Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Fate of Sisyphus

Whilst the gods of ancient times were benefactors, patrons and sometimes creators of the human race, for a mortal human to scorn their authority was a dangerous game to play. For though the rewards of virtue in the afterlife could be eternal bliss in the tranquil, golden and peaceful fields of Elysium, those possessed of an evil spirit would be condemned to a terrible ordeal. Heaven and Hell, the places of ceaseless reward and torture after death, are not a Christian invention. The ideas are far more ancient. Indeed the stories of Heaven and Hell which are so remembered in the works of Dante and Milton (stories which are told on this site, please browse the archives for these), are directly inspired by the heroic stories of ancient Greece and Rome. The shades in the Underworld, and their fate there, could become legendary. One such man was just that. His name was Sisyphus.

The Isthmus of Corinth
Photograph taken by the author.
Sisyphus was descended from noble stock. The son of Aeolus and Enarete, grandson of Hellen (the father of the Hellenic race, and hence why anything Greek is referred to as ‘Hellenic’ – even the modern country of Greece is officially titled the Hellenic Republic) and great grandson of Zeus himself, the master of Olympus. Sisyphus’ own grandson was the hero Bellerophon (the story of whom is told here), slayer of the monstrous Chimaera. Scheming and malevolent, Sisyphus seized the throne of the great city of Corinth from his brother by force and seduced his own niece. Under his rule, however, Corinth grew rich and powerful through trade and violence to become one of the most majestic cities in Greece. However it was achieved through deceit and cruelty. Sisyphus held no qualms about cruelly murdering guests of his own household, and travellers to his lands. Hospitality, and the bond between host and guest, was a sacred concept to the Greeks even more so than it is today. Zeus himself was patron of it, and violation of it was one of the very worst of crimes, tantamount to a transgression of divine law.

Yet he did not stop there. Zeus, the master of the gods, was infamous for his unfaithfulness to his wife Hera, and frequently stole away with various nymphs, in hiding from her. One such nymph was Aegina, daughter of the River god Asopus, whom the Thunderer spirited away from her homeland in the guise of an eagle. Arising the next day, Asopus looked for his daughter, but in vain. Stricken by grief, Asopus searched the lands for her, calling her name. Sisyphus however, had inadvertently witnessed the abduction. Seizing his chance to humble the mightiest of gods, Sisyphus confided Zeus’ secret to the god of the river, who was outraged. But if he was outraged, it was nothing compared to the fury of Zeus, fury that a mortal considered himself just in confiding the secrets of Olympus.

Thanatos - the daemon of Death
Photograph taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Preparing for what was to come, Sisyphus decided to test the loyalty of his wife, Queen Merope, with a strange request. He ordered her that on the day of his death, his body was not to be buried, but to lie dirtied in the streets, the plaything to the crows and jeers of the people. Bewildered and reluctant, Merope relented at last after Sisyphus’ urging. Meanwhile, Zeus summoned to him the grim god Thanatos. Thanatos was an ancient daemon, the son of Darkness and Night, brother of Sleep and Death incarnate. Hated by mortals and immortals alike, Pitiless in the execution of his duty and a terrifying figure upon which the rays of the Sun never fell, Thanatos was the harbinger of doom to all beings when their time was up. The time for Sisyphus’ passing was decreed, and the Thunderer ordered Thanatos to seize the cruel king and bind him in chains in the Underworld. The god commanded and the merciless daemon obeyed. Seeing his torment upon him, Sisyphus seemed resigned to his fate. Before bowing to the daemon’s command, Sisyphus asked him if he might demonstrate himself the strength of the chain first, so that he might marvel at its magnificence. Thanatos agreed, and bound himself in the chains to show that not even he could escape from them. Sisyphus gave a shout of malicious joy, taunting Death that he had bound him in his own chains. Laughing at his own cunning, Sisyphus climbed his way back to Earth, leaving the daemon of Death straining against his incarceration.

Painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder.
The uproar was catastrophic. With Thanatos bound in the Underworld, no mortal could die and complete their passage to the afterlife without him. The natural order of the cosmos had been overturned completely, the delicate balance thrown into chaos. Disease and Plague found no victim, Old Age broke none and however grievous their wounds, no soldier would die in war. Ares, the Lord of Slaughter and god of war grew angry. Battle had lost its glory when his foes would no longer die, and blood would no longer flow from either side on the field of war. Marching into Hades himself, Ares found the bound daemon and freed him from his bonds. Death was allowed once again to carry out his fell work. His first target was Sisyphus.

The Torture of Sisyphus
Painting by Titian.
Dragging the deceitful king to Hades, Sisyphus was condemned for a second time to the House of Death. However, there was a problem. No soul of the deceased could pass beyond the River Styx if their corporeal form had not received the proper burial rites. So the second scheme of Sisyphus came to play, for he had ordered his wife to hurl his corpse into the dusty square of Corinth. Sisyphus appealed to the Lady Persephone, the wife of Hades himself, asking her to allow him to return to Earth, so that he might chastise his wife for her disloyal and disrespectful treatment of his corpse. Falling for his persuasive words, the Queen of the Underworld relented, and granted her assent for this task. Silently exultant once again, for the second time Sisyphus marched unopposed from the Underworld. Returning to his city, taking up the royal mantle once more, he refused to return to Hades. Enraged at his insubordination, Zeus ordered Hermes to forcefully drag Sisyphus to the Underworld. This time, however, there was to be no chance of escape. Zeus condemned Sisyphus to Tartarus, the deepest part of the Underworld. It was a land of fire, smoke and ash, where only the cruellest of souls could be sent. The Titans themselves were bound in this land (for more on this, please click here). Doomed to an eternity of frustration and torment, Sisyphus was forced to carry out a fruitless task until the end of time. Cast at the foot of a great mount, the cruel king was forced to bear a heavy boulder up its steep slopes, amid the burning heat and acrid fumes of Tartarus:

              “ Bracing himself and thrusting with hands and feet he pushed the boulder
                uphill to the top. But every time, as he was about to send it toppling over
                the crest, its sheer weight turned it back, and once again towards the plain
                the pitiless rock rolled down. So once more he had to wrestle with the thing
                and push it up, while the sweat poured from his limbs and the dust rose high
                above his head. ”
                                             - THE TORMENT OF SISYPHUS

So would the endless cycle begin. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot push the boulder that last yard over the top. Such is the fate of Sisyphus, a man who dared to challenge a god.

The story of Sisyphus is legend. His name is as famous as his punishment, such that now any venture deemed fruitless or never ending is called 'sisyphean' in the English language. It is a powerful tale of pride and the consequences of it - a favourite moral tale to the ancients as much as it is to us. The story of Man against God, man against Nature and Man against Death is a motif which will endure as long as men can die. Sisyphus is mentioned in many places throughout Classical literature, but here I list a few of the most substantial episodes, all in easily available form from Amazon:

United Kingdom

The Odyssey:
The Odyssey (Penguin Classics)
(A masterpiece of literature, containing the description of Sisyphus's ordeal)
The Library of Greek Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(Less poetic, but contains a collection of many of the myths of Greece)
United States
The Odyssey:
The Odyssey (Penguin Classics)
(A masterpiece of literature, containing the description of Sisyphus' ordeal)
The Library of Greek Mythology:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(Less poetic, but contains a collection of many of the myths of Greece)

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