We are Sisyphus…

In my recent post about Chiron, I was sort of obliged to mention Ixion as part of the discussion on “Where Do Centaurs Come From?”  Well, as it happens, I tend to lump Ixion in with a couple of other characters, to comprise a sort of “Greatest Sinners of Greek Mythology” trio: Ixion, Tantalus, and Sisyphus.

Clearly, I'm not the only one to associate these three together: Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Ixion (L-R), suffer away eternity (image from ClipArt ETC)...
Clearly, I’m not the only one to associate these three together: Tantalus, Sisyphus, and Ixion (L-R), suffer away eternity (image from ClipArt ETC)…

Ixion, as I mentioned previously, was guilty of slaying a kinsman, not to mention repaying the hospitality of Zeus — King of the Olympian Deities — by openly lusting after Zeus’ wife, Hera, in Zeus’ own home.  Not smooth, and for his misdeeds, Ixion was condemned to be bound to a flaming wheel in Tartarus, the Greek Underworld, until the end of time.  In other words, he was sentenced to ride a merry-go-round in Hell until Doomsday…

Tantalus, in brief, was also guilty of killing his own flesh and blood — in his case, it was his own son, Pelops, whom he sacrificed to the Olympians, and then served up as the main course of a banquet he threw when the Deities graced his halls with their collective presence.  In the ancient Greek world, murder of one’s own kin is about as bad as sinning gets, and compounding it by trying to fool the Deities into taking part in the crime by slipping them the flesh of the slain on their dinner plates is an excellent way to make it all the way into the Sinners’ Hall of Fame.  The Olympians resurrected poor Pelops, but Tantalus was cast into the Underworld, given a scorching, undying thirst, and installed in a pool of water, with rich fruit trees displaying their bountiful yields just overhead.  The harsh nature of his punishment became clear when Tantalus tried to quench his burning thirst, and found to his horror that whenever he tried to drink from the pool, the water would recede away from him, denying him any relief, and when he would try to reach up and pluck any of the fruit dangling just above him, the tree branches would move, lifting their ripe offerings beyond his grasp.  Try as he might, Tantalus would be suffering without pause forever, his apparent salvation always just the merest millimeters beyond his lips and his fingertips (it may then come as no surprise to know that it’s from Tantalus where we derive the word “tantalize”…).

And then there’s Sisyphus…

Sisyphus: the absolute worst possible manifestation of the phrase "Rock and Roll"...(artist unknown)...
Sisyphus: the absolute worst possible manifestation of the phrase “Rock and Roll”…(artist unknown)…

Sisyphus was the King of Corinth, and a man of unparalleled cleverness at the time.  He was, though, for all that cleverness, kind of shortsighted, and he racked up offenses against the Olympian Deities fairly quickly, without understanding that in the long run, there would be consequences…

First, he betrayed one of Zeus’ secret affairs, causing some grief for the King of the Olympians.  When Hades — Zeus’ brother, and the ruler of the Underworld — came along to collect Sisyphus’ soul, Sisyphus tricked him, and managed to wrap up the Lord of the Dead in his own mystic chains, and for a time, no one on Earth could die, as Hades’ operations came to a standstill without him in place to oversee them.  The Olympians finally forced Sisyphus to release their dark kinsman, and Death resumed its business as usual, but Sisyphus had earned himself another black mark with his Deities…

Next, when his own death in the natural course of things drew near, he told his wife to refuse to grant him a proper burial and to refrain from placing gold coins on his eyes as was the customary practice with the newly deceased in the Greek world at the time.  This meant that when his soul reached the shores of the River Styx, the Powers That Be — Charon, the Ferryman, not to mention Hades and his wife, Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld — all saw that a King had been deprived of proper burial, and was left to beg admittance to Tartarus like common street rabble (the gold coins would usually manifest with the dead soul, and be used to pay the entry fee to Charon, who would then row the newcomer into the Underworld).  As much as Sisyphus had made a huge annoyance of himself to the Olympians, there was a certain sense of propriety in how things were to be done, and no royalty could be treated like this — Sisyphus was sent back topside, with instructions to school his wife in the acceptable ways of burying a King…

And Sisyphus, back on Earth again, laughingly informed his wife that he’d managed to trick the Olympians and cheat death once more, and they enjoyed several more years together on Earth before Sisyphus finally expired once and for all…

It had to happen at some point: end of the line for Sisyphus and his trickery...
It had to happen at some point: end of the line for Sisyphus and his trickery…

Finally corralled into the Underworld for good, Sisyphus was placed at the bottom of a steep hill, given a large boulder, and told that once he rolled that boulder to the top of that hill, he could then go and play however he wished there in Tartarus…but only after that rock was perched at the hill’s apex.

Unfortunately for Sisyphus, he wasn’t the only one with some measure of cleverness, and he quickly realized that Zeus and Hades and the others had enchanted the boulder such that every time Sisyphus managed to roll it painstakingly toward the peak, the rock would jolt itself out of his grasp just shy of the summit and roll down all the way back to the bottom, thus forcing him to trudge down and start the numbing task all over again.  And again.  And again…

"Okay...  Let's try this yet again..."
“Okay… Let’s try this yet again…”

So the reason I titled this post as I did is that I’ve always found the plight of Sisyphus in the Underworld to be a fantastically apt analogy for much of what we go through in our lives here in this physical existence.  We perform a multitude of tasks…only to then have to repeat them unendingly, over and over and over again.  And as much care and effort as we put in, we’re never “done.”

For example, think about chores: dusting…vacuuming…doing the laundry, washing the dishes…walking the dog, paying the bills, taking out the garbage, washing the car, mowing the lawn…  We do these things, we pause to rest…and we need to do them all over again.  We’re obliged to repeat these labors again and again until either the world ends or we do (probably the latter, but let’s cover all bases here…).

Think about body maintenance: we eat, we sleep, we groom ourselves…and before you know it, we have to eat again, and sleep again, and groom ourselves again…

How about going to work?  We set up at the beginning of a shift, we slave away for hours on end, we go home…and we have to just do it all over again the very next day (and the next…and the next…and the day after that, and the day after that, and on, and on, and on…).  The details may change, but the general structure of our days doesn’t.

A blueprint of this Sisyphean life...
A blueprint of this Sisyphean life…

We are Sisyphus.  We roll that rock up the hill, and it leaps out of our grasp just before we can set it to rest permanently at the top, and we have to watch it tumble all the way back down to the place where we started…and we have to do it all over again, knowing the result will always be the same…

But here’s the thing: for Sisyphus, this was deemed an eternal torment, yes, and most people reading or hearing his tale will see it that way…but is it really just pure anguish and punishment, and nothing beyond that?  I don’t know, I feel that maybe there might actually be some…nobility in that struggle…

Maybe the Sisyphean condition can lead to tranquility if we accept it and work with it instead of fighting it...
Maybe the Sisyphean condition can lead to tranquility if we accept it and work with it instead of fighting it…

Now for Sisyphus, he had no real recourse but to do as his Deities commanded.  He was already dead, and there was no “after-afterlife” to look forward to in which he might find some relief.  For us, though, we do have choices.  We can look ahead at the seemingly endless toil stretched out in front of us, seeing it as a sort of doom of mind-deadening, soul-crushing repetition…or we can throw ourselves into our various Sisyphean tasks, knowing that we’ll never actually push the rocks of them to the tops of their hills permanently, and we’ll never be “finished” once and for all, but we can attack these duties with gusto anyway, with positivity and vigor.  Spiritual types will often remind us that life is as much about the journeys as it is about the destinations (if not more so!), and this seems like another chance to apply that principle: life can be just as much about the processes and the work as it is about the endpoints and the results.  I’ve come to believe that focusing too much on the conclusions of things can lead to much disappointment, frustration, and stress, whereas concentrating instead on the act of performing the work can bring about an odd sense of fulfillment.  Choosing not to give up, to keep pushing that boulder onward and upward, and to accept that the pushing is kind of the whole point, can lead to…contentment.

And I don’t mean to imply that rearranging one’s entire worldview is easy, or that seeing a lifetime of labor as a divine pursuit is a total cakewalk…but when you can achieve that mental state, that specific take on things — even for short bursts of time — it can impart a real air of serenity.  Embracing and identifying with the Sisyphus-figure that each of us embodies can be a pathway to no small amount of inner peace…  So if anyone needs me, I’ll be over here, pushing my own boulder along, and trying to whistle while I work!

6 thoughts on “We are Sisyphus…

  1. Pingback: Pushing My Boulder | The Cranky Giraffe

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