Unit 2: Hades and the Underworld

Story: Sisyphus and Tantalus

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Art by thechewu on Deviantart, \ccbyncsa

Hades, The King Of The Dead

Adapted from Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding, \ccpd

Hades, the god of the underworld, was also a brother of Zeus; but the Greeks did not think of him as being bright and beautiful like the other gods. They believed that he helped make the seeds sprout and push their leaves above the surface of the earth, and that he gave men the gold and silver which they dug out of their mines. But more often they thought of him as the god of the bleak world of the dead; so they imagined that he was dark and grim in appearance, and they feared him more than they did the other gods, although he was not the one to punish those who were corrupt.

The spirits who had lived bad lives in the world above were horribly punished in the world of the dead, and a few were so evil that they were directly punished by Zeus himself. One such soul was King Sisyphus, who had been cruel all his life, constantly trying to outsmart the gods. He noticed a river god, Asopus, looking for his daughter. Sisyphus told him, “I know where your daughter is. If you could bring a freshwater spring to my city, I will tell you where she is.” Asopus did not want to give in–his water was very valuable, but he also missed his dear daughter. He relented, and Sisyphus pointed, “Over there!” Asopus looked in that direction and found who other than Zeus carrying off a laughing water nymph. Zeus was furious but too busy to punish Sisyphus at the time. To escape Asopus, Zeus turned into a rock, and also changed the girl to the island of Aegina.

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Charon taking souls across the river Styx. By Otto Brausewetter, circa 1904, \ccpd

After returning to Mount Olympus, Zeus sent Thanatos, the god of death, to steal Sisyphus from the living and chain him in Tartarus. The king felt honored that the god of death himself would come take him, but also asked why it wasn’t Hermes who had come to take him, as is usual. Thanatos did not have an answer, and while he was standing there thinking, Sisyphus wrapped the god of death in chains around a tree. This was totally disastrous. Outside of Hades’ realm, no one could die. The old and sick continued to suffer. The Fates stopped threading and cutting their strings of life and the whole Earth was in chaos. Zeus once again was so infuriated that he told Sisyphus if he doesn’t free Hades, he would make life so miserable for him that he would wish he were dead. Sisyphus threw back his head and let out a good laugh while he unraveled Thanatos’ chains. Finally, the world could go back to normal.

Even though the king freed Thanatos, Zeus wanted to make good on his threat. Nonetheless, even in death Sisyphus tried to cheat the gods. He did not want his soul to feel the rage of Hades and Zeus, so when he died, he told his wife to not put a coin in his mouth to pay Charon’s fare and to throw his naked body in the public square when he died. Then, complaining to Persephone, goddess of the Underworld, that this was a sign of his wife’s disrespect for him, King Sisyphus persuaded her to allow him to return to the upper world. Hades was furious when he found out that Sisyphus tricked his beloved wife. When King Sisyphus refused to return to the Underworld, he was forcibly dragged back there by Hermes.

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Persephone supervising Sisyphus pushing his rock in the Underworld. Side A of an Attic black-figure amphora, circa 530 BCE. \ccpd

Usually it is the task of the three judges of the Underworld to determine the ultimate punishment, but it was Zeus who decided to keep Sisyphus too busy to try any more antics. His punishment would be to roll a great stone up a steep hill and down the other side. At first Sisyphus thought that this would be an easy thing to do. But when he had gotten the stone almost to the top, and it seemed that one more push would send it over and end his task, it suddenly slipped from his hands, and rolled to the foot of the hill again. So it happened every time, and the Greeks believed that Sisyphus would have to keep working in this way as long as the world lasted, and that his task would never be done.

There was once another king, named Tantalus, who was wealthy and fortunate upon earth, and had been loved by the gods of heaven as he was one of Zeus’ sons. Zeus had even invited him to sit at his table once, and had told him the secrets of the gods. But Tantalus had not proved worthy of all this honor. He had not been able to keep the secrets that had been trusted to him, but had told them to all the world. He also stole some ambrosia and nectar, the food of the gods, to give to his human friends.

Not only that, but he invited Zeus and the other gods to a feast, where he took his son Pelops and prepared him for their meal. Tantalus wanted to see if the gods were omniscient. Zeus indeed found it out, collected the limbs, and asked Clotho, one of the fates, to restore the boy to life, but Demeter had been so distracted with grief about her daughter, that she had eaten one shoulder, and Zeus had Hephaestus fashion him an ivory one instead.

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Tantalus, by William Darlington, 1832, \ccpd

So when his soul came before the judge of the dead, he, too, was given a horrible punishment. He was chained in the middle of a sparkling little lake where the water came up almost to his lips. He was always burning with thirst; but whenever he bent down to drink from the lake, the water sank into the ground below him. He was always hungry, and branches loaded with delicious fruits hung just over him. But whenever he raised his hand to grab them, the breeze swung them just out of his reach. Food and drink would forever elude him. In this way the Greeks thought that Tantalus was to be punished forever because he had betrayed the gods.

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Tantalus being taken away by Hermes for his crimes. Painting by Hugues Taraval, 1767, \ccpd

Vocabulary from the Story

These two stories of bad kings give us the idiom “Sisyphean task” and the word “tantalize”. Read their definitions and explanations below, and then answer the questions on the next page. From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

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From Google dictionary:

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  1.  What do you feel is your Sisyphean task?
  2. What is something that tantalizes you?

Read the information below about the phrase “cheat death” from Wikipedia:

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  1. Have you every cheated death? Explain.

Other vocabulary:

  1. We have a phrase related to the story of Tantalus: (so close) (someone) can (almost) taste it. Describe a time something was so close, such as a win, a good score on a test, or a promotion, that you could almost taste it.
  2. We also get a few words from Thanatos, the god of death,usually using the prefix thanato-. Use a dictionary to find the meaning of the words below.
    1. euthanasia
    2. thanatology
    3. thanatophobia

Comprehension Questions

Answer the questions below according to the reading using your own words. Make a note of where you found the answer in your reading.

  1. Who was Sisyphus?
  2. What was the first way Sisyphus betrayed Zeus?
  3. What was the second way Sisyphus tricked the gods, and which god?
  4. What happened that caused Sisyphus to release this god?
  5. In the end, what was Sisyphus’ punishment?
  6. Who was Tantalus?
  7. What were two ways that Tantalus tricked the gods?
  8. Who accidentally ate Pelops’ shoulder and why?
  9. Fortunately, Zeus puts Pelops back together, except for his shoulder. What is done about that?
  10. What is Tantalus’ punishment?

Critical Thinking Questions

Answer the following questions. Compare your answers with a partner.

  1. Why is it appropriate that Hephaestus made Pelops’ new shoulder?
  2. Why do you think the gods were so appalled that they had been served human for dinner?
  3. What do you think was the purpose the Greeks told these two stories?
  4. What season could it possibly be when the story of Tantalus took place?
  5. The last sentence of philosopher Albert Camus’ 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” is the following: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” How would you interpret this sentence?

Did you know?

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by Stas1995, Hi-Res Images of Chemical Elements, \ccby

On the periodic table of elements is a chemical named tantalum, named after Tantalus. Above it on the table is niobium, named after his daughter, Niobe. Niobium was originally named columbium. In 1846 a German chemist thought he found another element in a sample of the mineral tantalite and wanted to name it pelopium, after Tantalus’ son Pelops, but it was found to be just a mixture of tantalum and niobium. Tantalum is used in electronics such as mobile phones and computers, while niobium is used in MRI scanners and jewelry.

 

 

Analyzing Cartoons

With a classmate, discuss the meaning of the following cartoons. Cartoons are a way for artists to comment on current events. What topics are they talking about in the cartoons below? What do you know about the topic? How does it connect to the stories of Sisyphus and Tantalus?

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by Gojko Franulic, December 2017. \ccbyncnd
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by erasershavings on Fiverr, permission granted for use by author only.
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by Ridwan Syahroni on Fiverr, permission granted for use by author only

Click here for more cartoons:

CEFR Level: CEF Level B1

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It’s All Greek to Me! by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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