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The Myth of Sisyphus from Ancient Greece

Updated on March 20, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Myth of Sisyphus

The legend of the man forced to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down again, is one which resonates with most people; although few people will perhaps know the details of the myth. This eternal rolling of a boulder is a story that comes from Greek mythology, and the man faced with unending punishment was Sisyphus.

Sisyphus in Greek Mythology

Sisyphus was the son of the king of Thessaly, Aeolus, and his wife Enarate, and later, Sisyphus would become the King of Ephyra, a city which would later become known as Corinth; and in some versions of the story, it was a city that Sisyphus himself founded.

As king, Sisyphus would open up many trade routes for his city, and so Ephyra prospered, and the king became widely known for his cleverness. Equally though, Sisyphus became widely known for his cruelty, killing many guests who came to his palace.

The Punishment of Sisyphus

Titian (1490–1576) PD-art-100
Titian (1490–1576) PD-art-100 | Source

Sisyphus and Autolycus

In life, the most famous story of Sisyphus involves a dispute with his neighbour, Autolycus. Autolycus was a son of the Greek god Hermes, and from his father, Autolycus had a gift for stealing things. From Sisyphus, Autolycus would steal cattle, and as the son of Hermes had the ability to change the appearance of the stolen cattle, Sisyphus could not prove who was taking his cattle.

As Autolycus’ herd grew, so did Sisyphus’ anger, and eventually the king of Ephyra put his cleverness to good use, and he started to brand his name into the hooves of his cattle. When more of Sisyphus’ cattle disappeared, the king stormed onto the property of Autolycus, and because of his brand he identified his cattle, despite the change in appearance.

In retribution, Sisyphus seduced, or kidnapped, the daughter of Autolycus, Anticlia, making her his wife.

The Wives and Children of Sisyphus

In ancient sources, there are three women named as wives of Sisyphus; Anticlia, daughter of Autolycus, Merope, daughter of the Titan Atlas, and Tyro, the niece of Sisyphus.

Anticlia would also later marry Laertes, and give birth to Odysseus; it is not always clear whether Laertes was the father of Odysseus though, and so Sisyphus is sometimes named as his father instead.

Merope was one of the Pleiades, the seven star nymphs, and with Sisyphus would become parent to Glaucus, Thersander, Almus and Oryntion. Oryntion would later become King of Crointh, but via Glaucus, Sisyphus would become an ancestor to Bellerophon.

In the night sky, Merope is the dimmest of the seven Pleaides, with legend stating that she hid her face ashamed at the crimes of her husband, or in shame at having married a mortal.

The third named wife of Sisyphus was Tyro, the daughter of Sisyphus’ brother Salmoneus. Sisyphus hated his brother, and an oracle basically prophesised that the death of Salmoneus would come about at the hands of the children of Sisyphus and Tyro. Tyro herself would learn about the prophecy, and to try and circumvent it, she killed the sons born to her; although Salmoneus himself was eventually killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus.

Sisyphus

Friedrich John (1769–1843) PD-life-100
Friedrich John (1769–1843) PD-life-100 | Source

Sisyphus Angers Zeus

It is not the life of Sisyphus that is now famous, but is rather the story of his death and eternal punishment that lives on.

Being a cruel king might have eventually brought Sisyphus to the attention of the gods of Mount Olympus, but Sisyphus hastened this attention by angering them, or at least by angering Zeus.

Sisyphus was well aware of his own cleverness, and the king believed that this gave him the right to keep track of the movement and activities of the gods.

So when Aegina abducted the nymph Aegina to have his way with her, Sisyphus told Asopus, the father of Aegina, where she was, and what had happened. Zeus was not best pleased to find a mortal interfering in his affairs, and so the god declared that the life of Sisyphus was now forfeit.

Sisyphus and Thanatos

Thanatos (Death) was dispatched to collect the soul of Sisyphus, for transporting to the Underworld. Sisyphus though, was not ready to go meekly, and so his cleverness and cunning were put to good use.

Thanatos had brought chains with him to bind Sisyphus, but the king asked Thanatos to show him how the chains were to be worn, and how they worked. When Thanatos put the chains on, he himself was trapped, and of course, Sisyphus would not release him; and so Sisyphus remained free.

With Death enchained no one on earth died, something which annoyed Ares no end; for if there was no death in battle, there was no point in war; and so Ares himself came to release Thanatos, and placed Sisyphus in the care of Death once again.

Thanatos was not really the god of violent death, and so in some sources, the role of Ares is taken by Hades, the god of the Underworld being upset as no souls were making their way to his realm.

Sisyphus and Persephone

Sisyphus had realised that the gods would eventually catch up with him, and so had told his wife (it is never clear which wife this was), that he should not be buried upon his death.

With Thanatos acting as his Psychopomp, Sisyphus avoided the need to cross the River Acheron, and eventually he found himself in the palace of Hades, awaiting judgement. Sisyphus did not meekly wait for this judgement, but instead the king sought out Persephone, the wife of Hades; and told her that he must return to his kingdom to scold his wife about the lack of proper burial.

Persephone agreed to Sisyphus’ request, and allowed the king to return to organise the burial; when soul and body were reunited though, Sisyphus had no intention of returning to the Underworld.

Eternal Punishment for Sisyphus

So, Sisyphus wandered once again through his kingdom, and a really angry Zeus this time dispatched Hermes to bring Sisyphus once again the Underworld.

Zeus also planned an appropriate punishment for the king, and so Sisyphus was transported to Tartarus, the hell-pit of the Underworld. The punishment for Sisyphus’ insolence was an eternal one.

Sisyphus was condemned to roll a heavy boulder up a steep hill every day, with the promise that punishment would end if the king could roll it over the summit. Each day though, just as the boulder reached the peak of the hill, it would slip from the grasp of Sisyphus, rolling back down to the base of the hill, compelling Sisyphus to start his ordeal again.

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  • Colin Quartermain profile image
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    Colin Quartermain 2 years ago

    Many thanks for commenting, there are indeed some guiding tales amongst the many Greek myths

  • GmaGoldie profile image

    Kelly Kline Burnett 2 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

    Colin,

    I find Greek history to be helpful in living our lives daily and can readily see the moral of the story.

    History is critical to our humanity. Keep up the great work. Voted up!

  • Colin Quartermain profile image
    Author

    Colin Quartermain 2 years ago

    Many thanks for reading and offering that great compliment.

  • rjbatty profile image

    rjbatty 2 years ago from Irvine

    A tremendous piece of writing. I knew the basics about Sisyphus but not all the details you exposed. This reading was an education, and thank you for it. I'd love to see you do a similar piece on Prometheus.

    Don't be discouraged by the lack of feedback. I too usually get nothing. I don't know what it means, if anything.

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