In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was known as the most cunning of men. He ruled the great city of Corinth, but was also guilty of many crimes, for which he was punished after death by a never-ending torment.
Sisyphus was the son of Aeolus and his wife Enarete. In some versions this was the same Aeolus who was the god of the winds; in others, Sisyphus's father was a different Aeolus, the king of Thessaly in northeast Greece.
Sisyphus was a complex character. He was renowned for his cunning and wisdom, and was a successful leader who founded the Isthmian Games, an athletics festival held every two years near Corinth. Yet many of the tales about Sisyphus reveal a selfish and unpleasant person—a thief and a trickster who raped or seduced women and attacked and murdered travelers.
Sisyphus's wife Merope was one of the Pleiades, the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas who were later turned into stars. The giant hunter Orion had wanted to marry Merope, but instead she chose Sisyphus. Some accounts tell how Merope was humiliated to be the only one of her sisters who had married a mortal and that, as a result, her star was the dullest of all the Pleiades since she hid her face in shame. With Merope, Sisyphus had four sons, including Glaucus, who became the father of the hero Bellerophon.
Sisyphus had affairs with a number of other women. One affair was with his niece Tyro, the daughter of his brother Salmoneus, whom he hated. Sisyphus learned from an oracle that if Tyro bore him children, they would kill Salmoneus. In some versions of the story Sisyphus married his niece; in others, he raped her. Either way, Tyro and Sisyphus had two sons. To stop the prophecy from coming true Tyro killed her children, but her act was in vain: Zeus, angry at Salmoneus for considering himself the god's equal, struck him dead with a thunderbolt.
Another story about Sisyphus tells how his cattle were stolen by Autolycus, a famous thief. The cunning Sisyphus aimed to catch the culprit red-handed: he fastened lead tablets, imprinted with the words "stolen by Autolycus," to his beasts' hooves, and then followed their tracks when they went missing. In revenge he seduced—or in some versions raped—Autolycus's daughter Anticlia. Anticlia later gave birth to the hero Odysseus, whom many believed was the son of Sisyphus, and not of Anticlia's husband Laertes. This alternative account of Odysseus's parentage would help explain the Greek hero's own cunning and ruthless nature.
Corinth, on the Greek mainland near Athens, was a powerful city in ancient Greece whose ruins can still be seen today. Some sources relate how Sisyphus founded a great city called Ephyra, later renamed Corinth. Other accounts mention that the enchantress Medea gave Corinth to Sisyphus, who became its king.
One myth tells how Sisyphus gained a source of clean water for his city by making a deal with the river god Asopus. In return for information about Asopus's daughter Aegina, whom Sisyphus had witnessed being abducted by Zeus, the river deity granted him a freshwater spring. Zeus was furious when he learned of this tale-telling and sent Thanatos, the personification of death, to take Sisyphus's life. However, Sisyphus managed to trap Thanatos and imprison him in a dungeon. This imprisonment had a dramatic effect: death could not come for anyone, and so people stopped dying. In response, the gods dispatched Ares, god of war, to rescue Thanatos, who was once again sent to claim Sisyphus. This time, Sisyphus did die, but first he told Merope not to bury him properly. The lack of correct funeral procedure so appalled Hades, lord of the underworld, that he made Sisyphus return to the living to ensure that things were done properly. Once again, Sisyphus had proved his cunning: he refused to go back to the underworld and lived for many more years on earth.
When Sisyphus finally died, Zeus and the other gods devised a terrible punishment for his trickery. He had to push an enormous boulder up a high, steep hill. Every time he neared the top, the boulder rolled down, and Sisyphus had to start again. This torment, the best-known aspect of the Sisyphus myth, was to continue for all eternity.
Some scholars have suggested that Sisyphus's punishment has a symbolic meaning. One interpretation is that the boulder represents the sun as it rises and falls each day; another is that it symbolizes humanity's struggle in the endless pursuit of knowledge. Today, the word sisyphean describes something that is endless, repetitive, or pointless.
Sisyphus's task captured the imagination of ancient Greek artists, who often depicted it on vases. It has also inspired modern artists, as well as the French writer Albert Camus (1913–1960), whose essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" interpreted the punishment as a symbol for the absurdity of life. Camus concluded that humans can achieve happiness by recognizing this absurdity and rising above it.
See also: ATLAS; BELLEROPHON; HADES; ODYSSEUS; PLEIADES.
- Camus, Albert, and Justin O'Brien, trans. The Myth of Sisyphus. London: Penguin, 2000.
- The Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
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