1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sisyphus

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SISYPHUS, in Greek mythology, son of Aeolus and Enarete, and king of Ephyra (Corinth). He was the father of the sea-god Glaucus and (in post-Homeric legend) of Odysseus. He was said to have founded the Isthmian games in honour of Melicertes, whose body he found lying on the shore of the Isthmus of Corinth (Apollodorus iii. 4). He promoted navigation and commerce, but was avaricious and deceitful. From Homer onwards Sisyphus was famed as the craftiest of men. When Death came to fetch him, Sisyphus put him into fetters, so that no one died till Ares came and freed Death, and delivered Sisyphus into his custody. But Sisyphus was not yet at the end of his resources. For before he died he told his wife that when he was gone she was not to offer the usual sacrifice to the dead. So in the under world he complained that his wife was neglecting her duty, and he persuaded Hades to allow him to go back to the upper world and expostulate with her. But when he got back to Corinth he positively refused to return, until forcibly carried off by Hermes (Schol. on Pindar, Ol. i. 97). In the under world Sisyphus was compelled to roll a big stone up a steep hill; but before it reached the top of the hill the stone always rolled down, and Sisyphus had to begin all over again (Odyssey, xi. 593). The reason for this punishment is not mentioned in Homer, and is obscure; according to some, he had revealed the designs of the gods to mortals, according to others, he was in the habit of attacking and murdering travellers. The subject was a commonplace of ancient writers, and was depicted by the painter Polygnotus on the walls of the Lesche at Delphi (Pausanias x. 31). According to the solar theory, Sisyphus is the disk of the sun that rises every day and then sinks below the horizon. Others see in him a personification of the waves rising to a height and then suddenly falling, or of the treacherous sea. It is suggested by Welcker that the legend is symbolical of the vain struggle of man in the pursuit of knowledge. The name Sisyphus is generally explained as a reduplicated form of σοφός ( = “the very wise”); Gruppe, however, thinks it may be connected with σίσυς (“a goat's skin”), the reference being to a rain-charm in which goats' skins were used. S. Reinach (Revue archéologique, 1904) finds the origin of the story in a picture, in which Sisyphus was represented rolling a huge stone up Acrocorinthus, symbolical of the labour and skill involved in the building of the Sisypheum. When a distinction was made between the souls in the under world, Sisyphus was supposed to be rolling up the stone perpetually as a punishment for some offence committed on earth; and various reasons were invented to account for it.

The way in which Sisyphus cheated Death is not unique in folk-tales. Thus in a Venetian story the ingenious Beppo ties up Death in a bag and keeps him there for eighteen months; there is general rejoicing; nobody dies, and the doctors are in high feather. In a Sicilian story an innkeeper corks up Death in a bottle; so nobody dies for years, and the long white beards are a sight to see. In another Sicilian story a monk keeps Death in his pouch for forty years (T. F. Crane, Italian Popular Tales, 1885). The German parallel is Gambling Hansel, who kept Death up a tree for seven years, during which no one died (Grimm, Household Tales). The Norse parallel is the tale of the Master Smith (E. W. Dasent, Popular Tales from the Norse). For a Lithuanian parallel, see A. Schleicher, Litauische Märchen, Sprichworte, Rätsel und Lieder (1857); for Slavonic parallels, F. S. Krauss, Sagen und Märchen der Südslaven, ii. Nos. 125, 126; see also Frazer's Pausanias, iii. p. 33; O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie (1906), ii., p. 1021, note 2.