The myth of Sisyphus – Alex Gendler


Whether it’s being chained to a burning
wheel, turned into a spider, or having an eagle eat one’s liver, Greek mythology is filled
with stories of the gods inflicting gruesome horrors
on mortals who angered them. Yet one of their most famous
punishments is not remembered for its outrageous cruelty,
but for its disturbing familiarity. Sisyphus was the first king of Ephyra,
now known as Corinth. Although a clever ruler who made his city
prosperous, he was also a devious tyrant who seduced his niece and
killed visitors to show off his power. This violation of the sacred hospitality
tradition greatly angered the gods. But Sisyphus may still have
avoided punishment if it hadn’t been for his
reckless confidence. The trouble began when Zeus
kidnapped the nymph Aegina, carrying her away in the form
of a massive eagle. Aegina’s father, the river god Asopus,
pursued their trail to Ephyra, where he encountered Sisyphus. In exchange for the god making
a spring inside the city, the king told Asopus which way
Zeus had taken the girl. When Zeus found out, he was so furious
that he ordered Thanatos, or Death, to chain Sisyphus in the underworld
so he couldn’t cause any more problems. But Sisyphus lived up to
his crafty reputation. As he was about to be imprisoned, the king asked Thanatos to show him
how the chains worked – and quickly bound him instead,
before escaping back among the living. With Thanatos trapped, no one could die,
and the world was thrown into chaos. Things only returned to normal
when the god of war Ares, upset that battles were no longer fun,
freed Thanatos from his chains. Sisyphus knew his reckoning was at hand. But he had another trick up his sleeve. Before dying, he asked his wife Merope
to throw his body in the public square, from where it eventually washed up on
the shores of the river Styx. Now back among the dead,
Sisyphus approached Persephone, queen of the Underworld, and complained that his wife had disrespected him
by not giving him a proper burial. Persephone granted him permission to go
back to the land of living and punish Merope, on the condition that
he would return when he was done. Of course, Sisyphus refused
to keep his promise, now having twice escaped death
by tricking the gods. There wouldn’t be a third time, as the messenger Hermes dragged
Sisyphus back to Hades. The king had thought he was
more clever than the gods, but Zeus would have the last laugh. Sisyphus’s punishment was
a straightforward task – rolling a massive boulder up a hill. But just as he approached the top, the
rock would roll all the way back down, forcing him to start over …and over, and over, for all eternity. Historians have suggested that the tale
of Sisyphus may stem from ancient myths about the rising and setting sun,
or other natural cycles. But the vivid image of someone condemned
to endlessly repeat a futile task has resonated as an allegory
about the human condition. In his classic essay
The Myth of Sisyphus, existentialist philosopher Albert Camus
compared the punishment to humanity’s futile search
for meaning and truth in a meaningless and
indifferent universe. Instead of despairing, Camus imagined
Sisyphus defiantly meeting his fate as he walks down the hill to begin
rolling the rock again. And even if the daily
struggles of our lives sometimes seem equally
repetitive and absurd, we still give them significance and value
by embracing them as our own.

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