Sisyphus 101

Sisyphus, 1548-1549. Titian. This painting was one of a series of four (including Tityus,, Ixion, and Tantalus) commissioned by the sister of emperor Charles V to serve as warning to those who dared oppose him. The four mythological characters are suffering eternal punishment for opposing the gods. Ixion and Tantalus were destroyed in the 1734 fire at Madrid’s Alcazar Palace. Museo Nacional del Prado Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Sisyphus, 1548-1549. Titian. This painting was one of a series (including Tityus, Ixion, and Tantalus) commissioned by the sister of emperor Charles V to serve as warning to those who dared oppose him. Museo Nacional del Prado Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sisyphus now pursues, now pushes the stone that always comes rolling back. – Ovid, Metamorphosis

Like many, I was introduced to the myth of Sisyphus through the essay of Albert Camus, Nobel prize-winning author/philosopher and Resistance fighter. For Camus, heroism is defined by Sisyphus, fated to spend eternity pushing a huge boulder up a mountain only for it roll back down so he must start all over again.

A tragic hero of course, because Sisyphus is not ignorant that his effort is futile. But that perseverance in the face of futility is true heroism, even joy.

How did Sisyphus find himself in his predicament?

As Camus notes, it was because he dared to oppose the gods. And we all know how that works out.

Sisyphus didn’t just oppose the gods, he fooled death, and not once but twice.

So who is Sisyphus anyway?

Sisyphus was a busy guy. Stories about him can be found in works by Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, among others.

His short bio would mention that he was king (and maybe founder) of Corinth and owner of a resplendent herd of cattle. (More about the cattle another day.) He was married to Merope, one of the Pleiades.

He’s also known, of course, for carrying a massive boulder up a mountain, day after day, in the underworld.

When boulders aren’t just boulders

Robert Graves tells us that the name Sisyphus may to be linked to Tesup (or Teshub) a Hittite sun-god. So that boulder is a sun-disk; the mountain slope, the vault of heaven.

There had been a cult of the sun in Corinth. According to some, the city was founded by a descendant of the sun god Helios.

What made the gods angry?

Zeus abducted the daughter of the river god Asopus. The usual. When Asopus mentioned it to Sisyphus, he responded that he maybe knew something, which he would share if Asopus provided Corinth with a perennial spring. Once the river god complied, Sisyphus explained that he had seen a great eagle carrying the young woman to an island.

Asopus stormed over, but Zeus saw him and threw a thunderbolt, leaving him lame.

Zeus was not pleased with the meddling of Sisyphus, so he sent his brother Hades to carry him off to the underworld.

Sisyphus cheats death, take one

Hades shows up in Corinth with handcuffs. Sisyphus innocently asks how they work. The god of the underworld slips them on and before Hades can say, “check them out, nifty, right?” Sisyphus has locked them.

Hades is trapped and nobody can die. Anywhere. By any means.

Head cut off? No problem. Still alive.

Before long, this causes a bit of a mess. Ares, the god of war, is particularly inconvenienced. He sets Hades free.

Sisyphus cheats death, take two

Persephone supervising Sisyphus pushing his rock in the underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora from Vulci, ~ 530 BCE. From Vulci. Staatliche Antikensammlungen via Wikimedia Commons.
Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora from Vulci, ~ 530 BCE. Staatliche Antikensammlungen via Wikimedia Commons.

This time, Sisyphus planned ahead. He had asked his wife not to perform the proper burial rites, but instead to leave his body in the village square. She does as requested.

When Sisyphus arrives to the underworld, he tells Persephone about his wife’s shameful behavior and pleads to return to the land of living to chastise her. He promises he’ll be right back.

Persephone lets him go

But then he stays in the world of “water and sun, warm stones and the sea.” Years go by, the gods grow impatient.

Enter Hermes

The go-to messenger is sent to return him to the underworld. The gods have found an appropriate punishment.

According to Camus, the greatest sin of Sisyphus was his passion for living. His penalty was to do work which serves for nothing.

Camus recognizes that despair is inevitable 

The world is full of injustice. Tragedy. Accidents happen. All too often our best efforts are for naught.

Nihilism is attractive. Easy.

Camus insists that heroism is to be found in action, in the doing. In the not giving up.

Though he doesn’t mention the link between Sisyphus and the solar god, I find it adds an element of hope. If pushing the rock up the hill is akin to carrying the sun through the sky, doing it day after day has meaning in itself.

Can we ever know the impact of our apparently futile efforts?

7 thoughts on “Sisyphus 101

  1. Wow, I love this one! I learned some details I didn’t know before (like the connection to the sun god — cool!). I love the way you retell these in a casual voice; it makes it so much easier to absorb the meaning. And funnier, too. 🙂 (“check them out, nifty, right?”) And on top of that, your closing gave me chills. Great post; thanks for sharing!

    1. So glad there was something new and something funny. Thank you for coming back to read!

      There’s more to come on Sisyphus. He had quite a “career.” I’ll jump ahead by saying he just might be the father of Odysseus. *cue mysterious music* 🙂

  2. I, too, learned of Sisyphus from Camus. It’ s my favorite stories of all mythology, one I’m constantly reminded of, such as when I mow the yard—over and over again!

    1. So many things are Sisyphean, and they have value (she says while trying to make her way through a thicket grown up in the yard).

  3. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” That’s what I remember most from Camus. The sense that the human condition was about how we impose meaning on meaningless work – that this is our fundamental creative act. I don’t think I really agree with that as it stands – but hey. I’m not French.

    There does seem to be something Zen about many repetitive tasks – but this one, in which it is clear it is supposed to be a task with an end point, with something accomplished – this one just seems cruel to me, and always has.

    1. I heard a very similar comment from my husband last night. I definitely see your point. But I think that Camus was referring to those tasks which are hopeless but necessary, like fighting for justice or working in a hospital. People will die, new injustices constantly creep up, some problems are insurmountable, but you keep going. This may not have been his intention, however. I also, am not French. 🙂

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Paula, and for such a considered response!

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