Tantalus and Sisyphus
According to Greek mythology, after mortals died, their souls were sent to the Underworld. Before the gods were created, the Afterlife was a complete mess. Even after the gods came into existence, no one paid attention to the gloomy place. Until Hades mentioned it. So, Hades was made the god of the Underworld. Hades organized the place and made sure the souls ended up in the correct places. After the Underworld was functioning properly, the other gods had a huge advantage. If any mortal messed with them, they could blast him to pieces, visit Hades, and demand a special punishment. Here are the two best examples.
That guy was messed up. He was a king, a son of Zeus. He was favoured and invited to Mount Olympus to share immortals’ food. Great honour, huh? But Tantalus got greedy. He wanted to take the divine food back to Earth. Zeus disagreed completely. Tantalus was angry. He invited the gods for dinner at his house. He prepared an absolutely disgusting meal by killing his son and making stew out of the flesh. Every god except Demeter recognized the meat and refused to eat it. Demeter, who was too distracted by her missing daughter, ate the shoulder. When Tantalus’s son was resurrected, he was given an ivory replacement. Zeus killed Tantalus, went to Hades, and demanded a punishment that involved food. Hades was feeling very creative and thought up the perfect punishment.
Tantalus was sunk waist-deep in a pool of water, his feet stuck to the bottom. Above him hung a tree that bore all kinds of fruit. His punishment was to stand there forever. When he got hungry, Tantalus reached for fruit. The branches rose just above reach. When he got thirsty, he scooped up water, but it instantly vaporized. He could neither eat nor drink. The English word ‘tantalizing’ comes from Tantalus’s name.
Sisyphus’s problem was that he didn’t want to die. One day Thanatos, the god of Death who helped Hades, showed up at Sisyphus’s house. Sisyphus opened the door and found a big guy with dark feathery wings looming behind him. Sisyphus immediately grabbed a pole and knocked him out. He tied Thanatos up, gagged him, and shoved him under the bed. Without the god of Death, nobody died. At first, no one complained. Then a big battle happened between two cities. Ares, the war god, was angry because Death was absent. Sure, it was messy, with plenty of blood, but no one fell.
“Where’s Death?” Ares screamed. “No fun without Death.”
Ares set off on a search. Finally, he came to Sisyphus’s house and asked:
“Have you seen a big guy with feathery wings?”
Sisyphus tried to hide his panic, but Ares sensed it. He knocked down the house and found Thanatos under the bed. Both gods turned on Sisyphus and vaporized him. Once Sisyphus got to the Underworld, he tricked Hades, came back to the mortal world, and somehow put his body back together. He thought Hades would forget him, but he was wrong. Hades sent the messenger god, Hermes, to look for Sisyphus. Hermes wore a helmet, so Sisyphus couldn’t whack him over the head too easily. Hermes dragged Sisyphus back to the Underworld.
There, Hades had a very special punishment ready. In the Fields of Punishment, there was a hill taller than Everest. At the foot of the hill sat a boulder. Sisyphus had to roll or carry the boulder to the top. Then he’d be free. Sisyphus was relieved. The job would be hard, but it wasn’t impossible.
Unfortunately for him, the job was impossible. Just when Sisyphus reached the top, the boulder would roll back to the bottom, crushing him on the way. Since souls are immortal, he was resurrected. After some time, he wanted to rest. But Sisyphus soon found out that, for some reason, he was unable to stop. He was doomed to roll his rock forever.