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The Punishment of Sisyphus : Tales of the Ancient Greeks

Updated on November 22, 2014

The Eternal Symbol of Futility

The ancient Greeks called Sisyphus the 'craftiest of men' but to us, he is the symbol of futility.

Sisyphus had a particularly arduous task and not just difficult, but boring and meaningless.

Through Eternity he had to roll a huge boulder to the top of a hill. It took Sisyphus all of the day to do this, toiling up the steep, tree-hung incline and it exhausted him utterly.

Each evening, as the first stars appeared, Sisyphus would reach the crest of the hill.

And each evening the boulder would plunge back down to the bottom again.. .

His Punishment

What on earth did he do?

Spending eternity rolling a boulder up a hill all day, and then watching it roll back down again at night is a pretty appalling punishment. Not as bad perhaps, as an eagle ripping into your liver every day (like the sad character Prometheus) but dreadfully long and exhausting work just the same.

You may wonder at his sentence, what crime it was that condemned him.

As many Ancient Greeks were prone to do, Sisyphus defied the Gods, but his defiance was unequaled.

It was the worst defiance imagined. Sisyphus cheated death!

Sisyphus cheats Death

The first time ...

When Sisyphus came to the end of his lifetime, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, came to claim him personally for the kingdom of the dead.

For the occasion Hades had brought along a pair of handcuffs. These cuffs were a comparative novelty, steel bracelets, chained together, which had been invented by the skilled Hephaestus, the Smith of the Gods..

"Show me how they work", asked sly Sisyphus, and he was so obviously eager to see how they worked, Hades was hoodwinked into a demonstration. But, as Hades was modeling the handcuffs, Sisyphus snapped them shut. He fastened his dog's collar around the neck of the god and made fun of him in his helplessness.

And so it came about that the high Lord of the Underworld was kept locked up in a box at the house of Sisyphus for many a day.

Of course nobody in the world could then die!

Hades pleaded, threatened and stormed at Sisyphus, but for an entire month he was kept prisoner. Finally Ares, the cruel God of War, seeing that his battles had become farces because nobody died, came to Sisyphus and threatened to strangle him unless he released Hades...and if that didn't work, then he would cut off his head and hide it!

Grudgingly Sisyphus unchained Hades and off they went to Tartarus and the Underworld.

On arrival, Sisyphus pleaded his case with Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, claiming that he didn't belong there because he wasn't dead.

And that was how Sisyphus cheated death.

Why the Greeks Matter

I love this book! It clearly shows how our modern world is essentially Greek. The Greeks invented everything from Western warfare to mystical prayer, from logic to statecraft. Poetry, drama, philosophy, art, and architecture.

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea is the fourth volume in Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series. Each and every one of them is absolutely riveting and Cahill, with his superb knack of making sense of history, brings the people you have only dimly heard about into real and wonderful life.

Sisyphus cheats Death again

For the second time

After much trouble throughout the world, Hades finally escaped and Sisyphus was ordered summarily to report to the Underworld.

But the crafty Sisyphus had another trick up his sleeve.

He simply told his wife not to bury him and then complained to Persephone, Queen of the Dead, that he had not been given the proper funeral honours and that he could not even pay the fare that Charon the ferryman demanded to cross the River of the Dead.

Persephone let him go back to the Land of the Living to secure the proper rites (and gold coin) for himself. Of course, the minute that Sisyphus got back to the sunshine, he disregarded all business about any funeral.

Eternal Punishment

For the Crime of Hubris

Sisyphus lived on for a good many more years but no mortal can long defy the inevitable. He was finally hauled down to Hades, where his indiscretions caught up with him.

For his crime against the Gods he was condemned to an eternity at hard labour.

For this is what happens when you defy the Gods. Sisyphus was guilty of hubris.

In ancient Greece, hubris referred to actions which, intentionally or not, shamed and humiliated the victim, and frequently the perpetrator as well. In mythology, the word is used to describe actions of those who challenged the gods or their laws.

Hubris against the gods is often a character flaw of the ancient Greeks, and the cause of their nemesis, or destruction.

You could say that the proverb "pride goes before a fall" sums up the modern definition of hubris.

Sisyphus and his Punishment

What do you think of this punishment? Have you ever had to do an endless and ineffective task, a "Sisyphean" task?

© 2008 Susanna Duffy

What do you think?

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    • profile image

      Colin323 4 years ago

      I worked in a factory for a while. It seemed like a Sisyphean task, as it felt as if there was no end to the production and the repetition of the work

    • mariacarbonara profile image

      mariacarbonara 4 years ago

      The Greeks had a knack for punishment.

    • NoYouAreNot profile image

      NoYouAreNot 4 years ago

      @Stazjia: You nailed it perfectly! LoL

    • greenspirit profile image

      poppy mercer 5 years ago from London

      The Greeks got it right so many times...we need to look no further for metaphors to untangle the webs we weave.

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      julieannbrady 7 years ago

      OMG! I was reading this passage, "Spending eternity rolling a boulder up a hill all day, and then watching it roll back down again at night is a pretty appalling punishment. Not as bad perhaps, as an eagle ripping into your liver every day (like the sad character Prometheus) but dreadfully long and exhausting work just the same." ... and thinking, OMG! Thank God we are more civilized today, yes?

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 9 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      I would have thought that housework is a Sisyphean task. You vacuum and an hour later, people troop through and it looks like you haven't touched it for weeks. The same goes for dusting, washing up, etc, etc.