The Myth of Sisyphus, the king who cheated death twice

Sisyphus

Sisyphus in Greek mythology | Image: Sisyphus (1548–49) by Venetian painter Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

From a beautiful woman that was turned into a hideous spider to a second generational Titan whose liver was eaten up by an eagle every night only for it to be regenerated the following day, Greek mythology abounds with stories of the gods inflicting severe punishment on anyone who subverted their authority. One such example of a cruel punishment inflicted by the gods came upon Sisyphus, the cunning king of Corinth.

Who is Sisyphus?

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the ruler of Corinth who outsmarted death on two occasions. For his cunningness, the gods punished him by forcing him to roll a massive boulder up a hill in the underworld. He was given such a terrible punishment because he somehow believed that he was smarter than the gods. As expected, Greek gods always cracked the whip whenever someone showed any sign of hubris towards the gods.

Perhaps this trait of Sisyphus was derived from his ancestor Prometheus, the second generational Titan who stole fire from the sacred hearth of Mount Olympus and then gifted that fire to mankind.

Meaning

It has been stated that Sisyphus’ name was derived from an ancient Greek word sophos, which means “wise”.  Other scholars have argued that the name came from sisys, which means the skin of a goat. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus and his ancestors are considered the founders of the Aeolian tribe, one of the four major tribes of the ancient Greeks.

Birth story and family

Famously known in the myth as the descendant of the cunning Titan Prometheus, Sisyphus was the mortal king from Ephyra (known as Corinth, located in south-central Greece). In the myth, he is said to be the son of Aeolus of Thessaly and Enarete. Sisyphus’ father, Aeolus, was the ruler of Aeolia (also known as Thessaly); while his mother, Enarete, was the daughter of Deimachus.

Sisyphus had a number of siblings, including Cretheus, Athamas, and Salmoneus. He and those three siblings were regarded as the patrons of the four main branches of the Aeolic race.

By his wife the Pleiad Merope, he fathered a number of children, including Ornytion, Glaucus, Almus, and Sinon. Through his son Glaucus, Sisyphus is the grandfather of Bellerophon, one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology. Minyas, another grandson of Sisyphus, is credited in the myth as the founder of Orchomenus (also known as Boeotia).

From his father’s side, he can trace his roots to the Greek Titan Prometheus. Thus his great-grandfather Deucalion was the son of Prometheus and Clymene.

Merope – Sisyphus’ wife

Sisyphus’ wife Merope is one of the seven Pleiades. The Pleides are the daughters of Titan Atlas and the Oceanid nymph Pleione. The latter is daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. The names of the seven Pleiades are Electra, Taygete, Maia, Celaeno, Alcynone, Sterope, and Merope.

In one account of the myths, the mighty Boeotian hunter Orion fell head over heels with all the seven Pleiades. Orion then pursued them until Zeus finally stepped in to protect the women. Apparently the goddess Artemis had asked her father Zeus to protect the Pleiades. Zeus proceeded to turn the Pleiades into stars. Disappointed that she could not be with her companions the Pleiades, Artemis asked her brother Apollo to kill Orion since the hunter was the one responsible for the Pleiades’ problem in the first place.

In one of the myths, Merope followed her husband Sisyphus to the underworld.

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A cunning ruler

Under his reign, Ephyra prospered and became a leading city in the region, famous for its trade and sea commerce. Sisyphus was however not so beloved by his subjects. The king had the habit of killing travelers that innocently wandered into his kingdom. His wanton habits and autocratic rule became a huge concern to the gods.

He was certainly the smartest in his kingdom. Rather than use those gifts of his positively, he chose to use them to terrorize his subjects, including his brother Salmoneus. According to the myth, he consulted the oracle at Delphi to find out the best way to eliminate Salmoneus without bringing upon himself the wrath of the gods. He also went behind his brother’s back on many occasions.  He even fathered a number of children with Salmoneus’ wife Princess Tyro. Filled with utter regret, Tyro ended up killing those children.

Sisyphus and Zeus

One day Sisyphus was standing in the balcony of his magnificent palace when he witnessed Zeus’s powerful eagle adopt the Asopid Aegina, the daughter of the river god Asopus. With his daughter missing, Asopus searched everywhere in a bid to find the girl.

It happened that particular moment in time, Sisyphus and his kingdom were suffering from a water crisis. The king then thought of an idea. He would bargain with the river god Asopus by revealing the whereabouts of Aegina to the river god. In exchange for that information, the king demanded Asopus caused a spring to flow through his kingdom. Asopus quickly accepted to Sisyphus’ offer.

Zeus, like many of the Olympian gods, was the last being in the cosmos a mortal dreamed of trifling with. As expected Zeus went absolutely livid over Sisyphus’ betrayal and interference with matters of the gods. Zeus, the king of the Olympians, ordered Thanatos (Death) to prepare a place in Tartarus where the mortal king would be chained up for the rest of eternity.

Sisyphus and Death

Just as Thanatos was about to shackle King Sisyphus to his chains in the underworld, the shrewd king asked the god of death for one last favor. He asked if Thanatos could demonstrate how the chains would work. A trusting Thanatos obliged and shackled himself.  Sisyphus, having tricked death, left the underworld and went back to his kingdom.

With Thanotos chained and unable to perform his duty, no mortal on earth died. Wars were fought and not a single human died. The absence of death enraged Ares, the Greek god of war. Ares journeyed down to the underworld and quickly released Thanatos from his shackles. Ares then dragged Sisyphus out of his palace and turned the sly king over to Thantos.

Sisyphus’ second running with Death

After cheating Death, Sisyphus was fully aware that it was only a matter of time before the gods broke Death free. It meant that Death was bound to come for him again. So just before Ares had presented Sisyphus to Death, the cunning king ordered his wife to dispose of his body in the street. He ordered that his body be not giving the appropriate burial right befitting of a king.

When Sisyphus arrived in the underworld, he quickly knelt before Hades and Persephone, i.e. king and queen of the underworld. Sisyphus pleaded his case, saying that his wife disrespected him by failing to give his body the proper funeral right. He then asked for permission to go back to the land of the living in order to conduct those necessary funeral rights. Sisyphus’ request was granted, and the king went back up to the land of the living, cheating death once again.

The punishment of Sisyphus

With Sisyphus refusing to return to the underworld, the gods dispatched Hermes to drag the mortal king of Corinth back to the underworld. This time around the gods made sure not to fall for any more shenanigans by Sisyphus.

For tricking Thanatos (Death) twice, Sisyphus was handed a terrible punishment in the Underworld. Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, made him roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it came close to the top. The mortal king was consigned to doing this over and over again for eternity.

Did you knowThe word Sisyphean in English is used to describe a back-breaking and pointless activity?

More myths and facts

A number of authors, including French philosopher Albert Camus, have interpreted the myth of Sisyphus and his punishment as a metaphor for the absurd. Image: Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attic black-figure amphora, c. 530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen

  • Some mythographers and scholars have drawn parallels between the myth of Sisyphus rolling the boulder and the rise and set of the sun.
  • As opined by German philologist Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker, the story could also symbolize humanity’s pointless struggle to acquire knowledge.
  • French philosopher and author Albert Camus published his well-received 1942 essay titled The Myth of Sisyphus. In the work, Camus argued that sometimes humans could take immense pleasure from enduring a predicament as Sisyphus’. The French philosopher states that a Sisyphean struggle can symbolize how absurd life can be when looked at from a certain angle. Camus describes Sisyphus as a hero of absurd repetitive endeavors.
  • The story of Sisyphus features in the works of ancient Greek author Homer, Latin poet Ovid, and Greek philosopher Plato.

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