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
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.
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?