Sisyphus: Who Was the Mortal That Chained Death?

Sisyphus deceived death twice. As a punishment, he was condemned to infinitely roll a boulder up a hill in Hades.

Feb 21, 2022By Zeynep Tareen, MSc in History w/ Ancient Greek concentration, BA in Classics
zanchi coley burne jornes sisyphus painting

 

The quest for eternal life has always captivated the thoughts of humankind. The ambition to attain it was so intense that many traditions, sagas, and mythologies centered around it. Remarkably, one of the earliest literary compositions, the Epic of Gilgamesh, also takes form on the same longing and hope. Gilgamesh, an adventurous hero, set out on a restless journey to find the key to eternal life, ultimately realizing his quest to be an inevitable disillusionment. But in Greek mythology, a mortal named Sisyphus manages to deceive death, not once, but twice. The myth of Sisyphus also found a special place in Albert Camus’ existentialist philosophy.

 

Sisyphus’s Sins and Punishment

nikosthenes thanatos hypnos lift sarpedon attic pottery
Two winged figures (Hypnos and Thanatos) lifting a dead body (Sarpedon), c. 510-500 BCE, via The British Museum, London

 

Sisyphus was the founder and first king of Corinth, whom Homer described as “the craftiest of men” (Iliad 6.153). When Thanatos, the Greek god of death, came to fetch Sisyphus, Sisyphus requested that the god displayed how the manacles he carried worked. During the demonstration, the mortal Sisyphus was able to chain Thanatos and save humanity from death. Zeus, enraged that mortals had ceased to die now, sent Ares down to earth to release Thanatos. Ares, as the Greek god of war and the representative of the ghastly aspects of brutality and manslaughter, was highly qualified for the duty.

 

However, Sisyphus would not despair so readily. Knowing that death would come back to ensnare him anew, he gave his wife Merope careful instructions to leave his body unburied once he was dead and forbade her from performing any funerary rituals. When he died, he immediately went to Hades, the god of the underworld, and complained that he had not received a proper burial. Hades granted him the right to return to earth to punish his wife and arrange the funeral. Upon returning to Corinth, Sisyphus reunited with his wife, broke his word to Hades, and lived a full life once again, before dying a second time.

 

Sisyphus in the Odyssey

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Sisyphus in the Underworld, 510-500 BCE, via The British Museum, London

 

In the great Greek epic poem, the Odyssey, Homer writes about the famed hero Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. Unable to return home, Odysseus travels to the underworld to consult a blind poet named Tiresias, who had the wisdom to guide him back to his home. While in the underworld, Odysseus met the sinner Sisyphus. Outraged with his deception, Zeus had inflicted an eternal punishment on Sisyphus. He was condemned to push an enormous boulder to the top of a hill in the underworld. As soon as the boulder reached the top, it rolled back down. Sisyphus had to begin his duty afresh, knowing that he was indefinitely bound to this fruitless task. Homer (Odyssey 595-600) describes Sisyphus’s suffering in great detail:

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“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.”

 

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Absurdism

albert camus photo
Albert Camus, 1954, via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

The image of Sisyphus rolling the hill and the rock has found acceptance in popular culture and is often used to describe an incessant and compulsive work, known as a Sisyphean task. Such images have long been debated and initiated interpretations from Homer to Camus. One of the best philosophical works of Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, exhibits a vibrantly optimistic attitude towards this enigma and presents a significant contribution to the world of philosophy.

 

One of the essential philosophical questions is undoubtedly this: what is the meaning of our existence? This question troubled Camus in many of his works. According to him, any attempt to answer it is unavailing. Human existence is characterized by possible suffering and certain death. Nevertheless, people refuse to accept their fate and continue to look for meaning. Camus found that there is something remarkably absurd about this quest, which he appropriately called Absurdism. We search for order and happiness in life, yet the universe refuses to grant them. The tension resulting from this generates Absurdism.

 

Sisyphus’s Response to the Absurd

edward coley burne jones sisyphus painting
Sisyphus, by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, c. 1870, via The Tate, London

 

Sisyphus’s suffering in Hades is eternal, and the duty assigned to him futile. But his willpower provokes him to push the rock over the hill ceaselessly, even though he acknowledges the meaningless of his work. Camus recognized that the absurd could only arise from this acknowledgment, and he posed a fundamental question: once we face the reality that the world is not rational, what should we do? Are we all condemned like Sisyphus to keep asking about the meaning of life only to find that all our possible answers tumble back down inevitably?

 

In fact, Sisyphus’s response to the absurd is more important to Camus than his eternal punishment. In the Myth of Sisyphus, he notes:

 

“I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step towards the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour is like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

 

Sisyphus as an Absurd Hero

george snowden labors man sculpture
Labors of Man, by George H. Snowden, c. 1935-1945, via New York Public Library

 

In Camus’ The Stranger, the protagonist acknowledges the absurdity of life with his famous line: “Mother died today. Or perhaps it was yesterday, I don’t know”. The answer does not lie in desperation or death but in a lucid recognition of the absurdity. This recognition, Camus asserts, can liberate us. The courage and clarity of mind will never accept self-deception and illusions. Pleasure resides exclusively in the uniqueness of existence.

 

antonio zanchi sisyphus painting
Sisyphus, by Antonio Zanchi, c.1660-1665, via Mauritshuis, Netherlands

 

Sisyphus is fully conscious of the rigor of this punishment and his painful fate while walking down the hill to retrieve the rock. Sometimes grief and other times joy accompany him. When he pushes the rock up the hill, he is so engaged with the strength and concentration it takes to move the rock that he cannot focus on his misfortune. Camus declares that Sisyphus is an absurd hero and should be admired for his stubbornness and for not succumbing to despair.

 

 “He is as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of the earth.”

 

Is Happiness the Ultimate Response to the Indifferent Universe and Death?

wiktor sadowski bydgoszcz opera 2006 painting
The XIII Bydgoszcz Opera Festival, by Wiktor Sadowski, 2006, via Google Arts & Culture

 

Life can be nasty, unfair, and short, and enjoying it in every possibility might be a universally accepted default response. But should it be our ultimate and most celebrated response?

 

The term angst has long been discussed alongside the concept of the absurd. Angst, in its pessimistic nature, represents the utmost meaningless of life. It is an acute feeling of philosophical anxiety about the world. Like Camus, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre believed that angst should not be despised but embraced. It is an individual’s only natural response to the indifferent universe. It is the awareness that Sisyphus experienced which deserves celebration. Angst reminds one to be grounded, rather than frantically pursuing distractions and indulgences to avoid facing reality, i.e., the meaningless of life. Sartre’s brief definition is to the point: we simply exist. Our existence happened out of our will. We simply found ourselves born into this world, which renders angst inevitable. Still, he concluded that people are still somewhat in control and have free will, which holds them responsible for their choices. The meaning of life was not granted to us. It is earned through our actions that require great responsibility.

 

Sisyphus, Friedrich Nietzsche and the Absurd 

friedrich nietzsche portrait
Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1882, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Nietzsche’s response to life was similar to the declarations of Camus: life is devoid of meaning; it is an illusion. But unlike Camus, he believed that people could give it meaning by embracing the illusion. Camus quotes Nietzsche: “Art and nothing but art, we have art in order not to die of the truth”. Art creates a dream and unreality, but can it still provide shelter for us? “Despite the high intensity with which these dream realities exist for us”, says Nietzsche, “we still have a residual sensation that they are illusions.” Could Nietzsche’s approach be the solution we aspire to in the absurdity of life? Or would it be, as Camus argued, self-delusion to seek comfort in the illusions of religion and art? Perhaps looking for answers hinders us from becoming absurd heroes in life, and honest confrontations might not be as grim as they may seem. In the end, Camus was vibrantly optimistic to conclude The Myth of Sisyphus thus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”



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By Zeynep TareenMSc in History w/ Ancient Greek concentration, BA in ClassicsZeynep earned her Master's degree in History from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and continued her Ancient Greek literature studies during that time. She received her BA in Classics from the University of Washington in Seattle, USA, having focused on Ancient Greek and epigraphy. Apart from her interest in ancient history and languages, Zeynep is keen on studies about folklore and superstition, and their effect on significant social and cultural movements of the past. She loves movies that make her think and listen to music from the Early Period to Scandinavian Metal.