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The Punishment of Sisyphus in the Underworld


Sisyphus Punished While Persephone Watches
Nekuia with Ajax Persephone and Sisyphus, by the Swing Painter.

Nekuia with Ajax, Persephone, and Sisyphus, by the Swing Painter. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 530 B.C. From Vulci.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Bibi Saint-Pol, Wikipedia.

Sisyphus Basics | The Punishment of Sisyphus in the Underworld

Sisyphus (Sisyphos), one of the sons of King Aiolos (Aeolus [whence, Aeolians and the Aeolic dialect]) of Thessaly, was doomed to torture for all eternity. Usually he is shown pushing a rock uphill only to have to do it again moments later because once the rock reaches the top it rolls back down again. In this picture, he simply hauls an impossibly large, heavy rock while Persephone, the queen of the Underworld looks on. Sisyphus probably needed constant watching, based on his misdeeds while among the living, but could there may be something else going on?

Note the doublets in this story. The main ones are two extremely clever mortals, repeated death, and a repetition of stones falling down or the parallel between the steep hill in Tartarus and the Acrocorinth. [See role of Susyphus at Corinth.]

Descendants of Deucalion - The Greek Flood Survivor

Sisyphus is one of the descendants of Deucalion of Great Flood fame (the Greek Noah) and a grandson of Hellen. Hellen was the eponymous king of the Greeks, since, in their own language, they are not the Greeks, but Hellenes.

Fragment 4: Deucalionides

Plutarch, Mor. p. 747; Schol. on Pindar Pyth. iv. 263:
"'And from Hellen the war-loving king sprang Dorus and Xuthus and Aeolus delighting in horses. And the sons of Aeolus, kings dealing justice, were Cretheus, and Athamas, and clever Sisyphus, and wicked Salmoneus and overbold Perieres.'"
Hesiod, The Catalogues, Translated by H. G. Evelyn-White [Theoi]

Sisyphus "the clever" was a brother of Salmoneus "the wicked" who had his own run-ins with the gods. Salmoneus had ordered his people, in the kingdom of Salmonia, in Elis -- later to be known as Pylos -- to worship him as Zeus. About Sisyphus' cunning, The Iliad book VI.153 says:

"There is a city in the heart of Argos, pasture land of horses, called Ephyra [later, Corinth], where Sisyphus lived, who was the craftiest of all mankind."

An Unofficial Contest Between Two Tricksters

A neighbor of Sisyphus, the thief Autolycus could magically alter the appearance of objects he stole, so he changed the color of Sisyphus' cattle. Expecting to get away with it, he protested loudly that his neighbor had no animals of that particular color when Sisyphus came to claim his missing property. Sisyphus, however, had been inspired to brand the hooves of his cattle after he had noticed their number dwindling. Through this precaution, Sisyphus outwitted Autolycus, proved, and reclaimed some of his property. In the fracas of Autolycus' men retrieving his property from a still unwilling Autolycus and his men, Hyginus says Sisyphus slipped inside his neighbor's house to have intercourse with Autolycus' daughter Anticlia. Nine months later she produced Odysseus, also known for his cunning, having received a double dose -- from the maternal grandfather and the father. [Hyginus Fabulae 201.]

Sibling Rivalry

In a related story by Hyginus (60), because of a prophecy, Sisyphus deliberately mated with Tyro, a daughter of his hated brother Salmoneus. After Tyro gave birth to two children, she learned that her children would kill her father, so, like a socially more acceptably motivated Medea, she killed them.

Sisyphus Hurls Stones

So far, Sisyphus sounds clever, but not evil. That's not the case when Sisyphus (turned highway robber) rolled deadly rocks from the high hills down upon unsuspecting travelers crossing the Corinthian Isthmus.


Even so, Zeus might not have paid too much attention had Sisyphus devoted his attention to homicide rather than provoking the gods themselves with his impiety.

Diodorus Siculus says Sisyphus was thought to be able to foretell the future:

"[6.6.3] Sisyphus, we are told, excelled all other men in knavery and ingenuity, and by means of his skill in divination by inspection of victims he discovered everything that was to happen and foretold it to mankind."

Sisyphus discovered Zeus was having an affair with Aegina, daughter of the river god Asopus. Asopus agreed to provide a spring of water (the Peirene spring) on the high point of Corinth, the Acrocorinth, in exchange for learning his daughter's whereabouts.

You might wonder why Sisyphus should care about Corinth. He was its king and either the founder of the city of Ephyra (Corinth) or the recipient of it through Medea, who, like Tyro, is known for killing her own two children.

The deal was made, fulfilled, and Zeus, his secret dalliance now out, was enraged.

"[1.9.3] And Sisyphus, son of Aeolus, founded Ephyra, which is now called Corinth, and married Merope, daughter of Atlas. They had a son Glaucus, who had by Eurymede a son Bellerophon, who slew the fire breathing Chimera. But Sisyphus is punished in Hades by rolling a stone with his hands and head in the effort to heave it over the top; but push it as he will, it rebounds backward. This punishment he endures for the sake of Aegina, daughter of Asopus; for when Zeus had secretly carried her off, Sisyphus is said to have betrayed the secret to Asopus, who was looking for her. "
Apollodorus i.9.3

The punishment Zeus inflicted was death. But first Sisyphus had to die.

Sisyphus and the Underworld

When Death (Thanatos) came, Sisyphus tied him up and escaped, according to Pherekydes. In order to avoid what would quickly have become an over-populated world, Ares was sent to rescue Thanatos. The war god succeeded in this mission -- a different outcome from his botched attempt to rescue his mother from the chains of Hephaestus [see: Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus].

Thanatos again went after Sisyphus. But before Sisyphus went to the Underworld, he told his wife, the Pleiad Merope, not to prepare him for the afterlife because he intended to persuade the Underworld rulers to let him return to the land of the living to scold her for her ritual failure. Theognis implies that Sisyphus used his cleverness (an arete 'virtue' rather than the morally ambiguous cunning) to persuade Persephone to allow him to return to the land of the living.

Sisyphus, having succeeded in his ruse, put off death until old age. Ultimately, no matter how wily he may have been and how thoroughly he may have postponed death, he still had to pay for his impiety (whatever it may have consisted of). He paid the stone-rolling (or perhaps, as in the picture, carrying) punishment in Tartarus, the place of punishment in the Greek Underworld with only the single opportunity for a rest when Orpheus sang in the Underworld (Ovid Meta. 10.44).

"[593] 'Aye, and I saw Sisyphus in violent torment, seeking to raise a monstrous stone with both his hands. Verily he would brace himself with hands and feet, and thrust the stone toward the crest of a hill, but as often as he was about to heave it over the top, the weight would turn it back, and then down again to the plain would come rolling the ruthless stone. But he would strain again and thrust it back, and the sweat flowed down from his limbs, and dust rose up from his head.'"
Odyssey Book 11


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