Classical Mythology: The Cunning Rogue: Sisyphus

The Cunning Rogue: Sisyphus

If you could cheat death, would you? Most people would. But few have ever had the cunning of Sisyphus, the legendary rogue who cheated death not just once, but twice. Sisyphus ultimately paid a heavy price for his trickery: The reprieve he gained through his cunning was brief; the torture he suffered in the Underworld was eternal.

All in the Family

The son of Aeolus, king of Thessaly, Sisyphus was born heir to the throne. Sisyphus and one of his brothers, Salmoneus, hated each other, however, and Salmoneus took the throne of Thessaly from him.

Eventually Sisyphus would become a king—but never of Thessaly. The sorceress Medea (see Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts) gave Sisyphus the throne of Ephyra, later known as Corinth. (Some say that Sisyphus earned the crown by founding the city, which he populated with people grown out of mushrooms.)

Sisyphus married Merope, the only one of the seven Pleiades (daughters of the Titan Atlas and Pleione) to have wedded a mortal rather than consorting with the gods. The couple would have three children: Glaucus, Ornytion, and Sinon.

Glaucus would inherit the throne of Ephyra, but would suffer a gruesome fate. A renowned horseman, Glaucus fed his mares on human flesh. Having whetted their appetites for flesh, Glaucus unwittingly served them up a full meal. After losing a chariot race, his mares tore Glaucus to pieces and ate him on the spot. For generations afterward, horses on Corinth seemed unusually skittish—haunted no doubt by the ghost of Glaucus.

Sinon would inherit his father's talent for trickery. Near the end of the Trojan War (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy), Sinon allowed himself to be captured by the Trojans. His lies convinced Priam to bring the giant Wooden Horse into the heavily fortified city of Troy. The Greeks hidden inside the horse then launched a surprise attack and seized Troy.

No Honor Among Thieves

Sisyphus, called “the craftiest of men” by Homer, was extraordinarily clever. His ingenuity came in handy when Autolycus began grazing cattle near the herds of Sisyphus.

Autolycus was a notorious thief. He would steal anything he could get his hands on. But he always escaped detection because he could change the form or color of anything he stole. Horned cattle would lose their horns; brown cattle would become white.

Autolycus repeatedly stole cattle from Sisyphus's herd. Sisyphus noticed that cattle were missing—and that the herd of Autolycus seemed to be expanding in number—but could not prove any theft. In an attempt to catch Autolycus in the act, Sisyphus secretly marked the inside of the hooves of his cattle. (Some say he wrote the words “Stolen by Autolycus,” while others maintain he wrote only the letters “SS.”) The later discovery of his mark on cows in Autolycus's herd proved that his neighbor was a thief.

Sisyphus was not satisfied merely with proving Autolycus a thief and recovering his cattle. Seeking revenge, he seduced Anticleia, the daughter of Autolycus and later the mother of Odysseus (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy). Given the cunning that Odysseus later demonstrated, many have suggested that Sisyphus, rather than Anticleia's husband Laertes, was his father.

This was not the only occasion when Sisyphus used an enemy's daughter in order to take revenge on the father. When he consulted the oracle at Delphi to find out how he might exact revenge on his hated brother, Salmoneus, he learned that if he had children by his brother's daughter, they would destroy their grandfather. Without a second thought, Sisyphus violated his beautiful niece Tyro. The oracle went unfulfilled, however, because Tyro, learning of the prophecy, killed both of her sons.

Cheating Death

In his time on Earth, Sisyphus killed, raped, and stole. The special place of Sisyphus in the lore of the Underworld, however, comes not from his ill treatment of his niece or other mortals, but from the application of his cunning in his relations with the gods.

His crimes against the gods began with Zeus. Asopus—a river god whose father was Poseidon—was looking for his daughter Aegina, who had disappeared. Sisyphus promised to tell Asopus what had happened to Aegina if the river god would create an eternal spring for Sisyphus's kingdom, Corinth. Once Asopus created this endless source of fresh water, Sisyphus named Zeus as Aegina's abductor. Enraged, Asopus pursued Zeus until the god's thunderbolts forced him to retreat.

Even though Zeus had in fact taken Aegina, to punish Sisyphus for his betrayal, Zeus sent Thanatos (Death) after him. Yet Sisyphus managed to outwit Death. He may have asked Thanatos to demonstrate how a pair of handcuffs worked and then locked them on Death himself or he may have used some other trickery to entrap Death in heavy chains. In any case, Death found himself a prisoner in Sisyphus's house.

With Death locked up, no one could die—no matter how gruesome the injuries suffered. The headless, bloodless, mortally wounded, and disease-torn continued to walk the earth, racked with pain and begging for release. Finally, the war god Ares set Death free and delivered Sisyphus to him.

Yet still, clever Sisyphus managed to elude his fate. Before descending to Hades, he instructed his wife Merope not to bury him, give him a funeral feast, perform any sacrifices to Hades or Persephone, or place a coin under his tongue (which was used to pay Charon, who ferried the dead for passage across the river Styx to the Underworld home of Hades). Sisyphus thus arrived at the Palace of Hades as an unburied pauper.

What a Life!

Like his brother Sisyphus, Salmoneus also offended Zeus. After becoming king of Elis, Salmoneus demanded that his subjects call him Zeus. To add to the insult, Salmoneus mocked Zeus by driving his chariot through the city dragging bronze kettles to simulate thunder and throwing torches to simulate lightning. Zeus killed Salmoneus with a thunderbolt and reserved a special place for him in the Underworld: not far from his hated brother, Sisyphus.

Appealing to Queen Persephone, Sisyphus told her that he had no right to be there. As one of the unburied, who had no fare for Charon, he should have been abandoned on the far side of the river Styx. Furthermore, Sisyphus argued, his wife's neglect of funeral ceremonies and sacrifices might set a bad example for other widows in the future.

Sisyphus pleaded for permission to return to the surface of the earth for just three days. This brief time would allow him to arrange for his funeral, to punish his wife for neglecting her duties, and to teach her respect for the lords of the Underworld. Persephone fell for his pleas and allowed Sisyphus to go home.

Sisyphus, of course, had no intention to return to the world of darkness. He reneged on his promise to descend again in three days. Indeed, he lived many more years until old age claimed him at last.

For his offenses to both Zeus and Hades, Sisyphus was condemned to eternal punishment in Tartarus, the lowest region of the Underworld. The king of Corinth would forever roll a massive boulder to the top of a steep hill. But his efforts were always in vain, for whenever Sisyphus neared the top, the rock would roll right back down again. Sisyphus was thus forced to start his labor all over again.

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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.

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