Sisyphus: Core Reading

Persephone supervising Sisyphus (ancient vase painting)

Sisyphus is a figure in Greek mythology who is most famous for his punishment: to push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down every time. The oldest surviving source about Sisyphus is the Odyssey (ca. 8th century BCE). Odysseus, the hero, visits the underworld, where the souls of the dead live. Greek religion at this time did not have the idea of a “good place” and a “bad place,” just one big wasteland with everyone together. The dead people Odysseus talks to seem bored and regretful, with nothing to do but reminisce about their lives. (There was a nicer place called the Isles of the Blessed where certain special individuals got to go, but this was not determined by being good, but by proximity to the gods. Elsewhere in the Odyssey, we learn that Helen of Troy will get to go there because she is Zeus’ daughter, and her husband Menelaus will get to go with her because he is her husband). In the Underworld, people who committed particularly bad crimes (usually crimes against the gods, not their fellow humans) are punished with tailor-made punishments. Odysseus sees Sisyphus among a few of these famous transgressors. The first one he describes is Tityus:

“And I saw Tityus, Earth’s glorious son, lying
in the plain, and sprawled over nine acres. Two vultures,
sitting one on either side, were tearing his liver,
plunging inside the caul. With his hands he could not beat them
away. He had manhandled Leto, the honored consort
of Zeus, as she went through spacious Panopeus, toward Pytho.”

Odyssey 11.576-581
Apollo and Artemis rescue Leto from Tityus (ancient vase painting)

Tityus’s crime was trying to rape Leto, a goddess, the mother of Apollo and Artemis. His punishment is to spend eternity with his body stretched out over nine acres while vultures eat his liver. So Tityus is punished for a body-related crime with a body-related punishment. The next is Tantalus:

“And I saw Tantalus also, suffering hard pains, standing
In lake water that came up to his chin, and thirsty
As he was, he tried to drink, but could capture nothing;
For every time the old man, trying to drink, stooped over,
The water would drain away and disappear, and the black earth
Showed at his feet, and the divinity dried it away. Over
His head trees with lofty branches had fruit like a shower
descending,
Pear trees and pomegranate trees and apple trees with fruit shining,
And figs that were sweet and olives ripened well, but each time
The old man would straighten up and reach with his hands for them,
The wind would toss them away toward the clouds overhanging.”

Odyssey 11.582-592
Underworld scene, Tantalus in lower right corner (ancient vase painting)
Detail of Tantalus reaching for fruit (anceint vase painting)

Tantalus’ crime is not specified here. One version of his story is that he invited the gods to dinner but, to prove that he was smarter than them, he murdered his son and tried to trick them into eating his flesh. They were not tricked and brought his son back to life. Another version is that he was invited to dine with the gods and to share their special foods, nectar and ambrosia, but he stole some of these divine foods and tried to give them to other humans. Either way, he is being punished for a food-related crime with a food-related punishment. Now we come to Sisyphus:

“Also I saw Sisyphus. He was suffering strong pains,
And with both arms embracing the monstrous stone, struggling
With hands and feet alike, he would try to push the stone upward
To the crest of the hill, but when it was on the point of going
Over the top, the force of gravity turned it backward,
And the pitiless stone rolled back down to the level. He then
Tried once more to push it up, straining hard, and sweat ran
All down his body, and over his head a cloud of dust rose.”

Odyssey 11.593-600

His punishment of pushing a stone uphill over and over but never reaching the top is described vividly, but his crime is not specified. Let’s look at other versions to find out what he could have done to deserve this. One source is Apollodorus’ Library, an anthology of myths from the 2nd century CE:

“But Sisyphus is punished in Hades by rolling a stone with his hands and head in the effort to heave it over the top; but push it as he will, it rebounds backward. This punishment he endures for the sake of Aegina, daughter of Asopus; for when Zeus had secretly carried her off, Sisyphus is said to have betrayed the secret to Asopus, who was looking for her.”

To unpack this a bit, Sisyphus’ crime in this version is that he told on Zeus, the king of the gods, for abducting Aegina, the daughter of Asopus, a river god. Sisyphus sees that Zeus has carried her off, and when her father comes looking for her, he tells him who took her. Some versions add that he did this in exchange for Asopus making a spring for his city. For this, Zeus punishes him with rolling the stone. Another version, preserved in a marginal note (these are called “scholia”) to the Iliad, tells about even more of his crimes:

“While Zeus was carrying Aegina, the daughter of Asopus, from Phlios to Oinone via Corinth, Sisyphus revealed to Asopus, when he asked, the theft of his daughter. And through this he made Zeus angry at him. Then he (Zeus) sent Death after him (Sisyphus). But when Sisyphus bound this one (Death) in strong chains, it came about that no one was dying, until Ares released Death, and handed Sisyphus over to him. But before he died, he ordered his wife, Merope, to disregard the usual burial customs for him. And after the time when his wife had not done right by Sisyphus, Hades, when he learned about it, sent him back so that he could blame his wife. But when he got to Corinth, he did not go back. And when he was old and died, Hades forced him to roll a rock, until it did not roll back.”

This version includes the same story about Asopus and Aegina, but it continues on from there. Zeus sends Death after Sisyphus because of his betrayal, but Sisyphus manages to chain Death up (in some versions he tricks him by challenging him to chain himself up to show how strong the chains are). While Death is chained up, no one can die, which is a problem for Ares, the god of war. Ares releases Death from the chains and he comes for Sisyphus again. This time Sisyphus goes to the underworld, but he has instructed his wife not to bury his body. This would normally be an extreme and reprehensible dishonor, so he is able to use his wife’s apparent neglect to get Hades to let him return to life to reprimand her. However, once he is back in the world of the living, he simply stays until he dies of old age. When he finally dies, he is punished for tricking and evading death with rolling the stone.

So all three of the transgressors have punishments that fit their crimes. Tityus, who dared to violate the body of a goddess, endures a horrible violation of his own body. Tantalus, who defied the gods either by trying to trick them into eating the most forbidden and polluted food of human flesh, or by trying to steal their special divine food, is tortured with eternal hunger and thirst, made even worse by the tempting presence of food and water.

Persephone and Hades supervising Sisyphus (ancient vase painting)

As for Sisyphus, his first crime was to reveal compromising information about Zeus. Zeus, who is often called “all-seeing,” finds himself in the embarrassing situation of having been seen by a human doing something that he wanted to keep secret. The usual way in Greek myths is that gods behave however they want and treat humans however they want (especially gods raping human women) with no consequences. So, by telling Asopus that Zeus is the one who stole his daughter, Sisyphus flips this hierarchy just a little bit. Then he goes on to cheat Death twice. The first time he imprisons Death, making it so that no one can die. This is a huge disturbance of the natural order. The second time, he uses Hades’ respect for the importance of proper burial customs to evade death a second time. He is tricky, cynical, and irreverent. Overall, his crimes all have to do with being uppity and ambitious, not accepting his place as a human who is less powerful and knowledgeable than the gods and who must eventually die. Having moved up and down between the underworld and the upper world when he was not supposed to, he is doomed to struggle up and down the hill forever. Just as the gods have tried and tried to punish him and put him in his place, only for him to evade them again, he must now try and try to move the stone, but always see his work undone.

Sisyphus: Additional Materials

Sisyphus: Creative Prompt