Tiresias is a blind prophet from Thebes who makes various appearances in Greek literature, perhaps most notably in Homer's Odyssey and Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone. In the two plays, his words are angrily dismissed, first by Oedipus, then by Creon, making it seem that, like Cassandra, he is fated to tell the truth without being believed. Tiresias was transformed into a woman for seven years, giving him an unusually wide range of human experience.
T. S. Eliot only mentions Tiresias by name during a single section of "The Fire Sermon," but he alludes to him obliquely throughout the poem. In his own notes, Eliot says that Tiresias is an important unifying figure in The Waste Land, and it is clear that this role is closely connected with Tiresias's union of male and female in his own person. He introduces himself in just these terms:
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts ....
Tiresias then describes a lackluster sexual encounter, entirely appropriate for the sordid, unromantic environment in which it takes place. The woman is unresponsive to the point of being inanimate, while the man is forced to make "a welcome of indifference." At this low point, Tiresias remarks in parentheses:
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
In The Waste Land, there is often a contrast, if only implicit, between the grandeur of the past and the tedium of the present. Tiresias, however, shows that not everything in the past was grand. The world-weary sage has seen everything, including unenthusiastic sex, and he connects the past with the present in his cynical observations.