Myth of the Week – Sisyphus
September 7, 2017
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Due to overwhelmingly unpopular demand, we are back. And when I say “we” I mean “I”, but it sounds much more impressive if I use the plural. And I know the question that’s on everyone’s lips… “Is he seriously still going on about this Greek Myth stuff? He might as well be flogging a dead (Trojan) horse.” The simple answer to that is, “Always”. Fans of Harry Potter will know what I mean. Anyway, let’s get back to the show.

I’ve decided to focus on some of the figures who committed crimes so great their punishment was to be sent to Tartarus in the Underworld. Tartarus is the deepest, darkest part of the Greek Underworld and ending up there means you must have really ticked off the wrong people. To give you an example, The Titans were imprisoned there. They were the generation of gods that existed before the Olympians and their war against the younger gods is known as the Titanomachy. But that’s all for another post. Just know that Tartarus is the worst place you can go, the place of eternal hardship, “The Dungeon of the Damned”. *

One such figure stuck in this place of damnation is Sisyphus. Sisyphus is a wonderful figure to learn about in myth. He was the crafty King of Corinth who managed to trick death…twice! If the gods hate one thing, it is being challenged and beaten by mortals and there are plenty of examples of this across Greek Mythology.

The first of Sisyphus’ deceptions happened after Zeus took the nymph Aegina. Her father, the River Asopos, was angered by this and travelled around looking for her. He was told by Sisyphus that Zeus was her captor in return for a spring in the Corinth acropolis. Zeus drove back the angry Asopos using his thunderbolts and confined him to his original bed. Zeus then ordered Thanatos, the personification of death (also the inspiration for Thanos, the supervillain in the Marvel comics universe) to tie him up in chains and cast him down to Tartarus. Sisyphus tricked Thanatos by asking him to first show him how the chains worked on himself. Thanatos ended up binding himself and as long as he was bound, no one on earth could die.

The second deception gods came when he persuaded Persephone – goddess of the Underworld and wife of Hades – to leave him revisit to earth temporarily as his wife had disrespected him in death. She allowed this to happen but soon after, Sisyphus refused to return to the Underworld and had to be forcibly dragged down by Hermes, the messenger god.

This is where his punishment comes in. Perhaps you’ve heard of the term, “Sisyphean task” which denotes an impossible task, similar to my attempts at procuring a literary agent. (I joke, I joke…well, not really.) Sisyphus believed he was smarter than Zeus at this point and was ordered to push a boulder up a hill for all eternity. Every time he got close to the top, it would roll all the way back down and he would have to start all over again. Try that CrossFitters!

The following is an excerpt from Book XI in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus descends into the Underworld:

“Then I witnessed the torture of Sisyphus, as he wrestled with a huge rock with both hands. Bracing himself and thrusting with hands and feet he pushed the boulder uphill to the top. But every time, as he was about to send it toppling over the crest, its sheer weight turned it back, and once again towards the plan the pitiless rock rolled down. So once more he had to wrestle with the thing and push it up, while the sweat poured form his limbs and dust rose high above his head.”

(Od, XI. 593-600)

Next time you’re having a bad day, just think about poor Sisyphus as he tries in vain to get that boulder to the top of the hill. Funnily enough, in 1942, the French philosopher Albert Camus, put forward the theory that Sisyphus is actually quite content in his struggles, reaching the conclusion in his essay, Le Mythe de Sisyphe that “All is well” and “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”. Somehow, I can’t really see it myself.

A point of note to make is that myths can have variations. For instance, in another version it is Hades who is tricked by Sisyphus. There are other accounts of the second deception, too, where Sisyphus maintained that he had been sent to Tartarus by mistake and convinced Persephone to release him. It’s worth knowing that these myths can change from writer to writer.

This mini-series on punishment in Tartarus will continue with Tantalus. (Sound like any word in the English language you know? That should give you a clue as to his punishment!) Other figures to be discussed are Ixion, Tityus, Salmoneus and The Danaides, though I will group some of these together as they are short.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed unexpected return to writing articles. If you’re in the mood, why not share it on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+, by smoke signals, carrier pigeon and through Morse code. You have so many options! You can also follow me on Facebook and Twitter. What a time to be alive!


* This phrase comes from the translation of 17th century English poet, George Sandys.

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