Sisyphus was the creator and first king of the city Ephyra (later Corinth). He married the nymph Merope and had four children: Glaucus, Ornytion, Almus and Thersander. Sisyphus helped his city become a commercial hub. He is also rumored to have created the Isthmian Games, a competition featuring athletic and musical feats. It was held in honor of Poseidon, the sea god, in the spring of every two years, along with one of the four major Panhellic games, which included the Olympic games.
Sisyphus was a very sly and devious person. He angered Zeus on multiple occasions by violating Xenia. Zeus was a large promoting of Xenia, which was the concept of courteous and kindly treatment of travellers and guests. Sisyphus would repeatedly kill travellers staying with him and then show the bodies to his subjects to show he was a ruthless leader.
In return for a spring to start flowing to Sisyphus’ growing Acropolis of Corinth, Sisyphus aided the river god Asopus in finding his daughter Aegina. This further infuriated Zeus since he was the one that had kidnapped Aegina. Zeus decided he needed to punish Sisyphus and went to speak with Thanatos, death.
Thanatos was to take Sisyphus with him to the underworld and chain him there. When Thanatos arrived, Sisyphus expressed an interest in the handcuffs and asked Thanatos to show him how the chains worked – on himself, effectively making Thanatos Sisyphus’s prisoner. Sisyphus kept Thanatos trapped for some time before it began to anger other gods.
There is another myth that Hades went to collect Sisyphus instead of Thanatos and it was Hades who Sisyphus tricked into handcuffing himself.
Since Hades was no longer collecting souls, people could not die. People began to lose interest in wars and this angered the God of War, Ares.
Ares threatened Sisyphus and had Thanatos (or Hades) released. Before Thanatos took Sisyphus, Sisyphus told his wife that when he died she was to throw his body into the public square instead of giving him a proper burial. After Thanatos departed with Sisyphus’s body, Merope did as instructed and threw her husband’s naked body into the public square. Because his body was not given a proper burial, Sisyphus’s body arrived at the shore of the river Styx.
When Sisyphus arrived in Tartarus, he convinced Persephone, Hades’ wife, to release Sisyphus so he could scold his wife for publicly humiliating his remains in such a way. When Sisyphus returned home to the mortal realm, alive, he scolded his wife, but did not return to Tartarus as he had promised.
There are differing views of what happened next. One version of this story says Hermes came and took Sisyphus back to the underworld to be punished even further. The other version claims that Sisyphus lived to a ripe old age and only returned to the underworld when he died a second time of natural causes.
By the time Sisyphus was returned to Tartarus, Zeus was fed up with his tricks. Sisyphus believed he was more cunning than the gods and this hubris angered Zeus even further. Zeus set Sisyphus to a task for all eternity that Sisyphus could not trick his way out of.
For all eternity, Sisyphus is doomed to push a large boulder uphill. When the boulder reaches the top, the weight of the boulder is too great and it falls back down to the bottom. Sisyphus must them roll the boulder back to the top. He can never rest or stop in this ceaseless task. The gods thought this a fitting punishment for Sisyphus: for his self-aggrandizing deceits, he would have continuous futile and hopeless labor.
However, according to Homer, Sisyphus was not a sly and deceitful man but a wise and prudent one. Homer accounts Sisyphus’s actions as having more honorable reasoning. He credits Sisyphus with helping Asopus, not for personal reasons, but to help a father find his daughter. The stream that Asopus gave Corinth was a gift. It was also said that Homer did not talk to Merope regarding his body in an attempt to deceive Hades. Sisyphus wanted to test Merope’s love for him and ordered her to defile his remains so she could show how much she loved him.
Sisyphus then remained in the mortal world, not because he had tricked Hades, but because he was again with the love of his love, who had proven her love for him, and he had re-tasted the wonders of the mortal world and could not part with them again.
Homer believed Sisyphus to have received his punishment through his passions rather than because of his cunning nature. Sisyphus was too passionate about remaining with his wife and being able to see the beauty of the world instead of the internal darkness that awaited him in Tartarus. It took Hermes coming and dragging Sisyphus back to the underworld before Sisyphus would submit to the god’s will. The unbreakable punishment he received in the underworld was in reflection of his passions. Instead of Sisyphus’s life work toward creating a haven of love and beautiful things, he was set to an eternal task of accomplishing nothing.
Sisyphus was succeeded bu his son Glaucus – who was ripped to pieces by his own flesh-eating horses. The city of Corinth was then ruled by Sisyphus’s grandson Bellerophon. While Sisyphus is mentioned in Homer’s Odysseus, Bellerophon is in the Illiad and is famous, among other things, for his Pegasus. This became a symbol for Corinth and its image was stamped on their coins.
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