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The Myth of Sisyphus

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the son of King Aeolus of Thessaly and Enarete. (Image:  pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the son of King Aeolus of Thessaly and Enarete. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the son of King Aeolus of Thessaly and Enarete. He was the founder and first king of Ephyra (glorious city of Corinth). The stories portray him as being a cunning, selfish ruler who mocked and killed travelers and guests, mistreated women, and violated xenia. Others portray him as being a capable and wise man who enacted the Isthmian Games in honor of his nephew’s, Melicerte, death.

According to a story, Sisyphus witnessed the kidnapping of Asopu’s daughter, Aegina, by Zeus in his home town of Corinth. Asopus asked Sisyphus to assist him, and he agreed to inform Asopus as to who had kidnapped Aegina. In exchange, Asopus gave Sisyphus the citadel at Corinth, a crystal-water spring. To complete the deal, he had to bear witness against Zeus, so Sisyphus earned the wrath of the gods while earning earthly wealth and happiness for himself and his people.

Sisyphys (1548–49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain. (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

‘Sisyphys’ (1548-49) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

When Sisyphus died, Zeus and the rest of the Olympians wanted to condemn him eternally for the evildoing he committed during his lifetime. As punishment, they sent him to Tartarus and forced him to pull a huge rock up the mountain. The moment before it reaches the top, and when it was too heavy to pull anymore, the rock rolls back down to the foothills, and Sisyphus has to start his efforts all over again.

In our modern times, the Sisyphus myth is oftentimes used to describe humanity’s fruitless efforts to escape its own realities and boundaries.

Albert Camus, a French author, in 1942 introduced his philosophy of the absurd in his book Le Mythe de Sisyphe. The philosophy of absurdity was developed as a branch of existentialist philosophy, which considers life as a meaningless, useless, and fruitless nihilistic existence, and providing suicide as the only solution.

However, Camus coined the concept of absurdism and rejected suicide as a solution, which definitely is not the solution of a troubled life, and therefore suggesting that a absurd life should be taken as a challenge and it should be continued. Focusing on Sisyphus, he described him as being a happy man who should remain happy as long as he accepted the punishment forced upon him by Zeus.

Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attica black-figure amphora (vase), c. 530 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attica black-figure amphora (vase), c. 530 B.C., Staatliche Antikensammlungen. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

From a different perspective, the myth couldn’t possibly attribute a derogatory meaning to humanity’s efforts by the ancient Greeks, as it would contradict the “evaluation” criteria for mortals set by the gods in the afterlife.

According to mythology, after death, Elysium awaited those mortals who reclaimed their attainments, and the goods their immortal benefactors have imparted to them while producing virtue in their lives on Earth. Hades and Tartarus awaited those mortals who hadn’t achieved greatness during their lives, and even committed evil crimes.

The myth does not necessarily symbolize an individual’s efforts by recognizing their inability to produce great things. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a need to segregate the afterlife based upon one’s conduct in life. Consequently, the myth refers to mankind’s collective efforts and the need to develop, perfect, and understand those efforts.

Written by Sofia.

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