We have been hanging out in the Greek Underworld lately on our blog, and today we look at Tantalus, another one of the poor souls that was sentenced to eternal torment in the depths of Tartarus. Before his death, Tantalus was a king, though it is disputed where he actually ruled. Some say Lydia, some say Argos, or Corinth, or Paplagonia… you get the picture… The fact was, he was a king and very friendly with Zeus. Such good friends in fact, that Tantalus was one of the few mortals invited to dine at an Olympian banquet with the gods.
Turned out that Tantalus wasn’t quite the friend in return though, and he couldn’t help but pocket some of the ambrosia and nectar that was the food of the gods to sneak back and show off to his mortal friends back on earth. This transgression remained undiscovered, but as all good dinner party guests soon realize, invitations are expected to be reciprocated and Tantalus was confronted with the reality that he was expected to put on a dinner for a room full of gods, with only boring old mortal food at his disposal.
Let’s face it, not even cordon bleu or beef wellington is going to wow a room full of gods, so Tantalus decided to butcher up his son Pelops and turn him into stew. The gods were all well aware of the contents of the grotesque dish put in front of them (well, all except Demeter who committed a total party foul and casually nibbled on his shoulder while preoccupied with thoughts of the kidnapping of her daughter Persephone). Angered, Zeus decided that Tantalus must die for his transgression and sentenced him to an eternity in Tartarus where he would be made to stand in a pool of water, beneath a low hanging branch brimming with fruits. Whenever Tantalus would reach down to drink from the cool waters they would recede from him, whenever he reached up to pluck one of the luscious fruits the branches would shift and evade his grasp. It is where the word tantalize comes from, the idea of teasing someone with the unobtainable, and for Tantalus the refreshing waters are forever present yet unable to quench his thirst, while the fruits will never quell his hunger. He remains in a world of wanting the food and drink that led to his demise, forever reaching for the unobtainable.
I always though this punishment was cruel yet just. The ancient Greeks had a special ability to finding horrific punishments that not only fit the crime, but were personally tailored to the individual. While watching the wonderful film The Shape of Water (see if it if you haven’t already) there was a throw-away line that made me think of this story in a whole new light. I honestly can’t remember the words, and I will update when I revisit the movie, but they were to the effect that this punishment was doubly cruel because it left Tantalus in limbo; without eating or drinking in the underworld he could never truly belong there. If we think about the story of Persephone, she wasn’t allowed to permanently leave the underworld because she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, but perhaps it means there is also more to the Tantalus story. I’ve always thought of him as physically punished; the feeling of thirst and hunger must be unbearable, but is it even worse than first thought. Does Tantalus have a gaping spiritual need to eat that fruit and drink the waters that will also forever go unfulfilled, a punishment that is not only bodily torment, but soul shattering as well?
And the moral of this tale?
Never cook for Gods. Especially if your child is on the menu.
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