Sisyphus: Ancient Atheist?

While I was working on a seemingly unrelated post, I was struck by the final line in a dialogue by the Roman writer, priest and politician, Plutarch.

It’s from volume XII of his collected works, known as the Moralia. Specifically, it is from the tract Beasts Are Rational, which expands on Odysseus’ encounter with the sorceress Circe.

Essentially, he asks her to un-transform all of the Greeks – not just his sailors – who she has been gleefully changing into animals (mostly pigs, though wolves, lions
and the occasional woodpecker round out her entourage).

She responds by asking him how he knows that they would want to return to human form, a question which seems ludicrous to Odysseus. However, she continues to make her point, finally offering to let him talk to one of the animals, a swine named Gryllus.

The content of the dialogue is vast – too vast to warrant a full relating here – but suffice it to say, Gryllus wins every argument that Odysseus puts forward, making a solid case for staying in animal form. However, as a last gambit, Odysseus plays the God card:


ODYSSEUS: But consider, Gryllus: it is not a fearful piece of violence to grant reason to creatures that have no inherent knowledge of God?

GRYLLUS: Then shall we deny, Odysseus, that so wise and remarkable a man as you had Sisyphus for a father?

(Translated by William C. Helmbold, published by Harvard University Press, 1957. Originally part of the Loeb Classical Library series).


Now, Sisyphus is not usually regarded as being Odysseus’ father; in Homer’s Odyssey, his father is stated as being Laertes, the former ruler of Ithaca.

However, given the variant nature of Greek myth, it should come as no surprise that other authors changed his parentage. The playwright Sophocles (whose numerous works include the most famous version of the Oedipus tale, Oedipus Rex) did so in his play Philoctetes, where he makes Odysseus the son of Sisyphus, the doomed, cunning king punished by Zeus to spend eternity pushing a boulder uphill, just to have it roll back every time Sisyphus gets close to the finish line.

So this is clearly where Plutarch is taking his lead.

But what does that line mean?

To answer that, we have to look to yet another source: a fragment of a play written in the 5th century B.C.E., either by the playwrights Critias or Euripides (the jury’s still out on that one):

A time there was when anarchy did rule
The lives of men, which then were like the beasts,
Enslaved by force; nor was there then reward
For good men, nor for wicked punishment.
Next, as I deem, did men establish laws
For punishment, that Justice might be lord
Of all mankind, and Insolence enchain’d;
And whosoe’r did sin was penalized.
Next, as the laws did hold men back from deeds
Of open violence, but still such deeds
Were done in secret, -then, as I maintain,
Some shrewd man first, a man in counsel wise,
Discovered unto men the fear of Gods,
Thereby to frighten sinners should they sin
E’en secretly in deed, or word, or thought.
Hence was it that he brought in Deity
Telling how God enjoys an endless life,
Hears with his mind and sees, and taketh thought
So that he hearkens to men’s every word
And has the power to see men’s every act.
E’en if you plan in silence some ill deed,
The Gods will surely mark it; for in them
Wisdom resides. So, speaking words like these
Most cunning doctrine did he introduce,
The truth concealing under speech untrue
Thus first did some man, as I deem, persuade
Men to suppose the race of Gods exists.

(From Sextus Empiricus. With an English Translation by the Rev. R. G. Bury, In Four Volumes)


Is this Gryllus’ point? Scholars are divided; some believe that there are parts of the poem that have been lost. However, it still brings an interesting point forward:

Doubt ran deep and dear in the Greek imagination.

And while Sisyphus might have to keep rolling his stone uphill….

He may doubt the reason Why…

Leave a Reply