Who was Tantalus in Greek Mythology? - Story & Punishment

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 met the wrath of the gods, but few had experiences as extreme as Tantalus. In this lesson, we'll look at Tantalus' famous punishment and see what he did to earn it.

Tantalus

What does it mean to tantalize? If something is tantalizing, it is highly desirable but also just out of reach. This is frustrating enough in small doses, but can you imagine an eternity of it? The word tantalize actually stems from the name of Tantalus, a figure in Greek mythology. Tantalus was cursed so badly by the gods that his name is now synonymous with his punishment. What did he do to deserve this? It's a famous and tragic tale of hubris. Is the story tantalizing you yet?

Tantalus is the Greek character whose name inspired the word tantalize
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Life of Tantalus

Let's start by getting to know Tantalus himself. This mythical figure (who some historians think may have been inspired by a real person) was the king of a legendary land known as Sipylus. Like many of the ancient figures who play foundational roles in Greek mythology, he had semi-divine heritage (his mother was the nymph Plouto and his father was Zeus). Living in West Asia (somewhere around Turkey today), he was famed for his wealth and power. Like other kings in Greek mythology, he was aware of this power and a degree of arrogance followed suit. That would become a problem.

Offending the Gods

To earn his punishment, Tantalus would end up seriously offending the gods. How'd he do it? There are actually three different stories in Greek mythology that show Tantalus' disrespect and hubris, but all begin with him being invited to dine with the gods. In this era, the first generation of mortals were allowed to eat at the table of the gods on Mount Olympus.

In the first version of the story, Tantalus steals the nectar and ambrosia served only at this divine table and smuggles it back to the world to share with other mortals. Bringing the food of the gods to humanity threatens to upset the balance between the mortal and immortal worlds.

In the second version of the story, he stirs up a conversation amongst the mortal guests about the gods' plans for humanity. Through this, he gets the gods' secrets out of them and then takes those secrets back to the mortal world and shares them with humanity. This also threatens to upset the balance of cosmic power, and also violates the divine mandates of being a good houseguest (something ordained by Zeus himself).

The third, and most popular, version of the story is the most outrageous. In this one, Tantalus is curious how astute and observant the gods are. So, he decides to put them to the test (which is never a good idea). Tantalus murders his own son (Pelops), dices him up and cooks him into a stew. He then tries to serve this horrifying concoction to the gods. All of the gods realize the trick and do not eat, except for one. The goddess Demeter is extremely distraught because her daughter has been abducted by Hades. So, she has some stew and ends up eating Pelops' shoulder. The gods are understandably upset with Tantalus, who has now committed the sins of being a bad host and hubris as well as cannibalism and kin-killing. The gods bring Pelops back to life and put him back together, replacing his shoulder with ivory since Demeter has eaten it.

The gods were extremely offended by how Tantalus behaved at their divine table, and punished him accordingly
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