sisyphus: cheating death - ameera patel

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a mortal who became infamous for his cunning ways. Eventually, after cheating death twice, he received a torturous punishment in the Underworld. This is how one version of the myth goes:

Sisyphus was born to Aeolus, King of Thessaly, and was the founder and first King of Ephyra (now known as Corinth). He was a devious ruler who angered the gods when he repeatedly violated Xenia (the sacred custom of offering protection and hospitality to strangers) by murdering his guests. Sisyphus also demonstrated his power by seducing his niece and stealing his brother’s throne.

First Escape

Disguised as an eagle, Zeus kidnapped the nymph, Aegina, who was the daughter of the river god, Asopus. Upon his search for his daughter, Asopus encountered Sisyphus who promised to tell him where his daughter was in exchange for an eternal spring of water in Ephyra. Zeus was infuriated at this betrayal and ordered Thanatos (the personification of Death) to take Sisyphus to the Underworld and chain him up. Sisyphus, however, was up to his usual tricks and asked Thanatos to show him how the chains worked. He then swiftly managed to bound Thanatos up instead. With Death chained up, the world was thrown into Chaos as no one could die and go to the Underworld. Eventually, Ares (the god of war) grew frustrated that he couldn’t slay anyone in battle and released Thanatos.

art: ira welankar

Second Escape

Escaping death once was not enough for Sisyphus and he hatched another plan. Aware that his time was nearly up, he gave instructions to his wife, Merope, to later forgo the necessary funeral rites and cast his unburied body in the public square where it would eventually wash up on the shores of the river Styx (this was the river that formed the boundary between the living world and the Underworld). On his arrival among the dead, Sisyphus convinced Persephone (Queen of the Underworld) to let him return to the living world to punish Merope for disrespecting him by not giving him a proper burial. Persephone agreed on the condition that he would return. Of course, Sisyphus lived up to his sly reputation by scolding his wife but refusing to return. Eventually, Hermes (the messenger of the gods) dragged him back down to the Underworld.

Zeus did not take kindly to a mere mortal like Sisyphus trying to outsmart the gods and inflicted on him an eternal punishment – to roll an enormous boulder up a hill. However, as soon as he approached the top of the hill, the boulder would roll back down, forcing him to begin again. This is where the term ‘Sisyphean’ comes from - it first appeared in the 17th century and can be used to describe a task that is endless and cannot be completed.

So what can we learn from Sisyphus and his rock? Was there a reason why Zeus chose such a repetitive punishment? Was he trying to teach Sisyphus a specific lesson? The Greek gods were powerful, immortal beings and had control over many different aspects of life on earth. Let’s not forget Zeus was not a saint and kidnapping Aegina was just one of his many countless love affairs. However, Sisyphus attempted to resist death twice, and as a mortal, this meant disrupting the natural order of the universe. Maybe his unattainable task reinforces the fact he is a mortal and despite his best efforts to roll the boulder, he would always be inferior to the immortal gods. If Greek mythology has taught us anything, it’s that you can never escape the wrath of the gods.

- ameera patel

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