De-myth-ify: Sisyphus (Part One)

Let’s talk about some classic Greek mythology, a story from Homer’s Iliad of a man immortalised after his death, today. This is part one of a two-part series on Sisyphus.

For the previous series of posts on Perseus and Medusa in the De-myth-ify series, click here.

Today’s story is quite different from the ones we have discussed before. For one, this isn’t the story of a hero, of a good, brave guy just trying to exist without offending the gods, having a prophecy made about him or getting into other greek trouble. It’s someone who is quite literally the opposite, a man who lived to scorn the gods, did not care and just, wasn’t a great guy. His story is also quite different as in the most important part(and what he is known or) came after his death, after his story concluded. So, without further ado, let’s get into the story of the man who was in Homer’s words, “The most cunning of all men”, Sisyphus.

Sisyphus was the sly, deceitful and ruthless (and if you didn’t figure it out, very Slytherin) king of Corinth. He was super extravagant, lived in general disdain of and did not care about the wrath of the Greek gods (Which is almost I daresay, refreshing). To prove himself an iron-fisted ruler, he would often kill the guests and travellers that came to Corinth. (What else would you do?) This was a big no-no in Ancient Greece and a direct violation of Xenia, the concept of generosity and hospitality shown to guests. The patron of Xenia was Zeus(who you know, isn’t that great himself), who obviously was really angry with Sisyphus and wanted to punish him. Zeus ordered the God of Death, Thanatos to chain him up in Tartarus, the deep abyss in the Underworld, for all eternity. (Punishment fitting the crime indeed)

1200px-Jupiter_Smyrna_Louvre_Ma13
Zeus de Smyrne discovered in Smyrna in 1680.

When Thanatos came for him, genius trickster as he was, he asked Thanatos to demonstrate to him how the chains worked, trapped him in them and escaped. (Say what you will, but that is smooth) Since the literal personification of death was chained up, people stopped dying. You could be chopped up to bits and still make it to dinner. The gods were mortified and finally, Ares, the God of War went and freed Thanatos because with no one dying, his wars had become boring. (Great reasoning) So now, our protagonist has literally cheated death and effectively levelled up. Would you believe that he will cheat death one more time? (You’d think they’d learn, right?)

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Thanatos sculptured marble column drum from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, c. 325–300 BC

The second time around, Sisyphus instructed his wife, Merope to not perform the proper burial ceremonies for him after his death and throw his naked body in the middle of a public square as a test of her love( Seems a bit extra, but okay) Due to this, when he reached the Underworld, he manipulated the Queen Persephone into letting him go back to scold Merope and ensuring that the proper rites occur. She lets him go because she is great and then once back, he shows no signs of coming back to the land of the Dead. Thanatos is understandably too terrified of the man and thus refuses to go to bring him back and Sisyphus ends up living to a ripe old age. (I know he’s a murderer and stuff but what an icon)

AMI_-_Isis-Persephone
Statue of Persephone. Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete

When he finally died, the gods knew they weren’t going to let him go this time. Now, we get to the most famous part of the story, the part you knew, if nothing else about Sisyphus. He was eternally punished to push a boulder up a hill, futilely because as soon as he would reach near the top, the boulder would roll back down and he would have to start over from the bottom of the hill. (Not sure if the crime fits the punishment here exactly but we’ll get into that later) So, as the legend goes, Sisyphus is still at his hill in the Underworld, pushing a boulder up a hill, doing an arduous task that is doomed to fail. And on that, laboured(Ha!) note, we come to the end of the story of the very grey character that was Sisyphus.

To be continued.

THIS POST’S QUESTION: Do you think Sisyphus deserved his punishment? Why/Why not? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

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