Posted by: Jack Henry | August 26, 2021

Editor’s Corner: Sisyphus and Tantalus

A few days ago, I introduced you to Procrustes, Procrustean solutions, Procrustean formatting, and a few other related terms. Today, I’d like to continue with some other words that come from Greek myths. While Procrustes was simply a villain, the next two people anger the gods in some way, and their names are associated with the punishments they are given.


Sisyphus was the founder and king of what is now known as Corinth. When it was time for Sisyphus to die, Death came to fetch him for the boat ride across the River Styx and into the underworld. Using trickery, Sisyphus avoided death twice! He lived a much longer life that he was supposed to, but the Greek gods spare no wrath for humans who interfere with their plans. For fooling the gods twice, Sysiphus was punished by having to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder up a hill, and every time, just as he reaches the top, the boulder rolls down to the bottom again. According to Wikipedia, “tasks that are both laborious and futile are therefore described as Sisyphean.”


Tantalus, like many characters in Greek myths, had one parent who was divine, and another who was mortal. When Tantalus was among the gods, he committed crimes that led to his punishment. Some myths say he told mortals the secrets he learned in heaven, others say he tested the gods’ observation by killing his son, and lastly, he was accused of stealing the nectar and ambrosia from the gods and giving those to mortals—activities generally frowned upon.

The punishment for his crimes was that Tantalus “was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink.” (Wikipedia)

The Greeks use the proverb Tantáleioi timōríai (Tantalean punishments) in reference to those who have good things but are not permitted to enjoy them.

I thought of the word “tantalize” and had to see if it was related to Tantalus. Indeed, tantalize is from Tantalus. Here is a definition and etymology from Etymology Online:

tantalize (verb)

"to tease or torment by presenting something desirable to the view, and frustrating expectation by keeping it out of reach," 1590s, with -ize + Latin Tantalus, from Greek Tantalos, name of a mythical king of Phrygia in Asia Minor, son of Zeus, father of Pelops and Niobe, famous for his riches, punished in the afterlife (for an offense variously given) by being made to stand in a river up to his chin, under branches laden with fruit, all of which withdrew from his reach whenever he tried to eat or drink. His story was known to Chaucer (c. 1369). Related: Tantalized; tantalizing; tantalizingly; tantalization.

Here is a painting of Tantalus, which was printed on duvet covers. Why people, why?! I certainly hope your bedtime isn’t this unpleasant!

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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