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Who was Sisyphus in Greek Mythology?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Greek mythology is full of characters who do the right thing and are rewarded by the gods. Sisyphus isn't one of them. In this lesson, we'll explore the myth of Sisyphus and examine the Greek version of a punishment fitting the crime.

Sisyphus

Some mortals in Greek mythology are remembered for their acts of bravery, and the gifts bestowed upon them by the gods for their heroism. Others are remembered for their deceit, and the punishment that the gods deem to be their just reward. Once such figure was Sisyphus, a man immortalized in mythology for his punishment (and no, his punishment wasn't that name). His punishment was to push a rock up a hill for eternity.

What did Sisyphus do to deserve this fate?
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Sisyphus was one of the great kings of humanity and founder of the city Ephyra (later named Corinth). He was renowned for being the cleverest human in the world, but was also something of a psychotic tyrant who tricked travelers into entering his city, where he had them killed. Still, even that wasn't what earned Sisyphus his punishment. In Greek mythology, there was one sin greater than any other, and Sisyphus committed it. He became so proud as to believe he could outsmart the gods.

The Tricks of Sisyphus

When Sisyphus appeared in Greek mythology, it was almost always in connection to some con or ploy that he was operating. Greek authors did differ on their interpretations of Sisyphus, but what we'll be looking at today are mostly the stories as told by the poet Homer. Homer saw Sisyphus as the cleverest of humans, albeit one characterized by his hubris. That became the de facto version of the character after Homer.

So, what sort of shenanigans did Sisyphus get into? We need to start by recognizing that Sisyphus began irritating the gods early on. When he lured travelers to his city and killed them, he wasn't just being a tyrant. He was violating the Greek concept of hospitality, which was so sacred that it was actually directly under the jurisdiction of Zeus himself. This is where we first begin to see Sisyphus' willingness to challenge the mandates of the gods.

Already on Zeus' bad side, Sisyphus seemingly seals his fate by stealing secrets from the gods. Amongst these was the whereabouts of the nymph Aegina who Zeus had abducted. Fed up with the arrogant mortal, Zeus asked the embodiment of death, Thanatos, to take Sisyphus and chain him up. (In some versions of the story it's Hades who is given this task.) Thanatos takes Sisyphus into the realm where the Titans are caged, but the mortal tricks Thanatos by asking him to demonstrate how the chains work. Sisyphus bound death itself and escaped. As a result, no one on Earth could die. This meant that no one made offerings to the gods to heal their sick and injured. The gods got Thanatos released, and death returned to the world.

Later, it was nearly time for Sisyphus to die himself. He asked his wife to demonstrate her love by following his last request to dump his naked body in the public square. She did, and he died. However, along the River Styx, the dead Sisyphus met Persephone, goddess of the underworld. He convinced the goddess that his wife's treatment of his body was utterly disrespectful, and that he had to scold her. Persephone let Sisyphus leave the underworld, promising to return once he taught his wife how to properly respect the dead. Of course, Sisyphus didn't come back, and Zeus' son Hermes was forced to collect him and drag him back.

Sisyphus' Punishment

In his lifetime, Sisyphus tricked and murdered travelers (violating Zeus' laws of hospitality), betrayed the secrets of the gods, tricked death into chaining itself and making all humans immortal, and tricked the queen of the underworld into releasing him. He had become convinced that he was even cleverer than the gods, an act of hubris which required eternal humbling.

On this 6th century BCE Greek vase, Persephone oversees Sisyphus performing his futile task
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