By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What does the word tantalise have to do with the chemical element tantalum? And what is the connection of both of these to the figure of Tantalus from Greek mythology? To answer these questions, we first need to know who Tantalus was, and what the precise details of the myth surrounding Tantalus was.
So, let’s briefly summarise the story of Tantalus before offering an analysis of its meaning – and its relevance to the verb to tantalise.
Tantalus myth: plot summary
Like so many characters from Greek mythology, Tantalus was the product of Zeus’ philanderings: he was the son of Zeus and Pluto – not the god of the Underworld but a daughter of Cronus (or, in some versions, of Atlas). Tantalus became king of Mount Sipylus and enjoyed vast wealth; he even had a beautiful wife, in the form of Dione, one of the Pleiades or ‘Seven Sisters’. The couple had numerous children, including Pelops and Niobe.
How did Tantalus come to fall from grace? He was beloved of the gods, so he must have done something to anger them. And it was all due to a dog.
Pandareos had stolen a golden dog which had been created to keep watch over the infant Zeus. Pandareos handed the dog to Tantalus for safekeeping, but when he asked it for it back, Tantalus denied that he had it. In some accounts, Hermes asks Tantalus to return the dog to Zeus. In any case, the outcome was the same: Zeus, angered by Tantalus’ perjury (and in some versions of the story, Tantalus was even the one who stole the dog himself), decided to inflict a terrible punishment on him.
So Zeus imprisoned Tantalus under Mount Sipylus before Tantalus was sent off to the Underworld to endure his eternal punishment. And it is this punishment for which he is now best-remembered.
Invited by the gods to dine with them in the Underworld, Tantalus revealed the secrets of the gods’ special food and drink to humans, much as Prometheus is credited with stealing fire from the gods and giving its secret to mankind. Thanks to Tantalus spilling the beans, or the ambrosia anyway, mortals knew about the ambrosia and nectar which the gods ate and drank. And the gods weren’t happy at their culinary secrets being passed on to lowly man in this way.
Indeed, the parallel with Prometheus is worth dwelling upon, since in some versions of the myth, Tantalus actually steals some of the gods’ food and passes it to mortals.
And the nature of Tantalus’ punishment for this transgression varies from telling to telling. In one version, he was placed under a big stone which hovered just above him, in constant danger of falling.
But the most famous version is surely the one in which Tantalus was condemned to live in a state of perpetual hunger and thirst, plunged into water which, when he went to take a sip, moved away from him, and taunted with a branch full of fruit just above his head, which disappeared out of his reach whenever he went to pluck a fruit from it.
Tantalus myth: analysis
The Tantalus story is obviously, like the Prometheus myth, a tale about what happens to those people who, marked by the sin of pride, presume to anger the gods. Tantalus’ punishment, being in the Underworld, was eternal, so he would always know the horrible feeling of extreme hunger and thirst but would be denied satisfaction.
For this reason, the verb tantalise came into being, meaning to torment somebody by showing a promised thing which is always kept just out of reach. For this reason, strictly speaking, tantalise should perhaps not be used as a straightforward synonym for ‘tease’, since teasing may end in fulfilment, but tantalising never does, if the spirit of the verb remains true to its origins in the myth.
What of the chemical element named tantalum? Tantalum is a rare metal derived from a mineral, tantalite, which is itself rare. But this is not how tantalum got its name. No: tantalum is an unusual element in that, when placed in acid, it is unaffected by it – much as Tantalus is unaffected by the water in which he stands (because it cannot quench his thirst). (There is a rumour that the element was named after Tantalus because its discoverer had failed on several occasions to find it; he had, tantalisingly, always just missed out on discovering his new element. But this is not the reason for the name.)
There is another element, niobium, named after Tantalus’ daughter, Niobe, because it contains similar properties to tantalum. Curiously, for more than a century, until the 1940s, niobium was also known by an alternative name, columbium, named in honour of the United States (i.e., Columbia, from Columbus), after the country in which the element was first found in a fragment of rock from Connecticut.
Curiously, the endlessly informative The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin Dictionary) lists three different characters named Tantalus: the other two are less famous than the Tantalus discussed above, but worth mentioning. One of them was a son of Thyestes, who himself was one of the sons of the Tantalus mentioned above (so this younger Tantalus was named after his grandfather). Atreus, who hated Thyestes, murdered this second Tantalus and put him in a stew, which was served to Thyestes at dinner.
Even this second Tantalus has two different histories: in one version he ends up in a stew, while in the other he was the first husband of Clytemnestra, who later married Agamemnon; Agamemnon, who was Tantalus’ nephew, killed his uncle.
Then there’s the third Tantalus, who was also a grandson of the original Tantalus but via the latter’s daughter Niobe. Not much else is known about him, so he’s the most mysterious – tantalisingly so, we might say – of the various Tantaluses that Greek myth offers us.