By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The poster-boy of existentialism, Sisyphus has become associated with laborious and pointless tasks, because he was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, only for the boulder to roll back down to the bottom just as he was about to complete the task. He was thus doomed to repeat this action forever.
However, there’s a lot more to the story of Sisyphus than this snapshot, so let’s take a closer look at the Sisyphus myth, who he was, and why he was so important to ancient Greek civilisation.
Summary of the Sisyphus myth
Although he’s best-known now for rolling a stone up a hill, Sisyphus did lots before he was doomed to repeat that (literal) uphill struggle. He was the mythical founder of the city-state of Corinth (called Ephyra at the time) and was viewed as the successor to Medea – she of the doomed relationship with Jason, of Argonauts fame.
He was also credited with founding the Isthmian games, which were held both the year before and the year after the Olympic Games (the second and fourth years of an Olympiad), from around 582 BC (nearly two centuries after the first Olympic games were held).
Sisyphus is credited with siring, among others, Glaucus, Bellerophon, and even – in one version – wily Odysseus himself. The story goes that Autolycus had stolen Sisyphus’ flock, but Sisyphus, viewed by many as the most cunning of all men, had taken the precaution of branding his name onto his animals, so he could prove the stolen flock was his. Autolycus’ daughter Anticleia was due to marry Laertes the next day after this thwarted act of farmyard theft took place, and Sisyphus, to get his revenge, slipped into Anticleia’s bed the night before her wedding and seduced her. She conceived Odysseus as a result.
But because Autolycus was impressed by Sisyphus’ cleverness, he happily gave up his daughter to Sisyphus, because he wanted to have a wily and quick-thinking grandson. Odysseus certainly grew up to be just that, as Homer’s Odyssey attests. Laertes, in this version of the Odysseus’ story, wasn’t Odysseus’ biological father, then.
But how did Sisyphus end up being condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, for all eternity? That, too, depends on which version of the myth you read.
For instance, according to one account, Sisyphus ended up rolling that rock uphill because he snitched on Zeus during one of the god’s various acts of abduction involving young and beautiful women. When Zeus made off with Aegina, Sisyphus saw him. Aegina’s father, Asopus, found out that Sisyphus had witnessed it and he asked Sisyphus to tell him who had took his daughter.
Sisyphus, ever the wily man, made him a deal: he’d tell Asopus who had made off with his daughter if Asopus made a spring gush onto the citadel of Corinth. Asopus agreed to this, and Sisyphus dropped Zeus right in it.
Zeus, whose short temper was as legendary as his penchant for running off with maidens, wasn’t too happy about Sisyphus dobbing him in like this, so he struck Sisyphus down with a thunderbolt. Transported to the Underworld, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, for all eternity.
Homer, however, tells the story quite differently. Here, Sisyphus’ ‘crime’ was refusing to die when the gods decreed it. So, Zeus sent Thanatos, the spirit of Death, to carry the stubborn Sisyphus off to the Underworld. But Zeus had underestimated how wily Sisyphus was, and Sisyphus was waiting for Thanatos when he arrived, chained up this deathly agent, and in doing so, suspended death across all of the world. With Thanatos in captivity, nobody – including Sisyphus himself – could die.
But you cannot cheat death forever, and Sisyphus was forced, by Zeus, to unchain Thanatos so that the daily business of death could resume.
Unfortunately for Sisyphus, his name was first on the list.
But once again, Sisyphus tricked his way out of it. He hatched a plan with his wife, telling her that when they carried him off to the Underworld, she shouldn’t observe the funeral rites usually accorded a dead person. When Sisyphus arrived before Hades in the Underworld, he complained that his wife had refused to honour him when he died, and Hades agreed to let him go back and chastise his rude widow. The trick worked, and Sisyphus somehow got away with living for many more years.
When he did eventually die, the gods made sure he couldn’t trick his way out of the Underworld again, by setting him the endless task with which he is now so closely associated: rolling that massive rock forever up a hill, only to find – when he reached the top of the hill – that the rock rolled all the way back down to the bottom and he had to start all over again.
Analysis of the Sisyphus myth
Not all Greek myths have a ‘moral’ as such, but it’s clear, when we look at a fuller summary of the story (or stories) of Sisyphus, that his punishment – rolling that rock endlessly up a hill – was contrived by the gods in response to Sisyphus’ legendary craftiness and cunning. You really can be too clever for your own good: Sisyphus was.
The story of Sisyphus is so well-known in modern times thanks to Albert Camus, whose essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ (1942) is an important text about the absurdity of modern life (although it’s often described as being ‘Existentialist’, Camus’ essay is actually closer to Absurdism).
For Camus, Sisyphus is the poster-boy for Absurdism, because he values life over death and wishes to enjoy his existence as much as possible, but is instead thwarted in his aims by being condemned to carry out a repetitive and pointless task. Such is the life of modern man: condemned to perform the same futile daily rituals every day, working without fulfilment, with no point or purpose to much of what he does.
However, for Camus – and again, this part is generally misunderstood by people who haven’t read Camus’ essay but only heard about its ‘argument’ at second hand – there is something positive in Sisyphus’ condition, or rather his approach to his rather gloomy fate. When Sisyphus sees the stone rolling back down the hill and has to march back down after it, knowing he will have to begin the same process all over again, Camus suggests that Sisyphus would come to realise the absurd truth of his plight, and treat it with appropriate scorn.
In a sense, he is ‘free’: not from having to perform the task, but from performing it unquestioningly or in the vain hope that it will end. He has liberated his own mind by confronting the absurdity of his situation, and can view it with the appropriate contempt and good humour. As the old line has it, ‘you have to laugh …’
Of course, the Greek gods were capricious, and weren’t always justified when meting out their punishments to mortals, but Sisyphus’ determination to cheat death is obviously doomed to failure, in the long run. Indeed, the ancient Greeks knew, as every civilisation worthy of the name has known, that death is an inevitable and even desirable part of life: for people to live forever would be unbearable, a hell on earth, with no room being made for the next generation. In all the various versions of the myth of Sisyphus, he is not merely cunning (a quality we can applaud), but self-interested.
He sleeps with Laertes’ bride-to-be as revenge for Autolycus’ attempted theft of his flock, and, one suspects, because he fancied the girl himself. He dropped Zeus in it with Asopus, not because he believed it the morally right thing to do, but because there was something in it for him. And he tried to cheat death because he didn’t want to face his own end.
We might admire Sisyphus for his quick-thinking skills and his guile, but what makes him a compelling Greek ‘hero’ – if we can use that word of him – is his selfish streak that makes him flawed, and, therefore, more human to us.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.