Who is Sisyphus and why is he important?
Greek or Classical Mythology is very prevalent in modern society, many TV shows, books, and movies use the stories for inspiration. The story of Sisyphus may not be recognized by many but its themes are still important. This essay will explain the story of Sisyphus, what it means, and the modern reception.
The story of Sisyphus was found in a satirical play, Sisyphus the Runaway. This play is considered a lost play and most of what is known about this Corinthian King is pieced together through other works. The tale begins when Sisyphus lies to the river god, Asopus that he saw the god’s daughter abducted by Zeus. Zeus is, of course, angry and sends the god of death, Thanatos after Sisyphus. The crafty king manages to bind Thanatos and for a brief period, humans are immortal. Ares, the god of war gets involved and releases Thanatos, and gives Sisyphus to the god. Before Sisyphus dies, he tells his wife, Merope, not to give him a funeral. She obliges and when Sisyphus meets Hades, the god had no offerings. Sisyphus was able to persuade the latter to release him back to the land of the living so he could complain about his lack of funeral. Once the cunning king arrived he ordered a footbath “for feet that bear a god” (Horace, trans., n.d.). He refuses to go back to the underworld and the god, Hermes is sent to drag him back down. Sisyphus’ punishment is best described by Homer in book eleven of The Odyssey :
Aye, and I saw Sisyphus in violent torment, seeking to raise a monstrous
stone with both his hands. Verily he would brace himself with hands and
feet, and thrust the stone toward the crest of a hill, but as often as he
was about to heave it over the top, the weight would turn it back, and
then down again to the plain would come rolling the ruthless stone. But
he would strain again and thrust it back, and the sweat flowed down from
his limbs, and dust rose up from his head. (Homer, trans., n.d.)
In the aftermath, his wife regrets choosing to marry him. She is one of the stars in the night sky, but she does not shine as bright due to her shame. The story of Sisyphus, though a short and less popular one, is enjoyable all the same.
While the myth of Sisyphus has entertainment value, what does it mean? The most simple of answers is that his story is that of a mortal who took his trouble making too far. Sisyphus managed to slander Zeus, kidnap Thanatos, deceive both Asopus and Hades, force Ares and Hermes to go out of their way to right his wrongs, and even compare himself to a God. All before eventually serving his eternal punishment, pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to fall down again. His punishment fits his crimes, all of those listed were all forbidden by ancient Greeks, and most would not even think about agitating the gods that way. Sisyphus demonstrates that mortals can not get the best of gods in the long run, trickery and deceit only give short-term satisfaction. However, many philosophers use Sisyphus’ eternal punishment as a way to describe human suffering. Sisyphus repeats the same mindless task every day through pain and great suffering. He can also be described as a tragic hero, “a man… who has maddening passion or a vaulting ambition, as a result of which, he suffers… and takes a wrong decision after which, his entire life is full of suffering” (Anand & Anand, 2017) Sisyphus has a passion to be great and powerful, but he makes many wrong decisions that lead to his downfall. This is why some philosophers believe he is a good example of karma. Sisyphus was crafty, cunning, and intelligent in his life, and after death, he must repeatedly do a mindless task. Whatever the reasoning, Sisyphus is a provocateur and he paid a price for his actions.
Unfortunately, Sisyphus’ name and story have largely been forgotten by many people. His punishment, however, lives on. Large numbers of people know about the man who must push a boulder up a hill for eternity. This image can be found on mugs, t-shirts, keychains, art pieces, apps, and across many other collectibles. For those that only know this part of the story, he is considered an absurd hero. In the 1940s Albert Camus described Sisyphus :
“returning to his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions that would become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by death… One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus as cited by Petrini-Poli, 2016)
This is how Sisyphus has come to be seen by those who know of him. A harrowing man living a fateful existence repeating the same difficult task for eternity. His name and punishment also live on in the world of physics. Sisyphus Cooling is the mechanical laser cooling of atoms. When atoms are at a point of high energy, they can drop really fast (Paschotta n.d.) – very much like Sisyphus’ boulder. The Sisyphus Effect takes place when a hydrogen evolution reaction takes place in an aqueous alkaline solution and the voltage is removed. The system drops and recovers in steps back to full strength (Zhuang et al., 2019), once again mirroring Sisyphus’ punishment. Finally, there are Sisyphus Dynamics which are “intervals of forward motion interrupted by quick resets” (Shapere & Wilczek, 2017), once more demonstrating the tie between the name and the myth. The modern world unwittingly uses pieces of the myth of Sisyphus as his traits are similar to many Disney villains -Yzma, as well as many anti-heroes – Deadpool. The themes about trickery and deception getting one nowhere good are also found in many children’s stories – Rumpelstiltskin. The majority of the modern world may have forgotten about Sisyphus but his name and story quietly live on.
It is unfortunate that Sisyphus has been largely forgotten because the story is entertaining, has a strong message, and it has a large impact on the modern world that goes unnoticed.
Amazon search “sisyphus”. (n.d.). Retrieved December 3, 2019, from Amazon website: https://www.amazon.ca/s?k=sisyphus&gclid=CjwKCAiArJjvBRACEiwA-WiqqxuebxDIlFtqMLBC3oukBTNaVHM58Nw1jNbvVsZAk9BNs4Qn9n8CMBoCQpgQAvD_BwE&hvadid=208342284646&hvdev=c&hvlocphy=1002283&hvnetw=s&hvpos=1t1&hvqmt=e&hvrand=3282697903453253870&hvtargid=kwd-13700946&hydadcr=20847_9881424&tag=googcana-20&ref=pd_sl_43bodbb6h5_e
Anand, J. S., & Anand, M. S. (n.d.). Sisyphus as a Tragic Hero and the Karmic Philosophy: A Re-Interpretation of the Existential Prototype. In Sisyphus as a Tragic Hero and the Karmic Philosophy: A Re-Interpretation of the Existential Prototype. Retrieved from https://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=e4dd6ecc-cb15-481b-8b3d-db55faab8db6%40pdc-v-sessmgr03 (Reprinted from Language in India, 19(1), 2019)
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Homer. (n.d.). Odyssey book 11. In A. T. Murray (Trans.), Homer, Odyssey 11. Retrieved from Theoi database.
MEROPE. (n.d.). Retrieved from Theoi database.
Paschotta, R. (n.d.). Sisyphus cooling. Retrieved December 3, 2019, from RP Photonics Encyclopedia website: https://www.rp-photonics.com/sisyphus_cooling.html
Petrini-Poli, M. (2016). The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (Book Analysis) : Detailed Summary, Analysis and Reading Guide. Retrieved from https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.eztest.ocls.ca/eds/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzEyMzY5MjVfX0FO0?sid=9786474d-bfdf-40a2-8c6e-bab43f07190f@pdc-v-sessmgr02&vid=2&format=EK
Shapere, A. D., & Wilczek, F. (2017, August). Realization of “Time Crystal” Lagrangians and Emergent Sisyphus Dynamics. Retrieved from http://frankwilczek.com/2017/simpleExamples_letter_16.pdf
Smyth, H. W. (Trans.). (n.d.). AESCHYLUS, FRAGMENTS 57 – 154. Retrieved from Theoi database.
Zhuang, Z., Li, Y., Huang, J., Li, Z., Zhao, K., Zhao, Y., . . . Mai, L. (n.d.). Sisyphus effects in hydrogen electrochemistry on metal silicides enabled by silicene subunit edge. In Science Direct. Retrieved from https://www-sciencedirect-com.eztest.ocls.ca/science/article/pii/S2095927319301914 (Excerpted from Science bulletin , 64(9), 617-624, 2019)