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Classical Mythology

The Not-So-Heavenly Host: Tantalus

Sisyphus and Salmoneus were not the only ones who suffered eternal punishment for offending the gods. Condemned to a similar fate was Tantalus, a king of Sipylus (a mountainous region in Lydia) and the earliest ancestor of the tragic house of Atreus.

Tantalus was the son of Zeus and an Oceanid named Pluto (not the Roman god of the Underworld). Like Sisyphus, Tantalus married one of the Pleiades, Dione. The couple had three children, all of whom suffered tragic fates:

  • Niobe, who would later marry Amphion, a king of Thebes, and make the mistake of boasting that she had more children—and what's more, better children—than the goddess Leto. To avenge this insult, Leto called on two of her children, the deities Apollo and Artemis, to kill all 12 of Niobe's offspring. The grief-stricken Niobe found herself forever unable to stop weeping, even after she returned from Thebes to Sipylus and her sorrow turned her to stone.
  • Broteas, who when grown would refuse to honor Artemis. To punish him, the goddess drove Broteas mad. Thinking that he was invulnerable to flames, Broteas threw himself into a fire and died.
  • Pelops, who committed no offense against the gods himself but would play an important part in his father's ill treatment of the gods.
What a Life!

Two other great sinners also suffered eternal torments. Ixion, named by Aeschylus as the first murderer “in history,” killed his father-in-law and attempted to seduce Hera. In the Underworld, Ixion was lashed with serpents to a fiery wheel that never stopped turning. Tityus, a giant, attempted to rape Leto (see The A Team: Olympians All). After her children, Apollo and Artemis, killed him, the giant's body was nailed to the ground of Tartarus, where it covered nine acres. Tityus then suffered the same torment inflicted on Prometheus: Every day an eagle arrived to gnaw on his liver, which then grew back with each new moon.

Tantalus became an intimate and favorite of Zeus. The other gods, too, showed Tantalus extraordinary favor, inviting him to dine with them on Mount Olympus. But Tantalus proved himself unworthy of these honors.

Tantalus committed several crimes against the gods. First, while sitting as a guest on Mount Olympus, he stole ambrosia and nectar (the food and drink of the gods). He then served these divine treats to his mortal friends in order to impress them. Tantalus further abused the gods' hospitality by revealing divine secrets that Zeus had confided in him or that he had overheard in the conversations of the gods and goddesses.

Tantalus also stole a golden dog, one of Zeus's favorite pets. Or if he himself did not do it, Tantalus kept the dog hidden for the thief Pandareus—and then refused to give it up.

Though these crimes insulted the gods and betrayed their hospitality toward him, Tantalus committed an even worse offense. He invited the gods and goddesses to a feast of his own. Then, either as a test of their wisdom or simply because he feared he lacked enough food to offer them, Tantalus supplemented his pantry in a ghastly way. He killed his son Pelops, carved up the body, roasted the pieces, and served his son to the gods and goddesses in a stew.

His omniscient guests saw through this horrific trick and refused to eat the meal offered by Tantalus. The sole exception was Demeter, who—perhaps still addled by the loss of Persephone—ate a piece of Pelops's left shoulder. (Zeus later restored Pelops to life, while Demeter gave him a shoulder of ivory to replace the one she had eaten.)

To punish him for his criminal contempt of the gods and goddesses, Zeus killed Tantalus himself—crushing him under a crag of Mount Sipylus—and ruined his kingdom. Zeus then condemned Tantalus to eternal torment in Tartarus.

Hanging from the bough of a fruit tree, Tantalus was doomed to suffer from burning thirst and hunger. Although the tree's tantalizing fruit seemed within his reach, a wind would blow the boughs away from his desperate fingers whenever Tantalus attempted to grasp a piece. The bough on which Tantalus hung hovered over a pool of water. Though this water rose up to his waist and sometimes as high as his chin, it receded whenever he would bend his head to take a drink. To make matters even worse, an immense boulder forever loomed over his head, threatening to fall and crush Tantalus at any moment. The frustration of his hunger and thirst were punishment for his infamous banquet, while the hanging rock was the penalty for his theft of Zeus's dog.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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