Sisyphus is one of the few souls whose transgressions in life were judged to be heinous enough to condemn him to eternity in the deepest darkest recess of the Greco-Roman underworld: Tartarus. Sisyphus spends his days laboring, pushing a giant heavy boulder up a singular incline, only to reach the top and have it roll back down again. Many of us know the despair that comes hand in hand with a futile task, and it made me think of the popular internet adage that defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result (this quote is most often attributed to Albert Einstein, although no-one seems to be able to provide a citation that provides any evidence to support this, so I’m going to attribute it anonymously). At what point did Sisyphus realize the futility of his task? The first time the boulder rolled back? Or is he even now pushing that forsaken boulder up that hill hoping that this is the time it will stay…
Sisyphus was the founder and first king of Ephyra (Corinth in some versions); he was a shrewd and cunning man. His kingdom flourished under his rule, excelling in both navigation and trading. As often is the case, his success was gained at the expense of others, and his name was tarnished by acts of cheating and deception. He also violated the sacred act of hospitality on more than one occasion, slaughtering guests under his roof and in his care, an offence in the eyes of Zeus. Sisyphus’s flagrant disregard for the law grew until his overarching confidence saw him making deals with and against the gods themselves. Seeing Zeus abduct and hide the river nymph Aegina one day, Sisyphus approached her father, the river-god Asopus, and brokered a deal for a new river in return for revealing the whereabouts of his daughter.
That was the final straw for Zeus. He could no longer wait for Sisyphus to die to receive his judgement, and sent Thanatos (death) to collect him prematurely and drag him straight to Tartarus. While for most people this would be the end of the tale, Sisyphus’s cunning was clearly underestimated. As Thanatos appeared, chains rattling and ready to drag Sisyphus to the underworld, he was calmly received and welcomed in. Feigning ignorance Sisyphus expressed interest in the chains that trailed Thanatos and asked him to demonstrate how they worked. Unaware, Thanatos wrapped them around himself in demonstration, but Sisyphus grabbed the ends and chained Thanatos up, momentarily avoiding his own execution. Cheating death did not just affect Sisyphus though; having Thanatos wrapped in his own chains meant that life on earth was everlasting, and threw the balance of mortality into a tailspin. The gods were not impressed, especially Ares whose battles and wars became meaningless when fought by immortal soldiers. Furious, he stormed Sisyphus’s castle and set Thanatos free, allowing him to finally complete Zeus’s bidding and drag Sisyphus to his death.
Sisyphus was undeterred though, yelling for his wife to throw his naked body into the square as his soul was dragged off. A strange request it seemed, but again, Sisyphus should not be underestimated. The rules of the underworld are clear; only those that have undergone the proper burial rights may cross the river Styx, and Sisyphus fully intended to exploit that loophole. Finding the ear of Persephone he begged her to let him return and convince his wife to perform the proper rites. Persephone relented, allowing him a brief respite to admonish his wife and set his affairs in order. Sisyphus had no intention of honoring his side of the bargain though, and he failed to return, remaining on earth until the gods were forced to send Hermes to collect him and return him to Tartarus.
His punishment was given: the task of rolling a boulder up a hill, a boulder that was enchanted so that each time it neared the top and began to topple over it would roll back down to the bottom.
And I saw Sisyphus at his endless task raising his prodigious stone with both his hands. With hands and feet he tried to roll it up to the top of the hill, but always, just before he could roll it over on to the other side, its weight would be too much for him, and the pitiless stone would come thundering down again on to the plain. Then he would begin trying to push it up hill again, and the sweat ran off him and the steam rose after him – Homer, The Odyssey
Do I think Sisyphus has yet realized the futility of his task? No. There is one thing the Greeks were very good at, and that was making the punishment fit the crime. Sisyphus will continue to push that boulder up the hill for eternity out of his own volition because his arrogance will not let him stop. Even after the gods had him killed Sisyphus was still trying to cheat his own death and subvert their will. Sisyphus will never admit that Zeus has the upper-hand and so he will roll that damned boulder up that hill for eternity, each time doomed to face the disappointment he did not achieve a different result.
P.S. My wife wrote this post…I think she had me in mind.
P.P.PS. Someday, the boulder will make it all the way…