Ages ago, I said I was going to write a series about disability in Greek myth. Of course, I had to do things like “study,” “sleep” and “move three times in six months” so that fell through. Oh, Hephaestus, I am sorry. However, I hope this post covering a fair portion of the myths featuring blindness will do you!
From blinding as a means of punishment or defeating enemies to associations with musical and prophetic gifts and indeed insanity, blindness performs a whole lot of functions in Greek myth. There’s so much to cover, so I’ll assume a certain familiarity with the myths themselves (just Google if you get confused, or ask me for a reference, I’ve got loads on hand). Let’s dip in, shall we?
There’s a recurring theme in Greek myth of gods and heroes blinding monsters. Zeus ends the Titanomachy (the Titan rebellion against the Olympians) by blinding the Titans with his flash of lightning. His enemy, Typhoeus, is a threat because of his hundreds of flame-spurting eyes. The power to force blindness is positioned as a defining power in conclusive defeat. By having both Apollo and Heracles then shoot out Ephialtes’ eyes, this frankly offputting kind of power reinforces the collective dominance of the Olympians.
Perseus continues the institution of blindness in order to subdue in stealing the Graeae’s eye and continue his quest. There’s also Argos: only in closing his eyes – being “blinded” – is he vulnerable to Hermes, who then decapitates him. But when Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops, he himself is punished. Who ought to be sighted and who blind, then, ought to be under divine control, according to these narratives.
Blindness as punishment
This is a frequent trope! Metope, for example, is punished by her father Echetus with blindness and must work to regain her sight. Where Argos had to be “blinded” in order to be decapitated, Alcmena’s mutilation of Eurystheus’ eyes is performed after his decapitation in order to humiliate him. (Yep, not exactly blindness-positive here, are we…) Then there’s blinding as revenge, as with Polymestor’s punishment for murder in Hecabe.
People are often blinded for offences against the gods, as with Erymanthos after he saw Aphrodite bathing. Stesichorus is supposed to have been blinded on insulting Helen, the daughter of Zeus who was caught up in the Trojan War. Unusually, when he retracts, Stesichorus regains his sight. Another case in which blindness is temporary is when Poseidon put a mist before Achilles’ eyes to stop him killing Aeneas. Orion is blinded as a punishment for rape, but he regains his sight upon seeing Helius, the sun: blinding punishments don’t seem to hold for gods as they do for humans without divine favour.
As much as it pains me to have to talk about metaphorical blindness, it’s important when it comes to Oedipus. Perhaps the most famous blind figure in Greek myth, the idea is that his lack of insight leads to his literal loss of sight. The parallel is particularly drawn in the passage in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus and the prophet Tiresias throw accusations of “blindness” at each other. Oedipus, still sighted at this stage in the Theban cycle, accuses Tiresias of having both blind eyes and mind, but it is the foresight of the blind prophet that predicts that the same will be said of Oedipus. This grates on me, but it’s still pretty great in that, where blindness has in many myths represented a lack of power – in punishment and defeat – here Tiresias’ associated prophetic sight trumps the visually sighted Oedipus.
Moving on to Oedipus at Colonus, following his self-inflicted blinding, Oedipus has clearly undergone an internal change, exchanging his sight for much insight into his destiny and that of his family. Psychoanalytic readings deem Oedipus’ self-blinding a symbolic castration, a punishment for his improper sexual behaviour (he marries a woman who turns out to be his mother). That interpretation certainly fits with the dynamic of blindness as punishment.
Greek myth features a singular association between blindness and prophecy. I find the stories of those who move between blindness and sightedness particularly intriguing. That’s the case with disease-blinded fisherman Phormion’s recovery of his sight after a prophetic dream. Rarely for Greek mythology, seer Ophioneus was born blind, and his temporary sightedness occurs after a sudden head pain. These myths, in their very inversion, point to a Greek tradition of linking prophetic insight with visual sight across many types of myths.
This is furthered with the instances of prophecy being granted as recompense for loss of sight. Euenios only receives prophecy as compensation because his inaction helped the cause of the gods. Conversely, a god is responsible for Tiresias’ blinding, because although his seeing Athena bathing was also a mistake, Zeus’ law mandates that he must be blinded. However, Athena’s gifts of prophecy and long life to Tiresias fill the compensation component we’ve come to expect. Fellow seer Phineus perpetuates the link between long life and blindness, choosing both over sight. Once more, visual sight is exchanged for something far more powerful.
There’s also a strong association between blindness and musical talent. The talented piper Daphnis’ blindness is another example of removal of sight at the hands of supernatural forces. Such treachery of the Muses is also demonstrated with Achaios, who is blinded by bee stings (bees are associated with the Muses). It reappears in Demodocus’ case also, with the giving of musical talent and the taking away of his sight marking another instance of sight being exchanged for a powerful talent.
In the Iliad, the Muses are said to have maimed and taken the voice of the bard Thamyris after he boasted he was more talented than they were. Intriguingly, there is a tradition that Thamyris was also blinded, but Homer’s text itself doesn’t make this explicit. The continuation of such a tradition even outside tangible support from the official text demonstrates, I think, the significance of the blind musician in Greek culture. Indeed, references to the figure of the blind singer seem to have been encouraged by the Homeridae, the descendants of the blind poet Homer.
These myths, however, have very different meanings and doubtless cultural significance. The blindings are a mix of punishments and arbitrary whims, tied to the musicians’ talent and not. There’s no cohesive mythical function of blindness going on here that I can figure out; blindness just seems to be inserted every which way.
Back to metaphors again, I’m afraid, with Atê, the spirit of delusion and “blind” folly. She is known also as Ruin as she leads all who follow her astray by causing them to become “blinded” to their mistakes and often insane. Another of Greek mythology’s numerous linkings of blindness and madness is in Ajax. Athena describes the madness she institutes in Ajax in very visual terms, saying she will make his eyes dark although he still is sighted. This rendering of blindness is in fact a means of saving Odysseus from Ajax, further showing that blindness in Greek myth can be as much about divine favour as it is about punishment.
Greek myth is characterised by myriad meanings and functions of blindness. Whether blindness is representing establishment or exercise of power dynamics, whether it appears as a metaphor, whether it is performing a variety of functions all at once or something else entirely, blindness is everywhere in Greek myth.
[Cross-posted to ZatB]