(Latin, Tantalus), according to fable, is punished in the infernal regions by intolerable thirst. To make his punishment the more severe, he is plunged up to his chin in a river, but whenever he bends forward to slake his thirst the water flows from him.
So bends tormented Tantalus to drink, While from his lips the refluent waters shrink, Again the rising stream his bosom laves. And thirst consumes him mid circumfluent waves.
Darwin: Loves of the Plants, 11 419.
Emblematical of a covetous man, who the more he has the more he craves. (See
A parallel story exists among the Chipouyans, who inhabit the deserts which divide Canada from the United States. At death, they say, the soul is placed in a stone ferry-boat, till judgment has been passed on it. If the judgment is averse, the boat sinks in the stream, leaving the victim chin-deep in water, where he suffers endless thirst, and makes fruitless attempts to escape to the Islands of the Blessed. (Alexander Mackenzie Voyages in the Interior of America.
) (1789, 1792, 1793.)
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894