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Sisyphus

Sisyphus

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was famous for two things: his cleverness during life and the punishment he suffered after death. Although stories about Sisyphus differ somewhat in their details, he is usually referred to as the king of Corinth.

One story about Sisyphus involves Autolycus, a clever thief. Autolycus stole cattle by changing their color so that they could not be identified. Sisyphus outwitted him, however, by placing a mark on the cattle's hooves so that he could follow the hoofprints to the stolen animals.

In another myth, Sisyphus saw Zeus* kidnap a river nymph, but he promised to keep the hiding place secret. He betrayed Zeus, however, when he revealed the location to the nymph's father in exchange for a spring of pure water. Furious, Zeus sent Thanatos* (death) to take Sisyphus to Hades*. The clever Sisyphus managed to tie up Thanatos, and for days no one on earth died. Ares* went to free death and take Sisyphus to the underworld. Sisyphus called out to his wife not to bury him, and he persuaded Hades, ruler of the underworld, to let him go back to earth long enough to arrange a proper funeral. After returning to Corinth though, Sisyphus stayed there until his second, and final, death.

nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful

underworld land of the dead

As punishment for tricking the gods, Sisyphus was placed on a hillside in the underworld with a heavy boulder above him. To escape being crushed, he had to push the boulder uphill. The gods told him that if he rolled the stone to the other side they would release him. Each time he reached the top, though, the boulder rolled back down to the bottom, forcing Sisyphus to start over. The phrase "labor of Sisyphus" refers to any hopeless task that must be repeated endlessly.

See also Greek Mythology; Hades; Thanatos.

* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

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Sisyphus

Sisyphus (sĬs´Ĭfəs), in Greek mythology, son of Aeolus and founder and king of Corinth. Renowned for his cunning, he was said to have outwitted even Death. For his disrespect to Zeus, he was condemned to eternal punishment in Tartarus. There he eternally pushed a heavy rock to the top of a steep hill, where it would always roll down again. Albert Camus' essay The Myth of Sisyphus is based on this legend.

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Sisyphus

Sisyphus In Greek mythology, founder and king of Corinth. He was punished for trying to trick Thanatos (Death) by being condemned to the underworld to work for eternity, pushing a rock to the top of a steep hill. The rock rolled back to the foot of the hill as soon as Sisyphus reached the summit.

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Sisyphus

Sisyphus in Greek mythology, the son of Aeolus, punished in Hades for his misdeeds in life by being condemned to the eternal task of rolling a large stone to the top of a hill, from which it always rolled down again.

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Sisyphus

Sisyphushorrendous, stupendous, tremendous •Barbados • Indus • solidus • Lepidus •Midas, nidus •Aldous • Judas • Enceladus • exodus •hazardous • Dreyfus • Josephus •Sisyphus • typhus • Dollfuss •amorphous, anthropomorphous, polymorphous •rufous, Rufus •Angus • Argus •Las Vegas, magus, Tagus •negus •anilingus, cunnilingus, dingus, Mingus •bogus •fungous, fungus, humongous •anthropophagous, oesophagus (US esophagus), sarcophagus •analogous •homologous, tautologous •Areopagus • asparagus •Burgas, Fergus, Lycurgus •Carajás • frabjous •advantageous, contagious, courageous, outrageous, rampageous •egregious •irreligious, litigious, prestigious, prodigious, religious, sacrilegious •umbrageous • gorgeous

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Sisyphus

Sisyphus

Nationality/Culture

Greek

Pronunciation

SIZ-ee-fuhs

Alternate Names

None

Appears In

Hyginus's Fabulae, Homer's Odyssey

Lineage

Son of King Aeolus and Enarete

Character Overview

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was famous for two things: his cleverness during life and the punishment he suffered after death. Although stories about Sisyphus differ somewhat in their details, he is usually referred to as the king of Corinth. He was one of the sons of King Aeolus (pronounced EE-uh-luhs) of Thessaly (pronounced THESS-uh-lee).

One story about Sisyphus involves Autolycus (pronounced aw-TOL-i-kuhs), a clever thief. Autolycus stole cattle by changing their color so they could not be identified. On one occasion, he happened to steal Sisyphus's cattle; Sisyphus outwitted him, however, by placing a mark on the cattle's hooves so he could follow the hoofprints to the stolen animals.

In another myth, Sisyphus saw the god Zeus (pronounced ZOOS) kidnap a river nymph, or female nature deity, and he promised to keep the hiding place secret. He betrayed Zeus, however, when he revealed the location to the nymph's father in exchange for a spring of pure water. Furious, Zeus sent Thanatos (pronounced THAN-uh-tohs), the god of death, to take Sisyphus to Hades (pronounced HAY-deez), the ruler of the land of the dead. About to be shackled, the clever Sisyphus managed to trick Thanatos into trying out the shackles first and trapped the god in his place. Because Thanatos was shackled and could not perform his duties, for several days no one on earth died.

Ares (pronounced AIR-eez), the god of war, went to free death and take Sisyphus to Tartarus (pronounced TAR-tur-uhs), a gloomy pit at the bottom of the underworld. Sisyphus called out to his wife not to offer the customary sacrifices usually made when someone dies, and she followed his orders. While in the underworld, he persuaded Persephone (pronounced per-SEF-uh-nee), the goddess of the underworld, to let him go back to earth long enough to arrange a proper funeral, since his wife was clearly not following tradition. After returning to Corinth, Sisyphus stayed there until his second, and final, death.

As punishment for tricking the gods, Sisyphus was placed on a hillside in the underworld with a heavy boulder above him. To escape being crushed, he had to push the boulder uphill. The gods told him that if he rolled the stone to the other side they would release him. Each time he reached the top, however, the boulder rolled back down to the bottom, forcing Sisyphus to start over.

Sisyphus in Context

While the myth of Sisyphus might appear to be a reflection of ancient Greek values, particularly against those who are cunning or deceitful, this is not likely to be the case. There are many other examples of ancient Greek myths where cunning and cleverness is highly rewarded— particularly in the tales of Odysseus (pronounced oh-DIS-ee-uhs), a hero who is sometimes mentioned as the possible son of Sisyphus. Indeed, in the tales of Sisyphus, Autolycus—sometimes called the king of thieves—was impressed by the man's cleverness and the two became friends.

In fact, the reason for the harsh punishment of Sisyphus is established quite clearly: he betrayed a promise to Zeus, the king of the gods. Had it not been for that betrayal, Sisyphus would never have faced the wrath of the gods. In fact, the myth even suggests that the ancient Greeks did not consider the gods all powerful, as the cleverness of Sisyphus nearly allows him to escape punishment altogether.

Key Themes and Symbols

An important theme in the myth of Sisyphus is trickery. Throughout his tale, Sisyphus uses his cleverness to trick the gods and other characters. This is shown when he shackles Thanatos and when he convinces Persephone to let him go back to the world of the living. The gods also use trickery when they tell Sisyphus he can go free if he rolls the boulder over the top of the hill—an impossible task. To many, the labor of Sisyphus symbolizes futility, or the inability to ever achieve one's goals.

Sisyphus in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Several examples of ancient pottery have been found that illustrate the myth of Sisyphus. For a myth that has survived with such popularity into modern times, however, there are relatively few examples of art featuring the clever character—a 1549 depiction by Titian being the most notable. The philosopher Albert Camus wrote an essay titled “The Myth of Sisyphus,” in which the author compares the task of Sisyphus to the human struggle to find meaning in the world. Sisyphus has been featured in an animated commercial for the energy beverage Red Bull, and the myth has been referenced in songs by artists as varied as Pink Floyd and Marilyn Manson. In modern language, the phrase “labor of Sisyphus” refers to any hopeless task that must be repeated endlessly. The name Sisyphus has also been used to signify a type of dung beede, known for rolling up large balls of dung not unlike the boulder in the myth.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

A “Sisyphean task” is a job that seemingly never ends because the work needed to complete a given goal must often be repeated many times. Sisyphus is punished with such a task. Can you think of any jobs in modern society that might be considered “Sisyphean”? Why do you think people take on such jobs? Should they be pitied? Or should they be considered heroic for their persistence?

SEE ALSO Greek Mythology; Hades

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