In Greek mythology was a king punished by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity. He is also found in Roman mythology.
The word “sisyphean” means “endless and unavailing, as labor or a task”.
Sisyphus was son of King Aeolus of Thessaly and Enarete, and the founder and first king of Ephyra (Corinth). He was the father of Glaucus by the nymph Merope, the brother of Salmoneus, and the grandfather of Bellerophon.
King Sisyphus promoted navigation and commerce, but was avaricious and deceitful. He also killed travelers and guests, violating the laws of Xenia. He took pleasure in these killings because they allowed him to maintain his dominant position. Sisyphus and Salmoneus are known to hate each other as Sisyphus would consult with the Oracle of Delphi on how to kill Salmoneus. From Homer onwards, Sisyphus was famed as the craftiest of men. He seduced his niece Tyro in one of his plots to kill Salmoneus only for Tyro to kill the children she bore with him when she found out that Sisyphus would use them to dethrone Salmoneus. King Sisyphus also betrayed one of Zeus’ secrets by telling the river god Asopus of the whereabouts of his daughter Aegina (an Asopides who was taken away by Zeus) in return for creating a spring on the Corinthian Acropolis.
Zeus then ordered Thanatos, god of death, to chain King Sisyphus in Tartarus. King Sisyphus slyly asked Thanatos to demonstrate how the chains worked. When Thanatos did so, King Sisyphus secured them and trapped Thanatos. This caused an uproar since no human could die with Thanatos out of commission. Eventually Ares (who was annoyed that his battles had lost their fun because his opponents would not die) intervened, freeing Thanatos, and turning King Sisyphus over to Thanatos.
However, before King Sisyphus died, he had told his wife to throw his naked body into the middle of the public square (purportedly as a test of his wife’s love for him). This caused King Sisyphus to end up on the shores of the river Styx. Then complaining to Persephone that this was a sign of his wife’s disrespect for him, King Sisyphus persuaded her to allow him to go back to the upper world and scold his wife for not burying his body and giving him a proper funeral (as a loving wife should). Back in Corinth, King Sisyphus’s spirit scolded his wife for not giving him a proper funeral. When King Sisyphus’ spirit refused to return to the Underworld, he was forcibly dragged back to the Underworld by Hermes.
In another version of the myth, Persephone was directly persuaded that he had been conducted to Tartarus by mistake and ordered him to be freed.
As a punishment from the gods for his trickery, King Sisyphus was made to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill, but before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down, forcing him to begin again. The maddening nature of the punishment was reserved for King Sisyphus due to his hubristic belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus. As a result when King Sisyphus was condemned to his punishment, Zeus displayed his own cleverness by binding King Sisyphus to an eternity of frustration with the boulder rolling away from Sisyphus when he neared the top of the hill. Accordingly, pointless or interminable activities are often described as Sisyphean. King Sisyphus was a common subject for ancient writers and was depicted by the painter Polygnotus on the walls of the Lesche at Delphi.
According to the solar theory, King Sisyphus is the disk of the sun that rises every day in the east and then sinks into the west. Other scholars regard him as a personification of waves rising and falling, or of the treacherous sea. The 1st-century BC Epicurean philosopher Lucretius interprets the myth of Sisyphus as personifying politicians aspiring for political office who are constantly defeated, with the quest for power, in itself an “empty thing”, being likened to rolling the boulder up the hill. Friedrich Welcker suggested that he symbolises the vain struggle of man in the pursuit of knowledge, and Salomon Reinach that his punishment is based on a picture in which Sisyphus was represented rolling a huge stone Acrocorinthus, symbolic of the labour and skill involved in the building of the Sisypheum. Albert Camus, in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, saw Sisyphus as personifying the absurdity of human life, but Camus concludes “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” as “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
In experiments that test how workers respond when the meaning of their task is diminished, the test condition is referred to as the Sisyphusian condition. The two main conclusions of the experiment are that people work harder when their work seems more meaningful, and that people underestimate the relationship between meaning and motivation.
Ovid, the Roman poet, makes reference to Sisyphus in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. When Orpheus descends and confronts Hades and Persephone, he sings a song so that they will grant his wish to bring Eurydice back from the dead. After this song is sung, Ovid shows how moving it was by noting that Sisyphus, emotionally affected, for just a moment, stops his eternal task and sits on his rock, the Latin wording being inque tuo sedisti Sisyphe, saxo.
Though purported to be one of the dialogues of Greek philosopher Plato, the Sisyphus is generally believed to be apocryphal, possibly written by one of his pupils.
Albert Camus, the French absurdist, wrote an essay entitled The Myth of Sisyphus in which he elevates Sisyphus to the status of absurd hero. Franz Kafka repeatedly referred to Sisyphus as a bachelor; the Kafkaesque for him were those qualities that brought out the Sisyphus-like qualities in himself. According to Frederick Karl: “The man who struggled to reach the heights only to be thrown down to the depths embodied all of Kafka’s aspirations; and he remained himself, alone, solitary.” The philosopher Richard Taylor uses the myth of Sisyphus as a representation of a life made meaningless because it consists of bare repetition.