What is the myth of Sisyphus?

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Introduction

The Greek myths have so many remarkable and memorable characters, such as Hercules and Perseus. One of the most interesting of all is Sisyphus. He was a king, who was the embodiment of craftiness and guile. Sisyphus even attempted to outfox the Gods and even death. Not only are the tales about this monarch entertaining, they are important, in that they help us to learn about the Ancient Greek worldview. The Sisyphus myth has influenced modern culture and it has come to encapsulate some of the contradictions of the human condition and epitomizes its futility.

Sysphus pushing a rock on a Greek vase

The background to the myth

Like so many Greek mythical heroes, the origin of the tale probably belongs to the non-Greeks or Pelagasians who inhabited the area. It is also possible that the tales came from the Balkans or even Asia Minor. The etymology of the name means ‘the son of Aeolous’ The father of Sisyphus was King Aeolus, who was the legendary founder of the Aeolians and the mythical ruler of Magnesia in Thessaly and the son of the ancestor of all Greeks, Hellen, who was the grandson of Prometheus, the Titan. He had seven brothers and he married the Pleaid, Merope. He and his wife Glaucus, Ornytion, Thersander, Almus. Sisyphus was as clever as his grandfather Prometheus, but he was also cunning and dishonest. In many myths, he is portrayed as emigrating with his brothers from Aeolus and each sought to find their kingdom. It is possible that the figure of Sisyphus was based on a real historical figure. However, the real person upon whom the Sisyphean legends are based has been lost in the mists of time.

Thanthos Greek God of Death

The deeds of Sisyphus

Sisyphus founded, according to some sources the city of Ephyra, which was the original name of Corinth. Although other sources credit the foundation of the city to another mythological character. Corinth was to become one of the most important in all the Hellenic World and later founded many colonies. Sisyphus had great vision and he promoted navigation and trade. Later Corinth was to become famous for its merchants and ships. Later ages were to credit Sisyphus with the growth and prosperity of Corinth [1]. However, while he had many virtues’ he had also a great many vices. He was power-hungry, greedy, and cruel and is often portrayed as a tyrant. The son of Aeolous ruled with an iron fist and killed anyone who deified him. In ancient Greek it was considered essential that hospitality be extended to travelers and strangers, this was a characteristic of a civilized person. Moreover, travelers were protected by Zeus and anyone who ill-treated them was disrespecting the Olympian. Sisyphus was as greedy as he was cruel, and he often killed and robbed those who visited his palace. Anyone who asked for hospitality in Corinth was often murdered and his body disappeared. This was an act of hubris or disrespect against Zeus and he could not let the king go unpunished. However, the king of Ephyra was able to assuage Zeus, who spared his life. The king was so crafty that he could even get his way with the King of the Gods. Sisyphus began to covet the throne of his brother Salmoneus, who was king of Eilis. He even consulted the Oracle at Delphi on the best way to take his brother’s crown. Sisyphus came up with a terrible plan he first seduced Salmoneus daughter Tyro, (his niece) and had children with her. Then he encouraged her to join with him in deposing her father. Tyro was so enraged that she killed all her children. Sisyphus witnessed Zeus carry off the daughter of Aulous, a river god. He told the god what had happened on condition that he provided an eternal spring of water on the acropolis of Corinth. Aulous agreed and the city ruled by Sisyphus had a perennial supply of water. Then Zeus found out and he was so enraged that he ordered the God of Death, Thanatos, to take Sisyphus down to Tartarus, the eternal abyss, a kind of Greek Hell. When Sisyphus seeks Death approaching he immediately comes up with a plan. He sees the chains that are meant to bind him and he pretends to be interested in them, but then he suddenly binds Death. As a result, he manages to evade being hauled off to the Tartarus. It also meant that no human could die and people became immortal. Ares, the God of War was not pleased with this and he freed Thanthos and as a result, people began to die again. In another version of the myth Hades, the God of the Underworld is bound by Sisyphus and he was freed by the Olympian Gods [2]. Because of his actions, Sisyphus knew that he would suffer greatly after death. So, he came up with a plan, he told his loving wife that when he died that he was to be thrown unburied and naked. This was a terrible thing in the eyes of the Greeks and was considered to be impious and his faithful spouse initially resisted this request. His wife did what she was told and when he died Sisyphus ended on the River Styx, which formed the boundary between life and death. Here he went to see Persephone, the wife of Hades, the god of the underworld [3]. Sisyphus then w complained to her that his wife had buried him without due respect and had ignored the burial rites that had been ordained by the gods. Persephone was shocked and she permitted the king to return to the realm of the living. Sisyphus, ever resourceful had deceived the goddess, and he had once again cheated death. The king returned to Corinth and resumed his life. He began to boast that he was even smarter than the king of the Gods and his arrogance knew no bounds. The king began to terrorize the populace of Corinth and killed anyone who opposed him. However, he had offended the Olympian gods one too many times. Zeus was no longer prepared to tolerate Sisyphus and in one account he ordered Hermes, the Messenger of the Gods, to haul him back to Tartarus [4].

Albert Camus

The fiendish punishment of Sisyphus

The King of Corinth had shown hubris against the gods and this could not be tolerated by Zeus. A human who refused to die was attempting to act and behave like a God. The King of the Olympians could not allow humans to cheat death, this would be against the cosmic order. He decided to punish him most ingeniously. The Olympian ordered Hades to drag Sisyphus down to Tartarus and ordained that he should never again see the light. This was not enough for the repeated crimes and offenses of the Corinthian King. Zeus ordered that Sisyphus spend all of the eternity pushing a huge boulder, many times his size up a steep hill. This involved Sisyphus pushing the rock uphill and it was excruciating[5]. This was physically demanding and resulted in a great deal of suffering. However, the former king was also intended to suffer spiritually and psychologically. Because every time that Sisyphus would finally place the boulder at the top of the hill, it would come crashing down. The man who tried to cheat death was forced to repeat the feat again and again. He was condemned to repeat this futile task again and again. In Greek mythology, many heroes like Orpheus and gods, such as Dionysus, traveled to the underworld [6]. Many of them would visit Sisyphus, who was famous for his cunning and his intelligence. The myths relate that he had become immensely wise, as he had reflected on existence, during his endless punishment. Most stories told about the former King of Corinth relate that he remained in the underworld and is still rolling a huge rock up a sheer hill. However, there are other legends that state that Zeus relented and allowed him to return to the world of men. In one story, it is told that Sisyphus is the father of Odysseus. Both men were renowned for their craftiness and cunning and this may have led some poets or mythographers to suppose that they were father and son.

The meaning of the myth

The story of Sisyphus is one that has fascinated people for millennia. This is evident in the many artworks on the legendary figure and he even appears in the Odyssey of Homer [7]. There are many interpretations of the story of Sisyphus. Some believe that the legends are a warning to all kings who were tyrants and who did not obey the divine laws. As we have seen from the tales about him, he is something of a ‘cultural hero’ in Greek mythology. He is someone who can benefit humans with his knowledge. In the case of Sisyphus,’ he helped humans by showing them the benefits of trade and navigation at sea. However, his story is a cautionary one, while the intellect and reason many benefit humanity, it can also lead to their downfall. Sisyphus is too clever by half and this means that he is always disobeying the gods. The man who founded Corinth was so clever that he believed that he could cheat and deceive the gods, but even he the most cunning of men eventually was punished by Zeus. The moral of this myth is that humans, no matter how clever they are, must abide by the laws of the Olympians, Then in the story of how Sisyphus cheated death, there was a lesson for the Greeks and other ancient peoples. Death was allotted to humanity and it is their destiny. There is no point trying to deny death or else people could face something even worse, like the terrible punishment of the former king of Corinth. Another interpretation of the myth is that it illustrates the sheer futility of existence [8]. The story of the ex-king who must push a rock up to the crest of a cliff, only for it to fall again, for no purpose illustrated the futility of life. Humans struggle and work hard and yet achieve nothing, their existence is boring, hard, and serves no purpose. Many thinkers and philosophers have been drawn to the myth because of this. The modern French Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus wrote a celebrated essay entitled ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. He argued that while the former monarch was doomed to spend his life on a futile task, yet he could still find meaning in life. Camus wrote that Sisyphus could reflect on life during his task and in this way, he comes to accept the futility of his task. In this way, he becomes reconciled to his life and even gave it some meaning. The French philosopher drew parallels between the Greek’s fate and that of modern men and women. He argued that like Sisyphus that they too could find meaning and satisfaction, even in the most absurd conditions and adverse circumstances[9].

Conclusion

The myth of Sisyphus is little known, although many have heard of his punishment and are familiar with the image of him pushing a huge rock. This fable is important because it allows us to understand something of the Greek mindset. In the figure of the cunning king, they saw many qualities that they admired such as resourcefulness and bravery. However, they also knew that his story was a lesson, on how humans need to respect their gods and accept their fate. This story demonstrates how myths can help us to understand the human condition. It illustrates how futile and absurd all human endeavors can be. This is why the figure pushing a massive stone up a cliff for all eternity has continued to fascinate so many. The legend of Sisyphus is still relevant to the Late Modern World, even though it originated in Greece over 2,500 years ago.

Further reading

Veyne, Paul. Did the Greeks believe in their myths?: An essay on the constitutive imagination. University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Wei-Wei, Li. "Wu Gang and Sisyphus: Differences and Similarities in the Cultural Background of Their Myths [J]." Journal of Dongguan University of Technology 4 (2007).

References

  1. Graves, Robert. Greek Myths (London, Pelican, 1985), p. 113
  2. Homer, The Iliad, V
  3. Pausanias, Description of Greece, vi
  4. Pausanias, vi
  5. Pausanias, vi
  6. Ovid. Metamorphoses, viii
  7. Homer, The Odyssey, vi
  8. Raffalovich, Daniel C. "The deaths of Sisyphus: structural analysis of a classical myth." Anthropologica (1988): 87-93
  9. Camus, Albert. The myth of Sisyphus. Penguin UK, 2013