation. 2nd ed. Hackett Publishing, 2016.

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