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Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 1494)

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus (Greek: Σίσυφος [sí.sy.phos] Ell-Sisyfos.ogg ['] , Latinized: Sisyphus, (IPA: /ˈsɪsɨfəs/)), was a king punished in Tartarus by being cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity.

Today, Sisyphean can be used as an adjective meaning that an activity is unending and/or repetitive. It could also be used to refer to tasks that are pointless and unrewarding.


[edit] The myth

Sisyphus was son of the king Aeolus of Thessaly and Enarete, and the founder and first king of Ephyra (Corinth). He was the father of Glaucus by the nymph Merope, and the grandfather of Bellerophon.

Sisyphus promoted navigation and commerce, but was avaricious and deceitful, violating the laws of hospitality by killing travelers and guests. He took pleasure in these killings because they allowed him to maintain his dominant position. From Homer onwards, Sisyphus was famed as the craftiest of men. He seduced his niece, took his brother's throne and betrayed Zeus's secrets. Zeus then ordered Thanatos to chain Sisyphus in Tartarus. Sisyphus slyly asked Thanatos to try the chains to show how they worked. When Thanatos did so, Sisyphus secured them and threatened him. This caused an uproar, and no human could die until Ares (who was annoyed that his battles had lost their fun because his opponents would not die) intervened, freeing Thanatos and sending Sisyphus to Tartarus.

However, before Sisyphus died, he had told his wife to throw his naked body into the middle of the public square in attempt to test his wife's love for him. Annoyed by the obedience and loveless decision by his wife, Sisyphus persuaded Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, to allow him to go back to the upper world and scold his wife for not burying his body like a loving wife would. When Sisyphus returned to Corinth, he refused to retreat back to the underworld and was forcibly dragged back to the underworld by Hermes. In another version of the myth, Persephone was directly persuaded that he had been conducted to Tartarus by mistake and ordered him to be freed.[1]

Greek underworld
Famous Inmates

[edit] "Sisyphean task" or "Sisyphean challenge"

As a punishment from the gods for his trickery, Sisyphus was compelled to roll a huge rock up a steep hill, but before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down again, forcing him to begin again.[2] The maddening nature of the punishment was reserved for Sisyphus due to his hubristic belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus. Sisyphus took the bold step of reporting one of Zeus's sexual conquests, telling the river god Asopus of the whereabouts of his daughter Aegina. Zeus had taken her away, but regardless of the impropriety of Zeus's frequent conquests, Sisyphus overstepped his bounds by considering himself a peer of the gods who could rightfully report their indiscretions.[3] As a result, Zeus displayed his own cleverness by binding Sisyphus to an eternity of frustration. Accordingly, pointless or interminable activities are often described as Sisyphean. Sisyphus was a common subject for ancient writers and was depicted by the painter Polygnotus on the walls of the Lesche at Delphi.[4]

[edit] Interpretations

According to the solar theory, Sisyphus is the disk of the sun that rises every day in the east and then sinks into the west.[5] Other scholars regard him as a personification of waves rising and falling, or of the treacherous sea.[5] The 1st-century BC Epicurean philosopher Lucretius interprets the myth of Sisyphus as personifying politicians aspiring for political office who are constantly defeated, with the quest for power, in itself an "empty thing," being likened to rolling the boulder up the hill.[6] Welcker suggested that he symbolises the vain struggle of man in the pursuit of knowledge, and S. Reinach[7] that his punishment is based on a picture in which Sisyphus was represented rolling a huge stone Acrocorinthus, symbolic of the labour and skill involved in the building of the Sisypheum. Albert Camus, in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, sees Sisyphus as personifying the absurdity of human life, but concludes "one must imagine Sisyphus happy" as "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."

[edit] Literary and other references

Ovid, the famous Roman poet, references Sisyphus in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. When Orpheus descends and confronts Hades and Persephone, he sings a song with the result of getting his wish of bringing Eurydice back. After this song is sung, Ovid shows how moving it was by noting that Sisyphus sat on his rock, the Latin wording being "inque tuo sedisti Sisyphe, saxo."[8]

Albert Camus, the French Absurdist, wrote an essay entitled The Myth of Sisyphus in which he elevates Sisyphus to the status of absurd hero.

Franz Kafka repeatedly referred to Sisyphus as a bachelor; the Kafkaesque for him were those qualities that brought out the Sisyphus-like qualities in himself. According to Frederick Karl: "The man who struggled to reach the heights only to be thrown down to the depths embodied all of Kafka's aspirations; and he remained himself, alone, solitary."[9]

In Gene Wolfe's Ancient Greece novel Soldier of Arete, the protagonist Latro encounters Sisyphus, observes him trying to lift the stone and fail, then succeeds in helping him carry the stone to the top of the hill.

Harlan Ellison's article "Rolling Dat Ole Debbil Stone", written about early video games, draws a parallel between the legend of Sisyphus and pointless video games that go on forever and never accomplish anything--just getting maybe a little further before you lose.

Also seen in Airborn by Kenneth Oppel in regard to the Sisyphus Triangle, similar to the Bermuda Triangle.

In ultra low temperature Physics, 'The Sisyphus Effect' involves the use of specially selected laser light, hitting atoms from various angles to both cool and trap them in a potential well, effectively 'rolling' the atom down a hill of potential energy until it has lost its kinetic energy[10].

The stone Sisiphus ended rolling up the hill, became the name of the title track and album for the American rock band Chicago titled Chicago XXXII: Stone of Sisiphys. It was a metaphor describing their career.

In Xena: Warrior Princess (season 1), the episode "Death in Chains" is loosely based on the myth of Sisyphus.

[edit] “Cheating Death” theme in other folk tales

The way in which Sisyphus cheated Death is not unique to his tale. Thus in a Venetian story the ingenious Beppo ties up Death in a bag and keeps him there for eighteen months; there is general rejoicing; nobody dies, and the doctors are in high feather. In a Sicilian story an innkeeper corks up Death in a bottle; so nobody dies for years, and the long white beards are a sight to see. In another Sicilian story a monk keeps Death in his pouch for forty years (T. F. Crane, Italian Popular Tales, 1885). The German parallel is Gambling Hansel, who kept Death up a tree for seven years, during which no one died (Grimm, Household Tales). The Norse parallel is the tale of the Master Smith (G. W. Dasent, Popular Tales from the Norse). For a Lithuanian parallel, see A. Schleicher, Litauische Märchen, Sprichworte, Rätsel und Lieder (1857); for Slavonic parallels, F. S. Krauss, Sagen und Märchen der Südslaven, ii. Nos. 125, 126; see also Frazer's Pausanias, iii. p. 33; O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie (1906), ii., p. 1021, note 2.[5]

[edit] References

  1. ^ Bernard Evslin's Gods, Demigods & Demons, 209-210
  2. ^ Odyssey, xi. 593
  3. ^ Edith Hamilton's Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, 312-313
  4. ^ Pausanias x. 31
  5. ^ a b c  "Sisyphus". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911. 
  6. ^ De Rerum Natura III
  7. ^ Revue archéologique, 1904
  8. ^ Ovid. Metamorphoses, 10.44.
  9. ^ Karl, Frederick. Franz Kafka: Representative Man. New York: Fromm International Publishing Corporation, 1991.
  10. ^

[edit] See also

Other figures in Greek mythology punished by the gods include:

[edit] Sources

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