Detail of Colossal Krater from Altamura- 350BC, Archaeological Museum of Naples
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 of ancient Greek 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 nowadays pop-culture. For instance, he makes his appearance in Percy Jackson and the Olympians helping Percy in the Fields of Punishment and also mentioned in Lemony Snicket's: A series of Unfortunate Events! But who is Sisyphus and what is so special about him?

corinth--ancient
The site of ancient Corinth - Image credits: ju.edu

Sisyphus (Greek: Σίσυφος) was the son of King of Thessaly Aeolus and Enarete (meaning: the virtuous one). He was the mythical founder and King of the city of Ephyra, the 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.

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 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 about 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 the plains of Corinth.

Aegina-nymph
Detail: Aegina and Zeus, Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) - Image credits: Meininger Museen

When Zeus realized Sisyphus betrayed him, he furiously ordered Thanatos (Death) to capture and lead him to Tartarus, the deepest part of the Underworld. This place 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. By playing this act, 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 immortals such as invincible warriors and undying old men! A huge turmoil was created and Ares 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.

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When Sisyphus grew old, terrified of facing Thanatos again, he ordered his wife Merope to throw his body on the public square of Ephyra (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 upper 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.

sisyphus-styx
Isle of the dead - River Styx, Arnold Böcklin, 1883 - Image credits: Wikipedia.org

As punishment for having cheated the Gods not once but twice, Zeus condemned him 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.

Acrocorinth-sisyphus

Acrocorinth - Image credits: wikiwand.com

Inevitably, Sisyphus' torment continues to affect generations of authors through his story. So, next time you will be at Corinth, spend some time to think about Sisyphus on your way to Acrocorinth and better learn from his mistakes! Find out how to create your own unique travel experience or check the rest of our Greece tours!