April 15, 2022

#08-203: In Tartarus

Sisyphus, Ixion, and Tantalus on an antique Roman sarcophagus

Note: Sisyphus, Tantalus, and Ixion are just three of the many denizens of Tartarus. Let's see what they did, and how they were punished for their actions.

Get Ready: What tantalizes you?

In Greek mythology, Tartarus is an abyss where the wicked are subjected to torment. Three denizens of the place are usually discussed.

The best-known is King Sisyphus, who broke the rules of hospitality by killing his guests. Thanatos (Death) was supposed to chain him up in Tartarus; but he tricked Thanatos (by asking for a demonstration of how the chains worked) and chained him up instead! This made Ares (God of War) unhappy--no more death on earth, even in battle--so he released Thanatos, who then properly chained up Sisyphus.

Still later, Sisyphus convinced Persephone, goddess of the underworld, to allow him to return to the world of the living to chide his wife for not burying him properly. Once above, he refused to return; Hermes had to drag him back to Tartarus.

For these offenses, even after death, a special punishment was devised for him: He had to roll a huge boulder up a hill. Every time he neared the top, it would roll down again, and he would have to start over. Today, a difficult task that can never be completed is called "Sisyphean."

Another well-known dweller in Tartarus was King Tantalus, who cut up his own son and served him as a meal to the gods. He also stole the ambrosia, food of the gods; revealed the gods' secrets to his people; and stole a golden clockwork dog made by Hephaestus, smith of the gods.

For all of this he was placed in a pool of water under a fruit tree with low branches. Any time he reached for a fruit, it rose too high for him to reach; and any time he tried to drink the water, it receded before he could reach it. The word "tantalize," meaning to tempt someone with something they can never have, comes from his name.

The third member of this unholy trio is not so well known. King Ixion murdered his father-in-law and was punished by human law. But when Zeus took pity on him and invited him to a banquet, Ixion tried to seduce Zeus's wife Hera. So Zeus created a cloud that looked like Hera; when Ixion made love to it, a child named Centaurus was born. (Centaurus later mated with some horses and created the half-man, half-horse race of Centaurs.) Zeus struck Ixion with a thunderbolt and then tied him to a wheel of fire that spun through the sky but ended up down in Tartarus.


Ixion was there, fastened to the circumference of a wheel ceaselessly revolving; and Sisyphus, whose task was to roll a huge stone up to a hill-top, but when the steep was well-nigh gained, the rock, repulsed by some sudden force, rushed again headlong down to the plain. Again he toiled at it, while the sweat bathed all his weary limbs, but all to no effect. There was Tantalus, who stood in a pool, his chin level with the water, yet he was parched with thirst, and found nothing to assuage it; for when he bowed his hoary head, eager to quaff, the water fled away, leaving the ground at his feet all dry. Tall trees laden with fruit stooped their heads to him, pears, pomegranates, apples, and luscious figs; but when with a sudden grasp he tried to seize them winds whirled them high above his reach.

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. abyss
  2. chide
  3. clockwork
  4. denizens
  5. devised
  6. hospitality
  7. receded
  8. torment
  9. trio
  10. unholy

  1. machine-like
  2. a very deep place
  3. kind treatment of guests
  4. a group of three
  5. sinful; wicked
  6. created; invented
  7. people who live in a place
  8. torture
  9. scold
  10. went down or back

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for April 15, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. i; 3. a; 4. g; 5. f; 6. c; 7. j; 8. h; 9. d; 10. e