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?)

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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!

 

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)

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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)

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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!