As promised, today we are looking at Tantalus and his story of how he ended up in Tartarus and what his punishment is. The myth of Tantalus is fairly simple and straightforward though comes with a couple of variations. I will also mention a few additional myths that tie in with, and stem from, Tantalus.
Tantalus was the son of Zeus and the nymph Pluto (not the same figure as the Roman God of the Underworld). Another strand of the myth states that it was Tmolos, the Mountain God, who was the father of Tantalus though Zeus seems to be the most popular version.
He would become King of Lydia and have three children, Broteas, Niobe and Pelops. As we saw with Sisyphus though, to wind up in Tartarus you have to do something pretty bad and there are, again, a couple of version of the Tantalus myth, one much darker than the other. (SPOILER, the darker one is WAY cooler!)
One of the versions is that he had shared the secrets of gods with men and that he had tried to share ambrosia with his friends. While this doesn’t sound that terrible, it must be remembered that the gods hated mortals who challenged them or displayed hubris (excessive pride and self-confidence). Ambrosia was the food of the gods and was considered something only they could eat. It was supposed to give immortality to those who ate it and here we can see why it would have been such a slight against the gods.
The darker version is much more interesting. The story goes that at a feast for the gods, Tantalus cut up his son, Pelops, cooked him and fed him to the gods. Cannibalism was taboo and thus a major slight against the gods. Zeus spotted the deception but not before the goddess Demeter had mistakenly devoured his left shoulder. Afterwards, Pelops would be revived by the Fates by boiling all his parts in a pot. As for his shoulder, that could not be saved and he was given one made of ivory instead. He ended up rising to power and living a prosperous life. He is an important figure in myth and his descendants include the likes of Herakles, Theseus and Agamemnon.
The story does not end as well for Tantalus. Zeus cast him down to Tartarus and his eternal punishment was to stand in a lake with delicious fruit hanging above his head. Sounds alright, doesn’t it? Well, each time he bent down to take a drink to quench his thirst, the lake dried up and each time he raised his hands to pick one of the delicious fruits off a branch, a wind would blow it well out of reach.
That should be the end of the myth but as a bonus I will mention what became of Tantalus’ other two children Broteas and Niobe. Broteas was a hunter and, according to Apollodorus, failed to honour Artemis and boasted that fire could not harm him. Artemis drove him mad and Broteas threw himself into a fire. It didn’t end well for him.
Niobe displayed hubris by considering herself as beautiful as Leto, the mother of the twin Olympians, Apollo and Artemis. She had twelve children and as punishment for her boastful ways, Apollo killed her six sons and Artemis killed her six daughters. It is said that the bodies of her children were not buried for nine days and left to lie in their own blood until, on the tenth day, the gods decided to bury them. During this time, Niobe did not eat and wept with grief constantly. In another version, Artemis was kinder and left one daughter alive.
And that’s that. The myth of Tantalus. There’s a lot of information in this post with a number of different characters but I thought it was worth it. Greek myths are rarely isolated and are so interesting that it’s easy to get lost in talking about associations and ties with other myths. Hopefully I didn’t go too far down the rabbit hole with this one.
That’s all from me, folks. Thanks for reading. Still to come in this mini-series of punishment in Tartarus are Ixion, Salmoneus, Tityus and The Danaides so be sure not to miss them and if you haven’t yet read about the fate of Sisyphus, you can do so here. And if you find all that just hunky dory, you can follow me on Facebook or Twitter. I’m pretty hungry so I’m going to pounce on a nearby apple before a heavenly wind blows it away!