De-myth-ify: Sisyphus (Part Two)

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 two of a two-part series on Sisyphus. If you haven’t read the previous part, do go and read Part One before you continue here.

Now that the story is done, let’s talk about it.

So, when we finished our story, Sisyphus was eternally damned to push a boulder and fail at it. This is also what Sisyphus has unwittingly become famous for. This story was quite different from the more ‘classical’ myths we have discussed before in many ways. Here, a guy brought his fate on himself, unlike Oedipus who was pretty much at the mercy of his terrible luck or Perseus who was destined to be a hero. For Sisyphus, he was seemingly receiving the ‘karma’, if you will, for his actions, i.e. his terrible fate came from his terrible actions. His life and decisions were completely in his control and he was (apparently) fully responsible for his punishment.

Although, it is never exactly stipulated what Sisyphus earned his punishment for; his scorn of the gods, his hatred of death or simply, upsetting the natural order of things? His punishment being fit for his crime is a controversial thing logically, at least in my mind because for that we have to consider which crime exactly he is being punished for. It seems like a teensy bit much, to eternally punish someone. (I know he was a murderer, he chained up death and stuff but still) Was it so harsh because the gods wanted to make an example out of him? To demotivate other mortals from trying to resist the natural order? To teach people to not incur the wrath of the gods and uphold their ideals; like Xenia? Is it really a justified punishment? This is all worth having a think over. (And maybe, Zeus if you’re listening, have a council answer?)

Sisyphus by Titian

Nevertheless, I could not discuss this story without bringing up the French philosopher Albert Camus’ very famous and revolutionary essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, which uses this myth to introduce and explain the philosophy of ‘absurd’. (I highly recommend giving it a read, it is very thought-provoking!) In this existentialist essay, Camus dissects the ethos of the myth and gets into the nitty-gritty of it. He brings up the fairness of Sisyphus’ punishment, much like we just discussed. He also puts forward that the story of Sisyphus can be considered a tragedy like Oedipus Rex but unlike that story where events transpired because of the character’s lack of awareness about their destiny, the myth of Sisyphus becomes tragic because Sisyphus is aware of the futility of his fate, of the uselessness of his labour. We can even see this aspect of this myth highlighted in modern linguistics like in English, a Sisyphean task is one that is considered laborious and futile; a task that can never be completed. (I love finding such things in everyday life, its almost like pop culture reference but for myths that are thousands of years old, how cool is that?)camus

Camus thinks of Sisyphus as an ‘absurd hero’.His fate is very much his because he knows that the boulder will roll back down every time and still, he persists. He doesn’t stop pushing it despite being aware that it is pointless and useless, and for that, according to Camus, he should be considered a hero in his own right. Being set up for failure and still persisting takes its own special kind of strength and is exactly what makes Sisyphus an ‘absurd’ hero. From here, he uses the absurdity of Sisyphus’ heroics to explain the philosophy of the absurd. Camus puts forth the idea that human life, as we know it is just as futile as Sisyphus’ punishment, if not more. We still try our hardest at it, we still live each day, we acquire resources, we build connections and we don’t stop, even though it is all utterly useless. Life is inherently devoid of meaning but humans since aeons ago have not and will not stop searching for it. This is the absurdity of the human affliction and the absurd nature of humanity’s existence. (I told you it was existentialist. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

As you might have realised, the genius of this myth is quite extraordinary. It might seem like such a small, dare I say, absurd(!) myth, but Homer really put forth a piece of genius through it. The more you delve into it, the more meanings you can find and the more wonderfully enlightened discussions you can have. It has been a joy to discuss this story and discover how much I had underappreciated it. With that, we come to the end of our journey with Sisyphus.

Until our next mythic adventure!

THIS POST’S QUESTION: What are your thoughts on Albert Camus’ philosophy of the ‘absurd’? Comment below with what you think about it,I’d love to hear from you!