Myth Man's Greek Mythology


King Sisyphus by some accounts was the founder of Ephyra, a city later called Corinth, even though others claim that he received Corinth from Medea, who was an infamous witch. Sisyphus, the son of Aeolus and Enarete, was the proud owner of a very large herd of cattle and his neighbor Autolycus owned a much smaller one.

Now, Autolycus had shown great kindness to Maia, who was the mortal mother of the god Hermes,  going so far as to hide her in his house when the goddess Hera was seeking her with bad intent. So in gratitude Hermes had given Autolycus the magic power of altering the form of whatever animal he chose, from white to black, or from black to white, from a hornless animal to a horned one, or from a cow into a bull.

Autolycus took advantage of this magic and the clever thief would steal his neighbor Sisyphus' cattle and change their shape or color, thus disguising them among his own. In time Sisyphus noticed that his herd kept getting smaller while his poorer neighbor's was increasing. He knew something was up, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Naturally he suspected his neighbor was involved but had no evidence against him.

In a stroke of genius Sisyphus decided to catch the thief by putting a mark on the hooves of his cattle so that he could identify it. On each of his animals he wrote the initials SIS (for Sisyphus) and he waited for the next abduction.

As soon as more cattle disappeared, Sisyphus ordered his soldiers to raid the cattle yard of Autolycus. Sure enough, the cattle's hooves were lifted up and the initials SIS were evident for all to see on five of the animals. The thief was exposed!

Autolycus loudly argued that the cattle were his, and pointed out that Sisyphus didn't own any animals of this color or shape. He claimed that Sisyphus or his men had come to his cattle yard at night and marked the hooves just to frame him. A good actor, he made a convincing case for himself.

But Autolycus' thievery did not go unpunished...Amidst all the noise, shouting and confusion, Sisyphus took his revenge. Slipping unnoticed into the house of his neighbor, he kidnapped Autolycus' daughter, Anticlia, by whom he became father of Odysseus, the Trojan War hero (some claim that Anticlia had Odysseus with a man named Laertes.)

In all, Sisyphus had three wives and a number of children: he wed the aforementioned Anticlia, mother of Odysseus; Merope, mother of Glaucus, Thersander, Almus; and Ornytion; and with Tyro, Sisyphus fathered two sons, who eventually were killed by their mother.

However, Sisyphus is best known for being punished in the Underworld by rolling a stone with his hands and head in an effort to heave it over the top of a hill; but no matter how hard he pushes, just as he gets near the top, the stone rebounds backward again and again. How did this horrid fate come about?

Well, Sisyphus had a big mouth. One day the river god Asopus came by looking for his daughter, Aegina, who had gone missing. When Asopus asked Sisyphus if he knew where his daughter was, the tattle-tale King replied that he knew that Zeus had fallen in love with her and had carried her away. Zeus and Aegina were to be found in the wooded valley down below, walking arm in arm, he said.

Needless to say this made Asopus very angry. Zeus had carelessly left his feared thunderbolts hanging from a tree while he romanced Aegina, so when Asopus came rushing at him with a club, the unarmed king of the Olympians ran away startled. Escaping, Zeus turned himself into a rock, and Asopus ran by him. After changing back into his real form and retrieving his hanging weapons, Zeus then hurled a thunderbolt at the charging Asopus, who walked with a limp ever since from his wounded leg.

Enraged at the way in which Sisyphus betrayed the divine secret to Asopus, Zeus ordered his brother Hades, feared king of the Underworld, to arrest the king and to severely punish him. Hades appeared before Sisyphus and commanded him to come with him. King Sisyphus refused, saying that it was Hermes who guided the souls to the Underworld, not Hades, and besides, it wasn't his time to die yet. So there!

Talk about nerve! He then asked the astonished Hades what he carried in his bag. Hades told him that they were handcuffs. Seeing that Sisyphus was puzzled, he explained that handcuffs were steel bracelets, chained together, which had been invented by the skilled god of the forge, Hephaestus.

"Show me how they work", asked sly Sisyphus. But as Hades was modeling the handcuffs, Sisyphus snapped them shut. He fastened his dog's collar around the neck of the god and made fun of him in his helplessness.

"Hey, these handcuffs really work, Hades!" he tormented his captive.

Hades was not amused. He pleaded, threatened and stormed at Sisyphus, but for an entire month he was kept prisoner. Finally Ares, the cruel god of war, seeing that his battles had become farces because nobody died, came to Sisyphus and threatened to strangle him unless he released Hades...and if that didn't work, then he would cut off his head and hide it!

Grudgingly Sisyphus unchained Hades and off they went to Tartarus and the Underworld. On arrival, Sisyphus pleaded his case with Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, claiming that he didn't belong there because he wasn't dead, and besides, he hadn't been properly ferried to the Underworld by Charon the boatman. Persephone told him to leave, but to come back the next day properly buried, with a coin under his tongue.

Yeah, right. Sisyphus laughed as he left the Underworld, with no intent on returning for a long time. An infuriated Hades the next day sent Hermes to fetch the rascal. Hermes informed King Sisyphus that he had seen the Three Fates cutting his thread of life and that his existence on earth was over.

Once they reached the Underworld, the Judges of the Dead devised a unique and torturous ordeal to punish him - they ordered Sisyphus to push a real heavy rock, practically immovable, over the top of the hill in Tartarus. To make sure that he got the point, the rock was shaped exactly like the one into which Zeus had changed when he hid from Asopus.

The bad news was, the rock would roll back over the poor man just as he would get to the top, and he would have to start all over again. Sisyphus was doomed to endure this forever. What a drag!

I suppose you could say that Sisyphus was the original "Rock 'n Roller"...



Homework HelpGreek Mythology TodayOlympian GodsGreek HeroesLove StoriesBeasts and CreaturesMyth of the MonthZodiac, Stars and Constellations

Web, myth narration and graphics created and maintained by Nick Pontikis
Copyright © 1995 Nick Pontikis Thanasi's Olympus Greek Restaurant
Copyright 1999
The Myth Man persona copyright 1988 Nick Pontikis