ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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?

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • 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 

      5 years ago

      The Greeks had a knack for punishment.

    • NoYouAreNot profile image

      NoYouAreNot 

      5 years ago

      @Stazjia: You nailed it perfectly! LoL

    • greenspirit profile image

      poppy mercer 

      6 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.

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 

      8 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.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)