March 4, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Literature is full of blind prophets. Today’s blog opens the door to better understanding this often-used literary device.
Characters who display temporary or permanent blindness represent a number of possibilities in literature. They might be able to see more than the average person, as in the case of Tiresias. For others, however, blindness parallels a character’s ignorance or stubbornness as in the case of Saul in Acts. Often, while temporarily blind, a character may experience indecision, lack of insight, or weakness.
In the case of someone like Tiresias, why does the audience believe in his powers? A short answer is that the author sets it up in such a way as to offer no alternatives. Sometimes, the text is littered with puns and foreshadowing that include the word sight. For example, in Oedipus the King, Creon asks Oedipus to send for Tiresias, (a character familiar to the audience of his time). When Tiresias explains that Oedipus has committed both murder and incest, the information disappoints Oedipus. The king, refusing to see the truth in Tiresias’s statements, calls him a “prophetic mumbler.” Tiresias affirms that the truth has strength, to which Oedipus replies: “It has, but not for you; it has not strength for you because you are blind in mind and ears as well as in your eyes.” The audience knows what is going on, and the repetition of allusions to sight rise into a great crescendo. At this point in the play, even Oedipus may be starting to realize that he is part of the problem, which only adds to his defensiveness, unfortunately. Ultimately, the truth is revealed: Tiresias’s predictions all come true, and Oedipus finds himself abominable. In response, he blinds himself using Jocasta’s brooch. His blindness may be both punishment and justice and Tiresias remains a true blind prophet.
Written between 430 and 420 BC, Sophocles’ play is hardly the only source of blind prophets. In fact, Saul’s conversion to St. Paul begins with blindness. Acts 9 describes the instance in which Jesus reveals himself to Saul. Saul experiences an extremely bright light and the voice of Jesus. With instructions to go to Damascus, Saul finds that he can no longer see. It is important to note that prior to this experience, Saul had been persecuting Christians. After three days of blindness, Saul believes in Jesus (he literally sees the light). Ananias blesses Saul, and the passage reads: “[I]mmediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized” (Acts 9:18).
Norse mythology, too, places sight as a central feature of importance. Mimir, the god of remembrance, guards the fountain of knowledge. When Odin visits the fountain, Mimir explains that he must sacrifice something important in order to gain knowledge and Odin offers his eye. In other words, Odin gained godly insight through self-sacrifice. For this reason, he is often depicted with a patch or covering over one eye. The patch simultaneously reminds us of Odin’s sacrifice and his wisdom.
The Bhagavad-Gita also begins with a form of blindness. The eminent battle places relatives on both sides of the line. This unnatural separation causes blindness in the one who started the argument. As relatives assemble on the battlefield, the general Dhritarashtra is forced to ask another soldier for a battlefield report, implying that Dhritarashtra cannot see the field. Possibly his greed for wealth and his relatives’ thrones has blinded him to reality. Furthermore, Arjuna sees everyone assembled on the field and his eyes become temporary blinded by tears. He is disconsolate, fearful, and hopeless. In this state, he addresses Krishna and asks for advice. The god Krishna provides insight and wisdom.
One final example, “The Seer Who Would Not See,” comes from a Pima tradition (collected by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz in American Indian Myths and Legends, 1984. pp. 473). In it, a bald eagle comes down to tell the seer that a flood is coming. Typically a respected figure of the community, the seer is endowed with godlike sight. However, in this myth, the seer refuses to believe that eagle knows the future. Their disbelief results in disaster. The eagle and seer vie for power in this myth. Eagle taunts the seer by saying, “You’re a seer, a healer. Don’t you know that a great flood is coming?” The seer replies, “Don’t bother me, bird of misfortune. We all know what kind of person you are.” In the end, the flood arrives and sweeps away the seer who never returns. The community is also swept away. This forces the last remaining deity to fight against the eagle and win back the lives of all of the people. It is said that this is the beginning of the Hohokam people, the descendants of the Pima.
Though I have neglected a great many stories that deal with blind prophets and blindness in general, these few examples make me wonder about sight. When sight (or blindness) is a metaphor, what does it stand for? When observing the world, what escapes attention? Does everything in our periphery enter our consciousness to some degree, or do we miss some major parts of our world? For example, what happens to our sight and senses when we do something like race through the house to find keys, only to discover them already in hand. These questions lead to discussions of awareness, attention, and focus. Using sight as a metaphor can also lead to many fruitful discussions about context, insight, and wisdom. The texts and ideas mentioned in this post are only a beginning.
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