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Insight in Blindness in a Culture of Light, Creighton University Faculty Journal, p29

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Eleftheria Bernidaki-Aldous, Ph.D., Classics and Modern Languages



April 1986

Table of Contents

  • Sexual Selection, Feminism, and the Behavior of Biologists: Chances in the Study of Animal Behavior, 1953-85, Theodore Burke, Biology Department: p 1
  • International Terrorism and Business Counterterrorism, John M. Gleason, College of Business Administration : p17
  • Insight in Blindness in a Culture of Light, Eleftheria Bernidaki-Aldous, Ph.D., Classics and Modern Languages: p29
  • An Analysis of the Products Liability Insurance, Underwriting Process, Barry B. Schweig, Ph.D., College of Business Administration: p38
  • Reader Response Theory: Discovery or Redundancy, Bruce J. Malina, Department of Theology:p55
  • The Importance of Commitment in Treating Erotomania in Males: A Brief Review and Case Report, Satnam Atwall, M.B.B.S., Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Leslie E. Collins, Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Klause Hartman, M.D., Director, Lincoln Regional Center: p57
  • Leukopenia Associated with Topical Silver Sulfadiazine Therapy in Burn Patients, Gbaranen B. M. Gbaanador M.D., School of Medicine, Anthony J. Policastro, M.D. School of Medicine, Donna Durfee, Pharm. D. School of Medicine, Joel N. Bleicher, M.D., F.A.C.S. School of Medicine:p76
  • Orbicularis Oris Muscle Flap. Joel N. Bleicher, M.D., School of Medicine, Martha Arouni School of Medicine: p84
  • Hand Infections In Dental Personnel, Joel M. Bleicher M.D., F.A.C.S., David L. Blinn, M.D.,Douglas Massop M.D.: p92
  • Computer Assisted Instruction in Writing A Preliminary Report, Joseph D. Scallon, S.J., College of Arts & Sciences:p 100


This essay addresses the paradox: sight in blindness. Greek culture (immersed in light, literally and metaphorically) is characterized as a "culture of light." Greek literature is dominated by the dialectics of light (light-darkness imagery, blindness and insight vs. eyesight). Light is so desirable that in Greek phos is synonymous with life. Deprivation of light is almost as undesirable as death, yet blindness bestows a status of distinction in a culture where choice between light and honor is difficult. Achilles chooses time over life in the Ilaid, but in the Odyssey he would give up the highest honors in Hades to see the light again.
As deprivation of light, helplessness and dependence, blindness is imposed as punishment by gods and men alike. The blind inspire pity and fear because their fate is awful (deinon). Polluted and sacred, they inspire disgust, compassion and the noblest humanity. Blindness is punishment for breaking the limits of human knowledge, yet it is the means to insight, truth—vision of metaphysical light. Blind seers and poets enjoy the highest religious, social and political powers. Solutions to this paradox are provided which, though careful, may not be definitive or exhaustive.

Here we will examine briefly the meaning of blindness and the role of the blind seer and poet in the Greek culture, characterized with good reason, I think, as a "culture of light." Everyone would agree that the study of extant Greek literature and everything we know of Greek culture leads us to this conclusion: the Greeks presented us with one of their greatest paradoxes in their attitudes about blindness. The most striking paradox, for example, is the fact that in a culture where "to live" is synonymous with "to see the light" and "to die" equals "to go to Hades, i.e., Darkness," (to Hades where you neither see nor are seen), we find that the blind have a very special place of honor and power. The blind have been consistently assigned the ultimate religious, moral, social and political powers, especially in their roles as poets and seers.

Another immediately striking fact is that the Greeks were clearly fascinated by blindness, both as a topic of philosophical discussion and as a reality of human experience. The founder of Greek culture (both of the literary tradition and of religious beliefs and social values), the great Homer, was believed to have been blind. Even Thucydides (who puts other dubious matters right in the "Archeology" of his "scientific" history) accepts Homer's blindness as a fact. Greeks were, it must be conceded, shocked by the tragedy of Oedipus' self-blinding and touched by the pathos of the old blind beggar Oedipus becomes at the end of his life. Every Greek was acquainted with the figure of the old blind seer Teiresias, from the eleventh book of the Odyssey, or from productions of Sophocles and Euripides in the theatre of Dionysus, or from a recitation of Callimachus' Hymn to Athena. So long as there is a work of Greek literature left, from Homer to the Hellenistic times and beyond, blindness remains an enduring topos: there will always be some blind character for us to see, hear, or hear about and perhaps, to tempt us to fathom the role which his blindness played in his culture—this culture of light. In every genre of Greek literature, from epic and lyric, through drama to philosophy and history, the blind and blindness are persistent presences and themes: the paradox always provokes us. Blindness has been viewed as one of the worst of human sufferings, and, as such, it has been inflicted as the worst punishment for a great variety of crimes; it has been feared as a possible fate, and has been cast as a curse on one's worst enemies. At the same time this ultimate form of human suffering has been regarded as the clearest paradigm of the human condition and as a means of wisdom, insight, and power. Moreover it has given rise to the deepest feelings of compassion and understanding.

The questions, therefore, which are usually asked about the meaning of blindness and the role of the blind in Greek culture can be summarized very simply. Is blindness an awful fate to be avoided at all costs, or is it a supreme power—even a prerequisite for final wisdom and transcendent insight? Does this representation of blindness in extant Greek literature reflect only theoretical and philosophical ideas, or does it also tell us something about the real popular beliefs of everyday Greek life? Is blindness a cause for fear and horror, or a condition which generates awe, reverence and respect in those who possess sight? Are the Greeks ambivalent in their attitude toward blindness or is the paradox only apparent? Where should we look for a solution to this paradox if such a solution can be found?

To answer these and many other similar questions, an analytical survey of Greek literature, including only the most significant cases of works which evince the importance of blindness, is necessary. Such a study should concentrate on the figures of blind poets and blind seers, who, more than others, personify and anbody Greek beliefs about blindness. This will entail discussion of Greek attitudes towards blindness and the blind—both negative and positive—and, as a result of this discussion, an understanding and interpretation of the recurrence of blindness on the Greek stage and, in particular, the significance which blindness has for Sophocles will be reached. The interpretation of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, will, for example, make better sense not only to those who accept the play as a masterpiece, but also to those seeking a more general understanding of Greek culture. Blindness can be a key to understanding Greek thought in general and Sophoclean thought in particular, provided that we assign it its proper place in the imaginative world of the Greeks, and, even more important, within the feeling-range of the Greek heart. [1]

To understand the attitudes towards blindness and the blind in Greek culture, we must study the extant Greek literature, but we do not have to document the conditions faced by real blind people in everyday life. Thus I am not concerned with ascertaining whether the condition of the blind was identical with that presented in literature. Whether the blind are presented more favorably or negatively in literature than in real life is not my concern here. My purpose in this study is merely to examine and understand Greek thought on the subject of blindness and how they presented the blind in their literature. One more point. The fact that this study is not meant to examine exhaustively the situation in which actual blind people in ancient Greece found themselves does not, (indeed should not) prevent us from drawing conclusions about these real life situations. I believe that attitudes, beliefs and ideas in literature (as in any form of cultural inheritance) generally reflect rather accurately the society which created them. And it is safe to draw conclusions about real, everyday, life-situations and beliefs about the blind from the way in which they are presented on stage, talked about in philosophical discussions, defended or prosecuted in the court rooms, sung about in poetry, or referred to by common people (in those surviving dialogues that purport to represent everyday conversation). Prom the surviving literary monuments, as well as from what remains in the graphic arts, it is obvious that there were blind beggars in the streets of classical Athens, and that the figure of the blind poet or seer was not simply the creation of the Greek imagination. The average Greek must somewhere have seen some blind poet reciting Homer by heart; hence, we may suppose, the persistence of the belief that Homer was blind. The average Greek had surely consulted some blind seer or at least had known of someone who had; if not, the figure of Teiresias would not have persisted so vividly through the centuries—from Homer to Plutarch (who finally informs us how the oracle of Teiresias came, at last, to an end).

When we notice how many of these Greek attitudes are still alike and well in contemporary America and how persistently they have been perserved through centuries of Western culture, we can reasonably assume that they were present in everyday life, not simply in literature. But, no matter how advisable it is to draw some conclusions about real life situations of the blind from extant Greek literature, that is not our primary concern.[2]

The ancient beliefs concerning blindness not only survived quite unchanged through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the modern era, but are clearly present in contemporary America. The fact that such Greek beliefs are present in modern everyday social interactions strongly suggests that Greek attitudes expressed in literature must also have been present in Greek society as well.[3]"A number of studies attest to the lingering power of certain ancient superstitions regarding blindness.[4]

Before we turn to the famous blind characters in Greek literature,[5] it might be helpful to mention some of the many historical figures who, though blind, achieved greatness[6]. John Milton wrote his most famous work Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes - while blind. That he obviously viewed his blindness as extreme suffering can be gathered from the Samson Agonistes and he also compared himself with the great blind poets and prophets of antiquity. William Hickling Prescott (1796-1859) wrote his history while blind. A living example is the Argentine poet, critic and novelist, Jorge Luis Borges, whose writings (most of them composed during the long years of his blindness) have achieved world-wide fame. More than his works, his very person is a witness to what a blind aoidos must have been in Homeric times [7].

Since our main task is to become acquainted with the blind characters immortalized by Greek literature, we should refrain from further elaboration on other historical figures. As we move on to the ancient Greek world, we should note that, as Greek literature must reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the society which created it, so other forms of art, such as graphic arts, may be expected to reflect similar themes and motifs. Even though the study of such monuments belongs to some other work, it might be useful to note that the blind characters who appear again and again in Greek literature are also preserved in surviving painting and sculpture.

The pathos of blindness as punishment is depicted in the scene of a Lapith gouging out the eye of a Centaur [8]. The very familiar blinding of the Cyclops Polyphemus is also preserved in painting on a mixing bowl of the fifth century, on an Attic funerary urn of the seventh century, and on an Argive mixing bowl of the same period[9]. The figure of the blind harpist found in an Egyptian grave [10] can be considered characteristic of the Greek way of imagining such a figure. In Greece too this image of the blind bard was familiar. By a stroke of good fortune we have a most touching image of the blind poet Thamyris at the moment when he is throwing his lyre to the ground having broken its strings in despair after his defeat in the contest with the Muses. This scene as painted by Polygnotus has been described very vividly by Pausanias.[11]

The blind seer, Teiresias, has also survived his struggle with time and come down to us as the supreme seer. The Necromancy scene by Polygnotus found in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, depicted him among the dead, prophesying to Odysseus, and has been perserved on a vase from the Basilicata in the Louvre [12]. Polygnotus painted Phineus, too, who was blinded and rescued by the Boreads who chased the Harpyes away.[13]

It is certainly worthwhile to try to understand, to the extent possible, how, in a culture immersed in light, blindness gained such a conspicuous place. Coming as often as it did to the foreground of every aspect of Greek thought, art, literature, etc., blindness must have been significant in human experience and the blind very important in Greek culture. We should keep this in mind whenever we attempt to examine the meaning of blindness and the position of the blind in this "culture of light".


1. Cf. R- G. A. Buxton, "Blindness and Limits: Sophocles and the logic of myth," JHS vol. c (1980) 22-37 (especially 22 and 26). Buxton recognizes "blindness" as one of the most important motifs in Sophocles," as characteristic of his "mood" in all the extant plays. Sophocles' treatment of the "blindness motif," i.e., the way in which the dramatist "explored the implications of blindness," is examined against the background of the mythical tradition and is compared with fifth century Greek thought. Buxton observes that "in using the blindness motif, Sophocles was drawing on a theme fundamental to a large number of mythical narratives from the time of Homer to that of Pausanias, and beyond" (p. 22). Cf. p. 26 for a good presentation of the difficulties of placing "Sophocles' treatment of blindness within the wider context of Greek myth."

2. Cf. David Kirtley, The Psychology of Blindness, (Chicago, 1975). Kirtley examines attitudes "toward blindness," i.e., both the physical condition and the "concrete persons" of the blind. The points of view in this study are: historical, sociological, politico-economic, and especially psychoanalytic.

Kirtley's observations, especially where they concern Greek culture, are noteworthy precisely because offered by a non-classicist. The specialist may at times become tangled in specific details and thus lose sight of general truths. Kirtley says that (p. 63) "in summary, Western literature from ancient times to the eighteenth century, is consistent in its attitudes towards the blind. These are preponderantly derogatory, with only a handful of characters being viewed positively, owing to supernatural compensation, e.g. Teiresias in the plays of Sophocles and the bard Demodocus in Homer's Odyssey. However, whether favorable or unfavorable, the depictions of the blind are always substantially unrealistic."

3. See ibid. pp. 63 and 49. Kirtley claims that the predominant position occupied by the blind in the arts reflects fascination with blindness and shows the attitudes of others toward the blind; but it tells us very little regarding the "objective nature" of the condition. See pp. 2-3 where the author distinguishes the lot of blind poets and seers from that of ordinary blind people in ancient Greece. The latter were less fortunate, of course.

4. See ibid, pp. 1-3 for Kirtley's comparison of Greek attitudes with those of other ancient cultures. In Hebrew culture, for example, the blind were considered as "living dead." But cf. p. 4 with regard to Chinese and Indian traditions, very similar to the Greek. They had beggars also and blind poets and seers as well, whom they viewed as transmitters of their traditions and cultures.

5. See ibid., pp. 93-107.

6. Ibid, pp. 121-2 for famous blind people in antiquity, pp. 123-6 for the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and pp. 127-34 for the modern era.

7. On April 19, 1983, Jorge Luis Borges lectured at the John Hopkins University "On Walt Whitman." Cf. John Hopkins Magazine, 34. no. 3 (1983), p. 44. Even more significant, Borges himself said that he viewed his blindness as a positive force for his creative work, when during a question-and-answer period, he was asked: "Do you view your blindness as an asset, an obstacle, or as irrelevant to your creative work?" In China, the blind Tsoch-Iumingg, historian and follower of Confucius, was "the father of Chinese prose" as- Homer was the founder of Greek poetry, see Kirtley, op. cit. p. 121 f.

There are many more examples of blind poets who cannot be mentioned here. An example which should be mentioned, however, is Phillip the Blind, the early 19th century Serbian guslar who knew by heart all the songs of his homeland, "In Serbia, even in the very recent past, the blind practice the profession of singer-bards, and as the ancient aoedoe played the kithara and harp, the Serbians use the gusla." See A. Esser, Das Antlitz der Blindheit in der Antike, 2nd edition, (Leiden, 1961), p. 97. (This translation from Esser's book and all subsequent translations are my own.)

8. See ibid., p. 68, n. 198. Esser observes that we may have here "the most ancient depiction of such an event." See ibid., plate 4, for the scene of the blinding of the Centaur.

9. For a depiction of the blinding of Polyphemus, see ibid, p. 57, n. 131. It depicts the drawing found on a "mixing vessel of the fifth century from the Cook collection in Richmond," and the blinding of Polyphemus is also depicted on an Attic grave-vase of the 7th century in the museum at Eleusis. The Same scene is discovered on another fragment of a mixing bowl now at the Museum of Argos, which also dates back to the 7th century B.C. In Esser the blinding of Polyphenus is shown on plate 3.

See Esser, op. cit. plate 5, p. 97, n. 387, for the relief of the Egyptian blind harpist discovered at the grave of Pa-aten-em-heb, New Reign, 18th dynasty, and now in Rijksmuseum-van Oudheden, Leiden.

See ibid., plate 6, p. 97, n. 389. (This picture is illustrated in Emmanuel Loewy, Polygnot (Vienna, 1929, plate 23.) Pausanias1 description of this scene is depicted by Polygnotus in the Lesche of the temple of Apollo at Delphi (Paus. 10. 30. 8; cf. 4. 33. 3). This motif is also depicted on a painting in the Grove of the Muses on Helicon (9. 30. 2). (The Loewy plate is taken from a vase painting at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.)

12. See Esser, op. cit., plate 7, p. 101, n. 409. See Loewy, op. cit., plate 24.

13. See Esser, op. cit., plate no. 8, p. 102, n. 417. See Loewy, op. cit. plate 31 A. Polygnotus' painting was discovered in the temple of the Dioscuri in Athens. Loewy's plate is taken from a vase painting of the Jatta collection in Ruvo. Pausanias (5. 17. 11) describes the picture of Phineus at the temple of Hera at Olympia.


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