Sisyphus (shrewd or wise) In Greek mythology, first king of Corinth, a trickster noted for shrewdness and cleverness; son of Aeolus, king of Thessaly, and Enarete. When Zeus raped the nymph Aegina, daughter of the river god Asopus, Sisyphus promised to tell Asopus what had happened, but only on the condition that Asopus would give Corinth a spring on top of the Acrocorinth, its acropolis. Zeus was so angry at what happened that he sent Thanatos, Death, to kill Sisyphus, only to have Thanatos bound by Sisyphus so that no one could die. Zeus then sent Ares, the war god, to free Thanatos. As soon as Thanatos was free, he killed Sisyphus, but before Sisyphus died he asked his wife, Merope, not to perform the prescribed funeral rites for his burial. This angered both Hades and his wife, Persephone, deities of the underworld, who sent Sisyphus back to earth to have the burial sacrifices offered. Sisyphus promised to return to the underworld afterwards, but he lived to a very old age before he died again. Zeus, angered, devised a punishment for Sisyphus when he did return to the underworld. He was required to roll a boulder up a hill, but whenever it reached the top, it rolled back down—and had to be rolled up the hill again, over and over. Thus Sisyphean came to mean a fruitless, endless task. Sisyphus appears or is cited in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book 4); Spenser’s Faerie Queene (I.v.35); and Pope’s “Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day” and supplies the title for Camus’ collection of existential essays, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), in which Camus explores the absurdity of life. Titian painted a Sisyphus.
Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante