Bob Dylan As Teiresias

By Larry Fyffe

Sophocles of Thebes writes a tragic play about the mythological King of Thebes, named Oedipus, who tries to avoid his fate. A female oracle of Truth, of Apollo the Sun God, lets it be known to his father that he’ll be killed by his son who will then marry his mother. So the father decides to get rid of his baby son, but the babe’s rescued, and adopted. He’s given the name Oedipus, and goes on to become king because the people of the city are grateful that he solves the riddle of the man-eating Sphinx who then perishes. Oedipus believes he’s safe from fate when his ‘father’ dies. His wife tells him that oracles are not to be trusted. However, it turns out that his wife was married to the man that Oedipus killed while on the road to Thebes, the very man who thought that he had gotten rid of his son. The truth uncovered, Oedipus’ wife hangs herself, and her son/husband then puts out his own eyes.

Teiresias be a male soothsayer who’s turned into a woman for seven years by Hera, the wife of the God of Thunder. The transgendered soothsayer becomes a prostitute. Having been both, the soothsayer sides with Zeus when he says to his wife Hera that woman enjoy sex more than men….not a good idea. It’s claimed that Athena (Minerva) causes Teiresias to be blinded because he had gazed upon her, the virgin Goddess of Athens, while she was bathing. Or perhaps it was Hera because Teiresias struck a pair of copulating snakes. In any event, seeming to have learned his lesson, elderly Teiresias at first refuses to tell Oedipus anything when the soothsayer is instructed by the King to tell all. That is, until Oedipus calls him an ‘idiot’ and a ‘traitor’.

Guillaume Apollinaire, though born in Italy, becomes a French writer associated with the rather ill-defined Symbolist, Cubist and Surrealist movements of Modernist art. In order to get away from the ongoing Realist and Naturalist modes of writing of the time, the dark-humoured Apollinaire returns to the imaginative worlds of mythology and religion, turning them inside out and upside down, in an effort to unearth and grapple with the underlying mysterious reality of human existence ~ in regard to the alienation wrought by modern technology, coupled as it is with a search for hedonistic pleasures.

Following in the ancient footsteps of Sophocles, Apollinaire writes a play called “The Breasts Of Teiresias” in which, unlike Sophocles, and the modernist poet TS Eliot, its author does not place all the blame for the problems of the world on the shoulders of women. In the surrealistic play, a woman transforms herself into a man, and heads off to war – surely a good method of birth control. The task of giving birth is left to the husband at home whom she’s dressed as a woman; he somehow immediately overpopulates their imaginary world.

Apollinaire references actual historical events in his surreal writings. Below is a poem in translation:

You set yourself against beauty
And how many women have been
Victims of your cruelty!
Eve, Eurydice, Cleopatra
I know three or four after
(Guillaume Apollinaire: The Serpent)

The three women mentioned above  – and Teiresias as well – are harmed in one way or another by snakes.

In his lyrics, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, whether through the direct reading of translations thereof, or from being in the company of other artists, shows that he’s familiar with the works of Sophocles and Apollinaire:

He saw an animal as smooth as glass
Slithering his way through the grass
Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake
{"Ah, think I'll call it a snake"}
(Bob Dylan: Man Gave Names To All The Animals)

The following song lyrics could have been uttered by the elderly Teiresias himself:

Oh, the leaves begin to fallin', and the seas begin to part
And the people that confronted him were many
And he was told but these few words, which opened up his heart
"If you cannot bring good news, then don't bring any"
(Bob Dylan: The Wicked Messenger)

Apparently, a motherly wife is what a husband needs – as expressed in the following double-edged lyrics:

Precious angel,  under the sun
How was I to know you'd be the one
To show me I was blinded, to show me I was gone
How weak was the foundation I was standin' on
(Bob Dylan: Precious Angel)

What else is on the site

You’ll find some notes about our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The index to all the 590 Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with over 2000 active members.  (Try imagining a place where it is always safe and warm).  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

If you are interested in Dylan’s work from a particular year or era, your best place to start is Bob Dylan year by year.

On the other hand if you would like to write for this website, please do drop me a line with details of your idea, or if you prefer, a whole article.  Email Tony@schools.co.uk

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews

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