Detail of Colossal Krater from Altamura- 350BC, Archaeological Museum of Naples - getty.edu
Detail of Colossal Krater from Altamura- 350BC, Archaeological Museum of Naples - getty.edu

What do Homer, Franz Kafka and Percy Jackson have in common? One way or another, they all discussed the exciting story of the mythical king of Corinth, Sisyphus!

Probably one of the most interesting and by far one of the most influential figures ofGreek mythology, Sisyphus and his toil inspired authors and intellectuals of both the ancient and modern world. From Homer, Plato, and Ovid to Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Simone de Beauvoir, his emblematic story survived through the centuries and even became part of modern pop-culture. His story even makes an appearance in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, helping Percy in the Fields of Punishment, while it is also mentioned in Lemony Snicket's: A series of Unfortunate Events! But who is Sisyphus and what is so special about him?

Sisyphus was the son of King of Thessaly Aeolus and Enarete -translating in Greek to 'the virtuous one'. He was the mythical founder and King of the city of Ephyra, which was later on renamed Corinth. As King, he succeeded in making the city an important trading center and eventually, Ephyra prospered, but at a price. Sisyphus with his brutal reign managed to remain in power by outsmarting his opponents with numerous deceitful actions.

Ancient Corinth - credits: WitR/Shutterstock.com

Even though he had already raised the attention of the Gods, one particular event sealed his destiny. Once, while being on his land in Corinth, Sisyphus witnessed the sight of a huge eagle abducting a young maiden. Stunned at first, he quickly realized that the majestic beast was Zeus himself, having taken the form of his sacred bird. The unlucky young maiden was Aegina, the daughter of the river-god Asopus. In her time of need, she desperately screamed for her father's help. When Asopus arrived in Corinth, he asked Sisyphus whether he knew anything in regard to his beloved daughter. Sisyphus agreed to confess to him everything he knew but on one condition: a new spring on top of his acropolis (Acrocorinth), for the watering of Corinth.

Detail: Aegina and Zeus, Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) - credits: wikipedia.org

When Zeus realized Sisyphus betrayed him, he furiously ordered Thanatos (Death) to capture and lead him to Tartarus, the deepest part of the Underworld. Tartarus was known as the prison of Titans and as a place of divine punishment designed for the most wicked souls. There, Sisyphus cleverly exercised all of his craftiness. By the time Thanatos showed him the enchanted chains of Tartarus, Sisyphus slyly tricked him to chain himself by persistently asking him to demonstrate how the chains worked. That way, he managed to escape to the world of the living but with terrible consequences: with Thanatos trapped, no one could die, therefore the world got full of invincible warriors and undying old men! A huge turmoil was created and Ares, the god of war, decided to intervene. With no one dead, warfare and battles had lost their purpose, so he descended to the Underworld to free Thanatos from his divine chains.

Ancient Corinth Private Trip from Athens
LEARN MORE

When Sisyphus grew old, terrified of facing Thanatos again, he ordered his wife Merope to throw his body on the public square of Ephyra -or Corinth- after his imminent death. As a result, Sisyphus could not continue his journey to the Underworld and found himself trapped on the shores of the river Styx. There, he pled to Persephone, the wife of Hades, to allow him to return to the mortal world to punish his disrespectful wife and arrange a proper burial for his body. After his refusal of returning to the Underworld, the Gods sent Hermes, the messenger of the gods to find him and escort him back in front of Hades.

As punishment for having cheated the Olympian Gods not once but twice, Zeus condemned Sisyphus to carry a boulder to the top of a hill, which closely resembled the one of his own city, Corinth. The twist to his punishment was that Zeus, enchanted the boulder to roll back down the hill every single time Sisyphus was reaching the top, resulting into a never-ending, maddening process.

Sisyphus' cruel faith was deeply inscribed in the minds of the ancient Greeks, constantly reminding them of the danger of the fury of the Gods. Sisyphus became a symbol of interminability and eternal frustration. Polygnotus, the ancient Greek painter, vividly depicted his agony on the walls of Lesche at the sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi.

Next time you visit Corinth, spend some time to think about Sisyphus on your way to Acrocorinth and learn from his mistakes. Find out how to create your own unique travel experience or check the rest of our Greece tours!