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Nekyia Staatliche Antikensammlungen 1494 n2

Persephone supervising Sisyphus in the Underworld, Attica black-figure amphora (vase), ca. 530 BCE, Staatliche Antikensammlungen museum (Inv. 1494)

In Greek mythology Sisyphus (pronounced: /'sɪsɪfəs/;[1] Greek: Σίσυφος, Sísyphos) was a king punished by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever.

The word "sisyphean" means "endless and unavailing, as labor or a task".[2]


Sisyphus was son of King Aeolus of Thessaly and Enarete, and the founder and first king of Ephyra (supposedly the original name of Corinth). He was the father of Glaucus, Ornytion, Almus, and Thersander by the nymph Merope, the brother of Salmoneus, and the grandfather of Bellerophon through Glaucus.

King Sisyphus promoted navigation and commerce but was avaricious and deceitful. He also killed travellers and guests, a violation of Xenia which fell under Zeus' domain. He took pleasure in these killings because they allowed him to maintain his iron-fisted rulership. Sisyphus and Salmoneus were known to hate each other as Sisyphus had consulted with the Oracle of Delphi on just how to kill Salmoneus without incurring any severe consequences for himself. From Homer onwards, Sisyphus was famed as the craftiest of men. He seduced his niece Tyro in one of his plots to kill Salmoneus, only for Tyro to slay the children she bore by him when she discovered that Sisyphus was planning on eventually using them to dethrone her father Salmoneus. King Sisyphus also betrayed one of Zeus's secrets by telling the river god Asopus of the whereabouts of his daughter Aegina (an Asopides who was taken away by Zeus) in return for causing a spring to flow on the Corinthian Acropolis.

Zeus then ordered Thanatos: god of death to chain King Sisyphus down below in Tartarus. King Sisyphus slyly asked Thanatos to demonstrate how the chains worked. As Thanatos was granting his wish, Sisyphus then seized the advantage and trapped Thanatos instead. This caused an uproar since no human could die with Thanatos out of commission. Eventually Ares (who was annoyed that his battles had lost their fun because his opponents would not die) intervened. The exasperated Ares freed Thanatos and turned King Sisyphus over to Thanatos as well.[3]

Before King Sisyphus died however, he had told his wife to throw his naked body into the middle of the public square (purportedly as a test of his wife's love for him). This caused King Sisyphus to end up on the shores of the river Styx. Then, complaining to Persephone that this was a sign of his wife's disrespect for him, King Sisyphus persuaded her to allow him to return to the upper world and scold his wife for not burying his body and giving it a proper funeral (as a loving wife should). Once back in Corinth, the spirit of King Sisyphus thereby scolded his wife for not giving him a proper funeral. When King Sisyphus refused to return to the Underworld after that, he was forcibly dragged back there by Hermes.

In another version of the myth, Persephone was directly persuaded that he had been conducted to Tartarus by mistake and ordered him to be freed.[4]

As a punishment for his trickery, King Sisyphus was made to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. Before he could reach the top, however, the massive stone would always roll back down, forcing him to begin again.[5] The maddening nature of the punishment was reserved for King Sisyphus due to his hubristic belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus himself. Zeus accordingly displayed his own cleverness by enchanting the boulder into rolling away from King Sisyphus before he reached the top which ended up consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration. Thus it came to pass that pointless or interminable activities are sometimes described as Sisyphean. King Sisyphus was a common subject for ancient writers and was depicted by the painter Polygnotus on the walls of the Lesche at Delphi.[6]


According to the solar theory, King Sisyphus is the disk of the sun that rises every day in the east and then sinks into the west.[7] Other scholars regard him as a personification of waves rising and falling, or of the treacherous sea.[7] The 1st-century BCE Epicurean philosopher Lucretius interprets the myth of Sisyphus as personifying politicians aspiring for political office who are constantly defeated, with the quest for power, in itself an "empty thing", being likened to rolling the boulder up the hill.[8] Friedrich Welcker suggested that he symbolises the vain struggle of man in the pursuit of knowledge, and Salomon Reinach[9] that his punishment is based on a picture in which Sisyphus was represented rolling a huge stone Acrocorinthus, symbolic of the labour and skill involved in the building of the Sisypheum. Albert Camus, in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, saw Sisyphus as personifying the absurdity of human life, but Camus concludes "one must imagine Sisyphus happy" as "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."

In experiments that test how workers respond when the meaning of their task is diminished, the test condition is referred to as the Sisyphusian condition. The two main conclusions of the experiment are that people work harder when their work seems more meaningful, and that people underestimate the relationship between meaning and motivation.[10]

Literary interpretations

Punishment sisyph

Sisyphys (1548-1549) by Titian, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain

Ovid, the Roman poet, makes reference to Sisyphus in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. When Orpheus descends and confronts Hades and Persephone, he sings a song so that they will grant his wish to bring Eurydice back from the dead. After this song is sung, Ovid shows how moving it was by noting that Sisyphus, emotionally affected, for just a moment, stops his eternal task and sits on his rock, the Latin wording being inque tuo sedisti, Sisyphe, saxo ("you sat upon your rock, Sisyphus").[11]

Though purported to be one of the dialogues of Greek philosopher Plato, the Sisyphus is generally believed to be apocryphal, possibly written by one of his pupils.

Albert Camus, the French absurdist, wrote an essay entitled The Myth of Sisyphus in which he elevates Sisyphus to the status of absurd hero. Franz Kafka repeatedly referred to Sisyphus as a bachelor; the Kafkaesque for him were those qualities that brought out the Sisyphus-like qualities in himself. According to Frederick Karl: "The man who struggled to reach the heights only to be thrown down to the depths embodied all of Kafka's aspirations; and he remained himself, alone, solitary."[12] The philosopher Richard Taylor uses the myth of Sisyphus as a representation of a life made meaningless because it consists of bare repetition.[13]


  1. "sisyphean". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2nd ed. 1989.
  2. American Heritage Dictionary
  3. Morford, Mark P.O.; Lenardon, Robert J.; Sham, Michael (2004). "Chapter 25: Myths of Local Heroes and Heroines". Classical Mythology, Seventh Edition. Retrieved from
  4. Bernard Evslin's Gods, Demigods & Demons, 209-210
  5. Odyssey, xi. 593
  6. Pausanias x. 31
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Sisyphus" in 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica
  8. De Rerum Natura III
  9. Revue archéologique, 1904
  10. Ariely, Dan (2010). The Upside of Irrationality. ISBN 0-06-199503-7. 
  11. Ovid. Metamorphoses, 10.44.
  12. Karl, Frederick. Franz Kafka: Representative Man. New York: International Publishing Corporation, 1991.
  13. Taylor, Richard. "Time and Life's Meaning." Review of Metaphysics 40 (June 1987): 675-686.
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Sisyphus. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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