According to the common tradition, Sisyphus was punished by the gods because he tried to cheat Death and extend his life beyond its allotted time. But there were other versions of his myth in antiquity, including one in which his crime was getting in the way of one of Zeus’ infidelities.
After he (finally) died, Sisyphus was forced to roll a giant boulder up a hill in Tartarus. Whenever he reached the top, however, the boulder would roll back down to the ground, and Sisyphus would have to begin all over again. This is the origin of the phrase “Sisyphean task,” which refers to any task that seems impossible to complete.
Sisyphus was said to have married Merope, a daughter of Atlas. In some traditions, Merope helped Sisyphus in his ill-fated scheme to cheat Death.
Sisyphus was a Greek king usually associated with Corinth. He was famously cunning, but unfortunately also deceitful and impious. In the most common version of the myth, Sisyphus managed to cheat Death and thereby extend his life (the details of how he accomplished this vary across different sources).
Eventually, however, Sisyphus did die. For acting against the will of the gods, Sisyphus received a terrible punishment in the afterlife: he was sent to Tartarus, roughly the Greek equivalent of hell, where he was forced to roll a giant boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down once he reached the top. Sisyphus was thus forced to endlessly repeat the same grueling task for all eternity.
The etymology of the name “Sisyphus” (Greek Σίσυφος, translit. Sisyphos) is uncertain. In 1906, German scholar Otto Gruppe suggested that it was derived from the Greek word sisys, meaning “goatskin”—a reference, supposedly, to a rain-charm that employed goatskins.1 More recently, other scholars have suggested some connection with the Greek word sophos, meaning “clever” or “wise.”2
Σίσυφος (translit. Sisyphos)
/ˈsɪs ə fəs/
#Titles and Epithets
Sisyphus only appears occasionally in surviving ancient literature and therefore only has a few epithets. He was sometimes referred to as “Aeolides,” meaning “son of Aeolus”—a reference to his father, the Thessalian king Aeolus. But Sisyphus’ most common epithets evoked his craftiness through such Greek words as kerdiōn and aiolomētēs (meaning simply “crafty”).
#Attributes and Iconography
But Sisyphus also had a tendency to overstep his mortal bounds and offend the gods, which caused him no end of trouble. In the end, his most famous attribute was not an aspect of his personality at all but rather the punishment for which he will always be remembered: the huge stone that he was forced to roll up a hill in Tartarus for all eternity.
In ancient art, Sisyphus was most commonly represented with his stone in Tartarus.5
Sisyphus was the son of Aeolus, an early king of Thessaly, and his queen Enarete. His brothers included Cretheus, Athamas, Salmoneus, and Perieres,6 as well as Deion and Magnes (in some sources).7 His sisters included Canace, Alcyone, Pisidice, Calyce, and Perimede. In some traditions, however, Sisyphus’ siblings shared their names with Greek cities and towns, including Mimas,8 Tanagra,9 and Arne10—which, according to local myths, had been named after them.
Sisyphus married Merope, one of the daughters of the Titan Atlas. Their most famous child was Glaucus, who became the father (or foster father) of the hero Bellerophon. But they had other children too: Pausanias lists them as Ornytion, Thersander, and Almus,11 while a commentator on Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica adds Sinon and Porphyrion.12
According to some traditions, Sisyphus also seduced Anticlea and thus became the father of Odysseus, one of the most famous heroes of the Trojan War (though in most sources Odysseus was the son of Laertes).13 Finally, there were apparently traditions in which Sisyphus was a lover of Medea.14
#King of Corinth
Sisyphus was usually described as the king of Ephyra (the original name of Corinth).15 He was sometimes said to have actually founded the city.16 But in other traditions, Medea made Sisyphus king of Corinth after she killed the city’s royal family.17
#Crime and Punishment: Three Versions of Sisyphus
In antiquity (as is still the case today), Sisyphus served as a cautionary tale for the terrible consequences of offending the gods. In the Odyssey, Odysseus describes seeing Sisyphus pushing his stone in the Underworld:
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.18
But there were different accounts of the crime that so memorably provoked the gods’ wrath.
Two Ways to Cheat Death
In what has become the most familiar tradition, Sisyphus was punished because he cheated Death. The most complete account of this myth comes from a summary of the story as it would have been told in the lost writings of Pherecydes, a genealogist and mythographer of the fifth century BCE.
According to Pherecydes, it all started when Sisyphus revealed to the river god Asopus that he had seen Zeus carrying off Aegina, Asopus’ daughter. In revenge, Zeus sent Death to take Sisyphus to the Underworld. But Sisyphus managed to chain Death. Because of this, all humans (not just Sisyphus) were temporarily spared from death—at least until Zeus sent Ares to set things right.
After Death had been freed, he seized Sisyphus and took him to the Underworld—but not before Sisyphus instructed his wife Merope not to perform the customary funerary rituals for him. When Sisyphus reached the Underworld, he convinced Hades (or Hades’ queen Persephone, in some versions) to let him return to the world of the living to punish his wife for neglecting his funeral. Once back, of course, he did not return to the Underworld.
Eventually, however, Sisyphus died of old age. Once he was back in the Underworld for good, the gods punished his all-too-brief victory over death by forcing him to forever push a stone up a hill.19
Asopus, Aegina, and Zeus
Several well-known authors—among them the geographer Pausanias and the mythographer Apollodorus—simplified the myth of Sisyphus by excluding his attempts to cheat Death. As in Pherecydes’ account, Sisyphus told Asopus that Zeus had carried off Aegina. In exchange for this information, some said, Sisyphus was given a spring on the Acrocorinth. But the gift, however grand, was little consolation in the end: in this version, Sisyphus received his eternal punishment solely for betraying Zeus’ secret.20
This myth follows a pattern seen elsewhere in Greek mythology, in which a god disproportionately punishes someone for revealing their secrets. Other examples include Battus, transformed into a stone by Hermes after he disclosed that the infant god had stolen Apollo’s cattle, or Ascalaphus, buried alive by Demeter after he testified that Persephone had tasted food in the Underworld (which forced her to forever remain Hades’ wife). The version of Sisyphus described by Pausanias and Apollodorus thus joins the ranks of other ill-fated mythological tattletales.
Sibling Rivalry: Sisyphus vs. Salmoneus
In another tradition, recorded by the Roman mythographer known as Hyginus,21 Sisyphus was locked in a bitter conflict with his brother Salmoneus. The hatred between them was so deep that Sisyphus went to the oracle of Delphi to learn how he might kill Salmoneus. The oracle told him that if he had children with Salmoneus’ wife Tyro, they would do the deed for him.
Sisyphus followed the oracle’s advice and bore two sons with Tyro. But when Tyro learned the prophecy, she killed the children. Tantalizingly, the text breaks off precisely where it would have described what Sisyphus did next: presumably, he took a cruel revenge on Tyro. Whatever the exact details, Sisyphus’ actions were apparently savage enough to earn him his famous punishment.22
Sisyphus features in a handful of other myths.
In some traditions, Sisyphus was tangentially involved in the sad myth of Ino. After Hera drove Ino mad enough to drown herself and her son Melicertes, Sisyphus found Melicertes’ body washed up on the shore of Corinth. He buried the body and founded the Isthmian Games, athletic and artistic contests held every two years in honor of the boy.23
Another myth pitted Sisyphus against Autolycus, also a famous mythological trickster. Autolycus, a son of Hermes, was a skillful thief—almost impossible to catch. But Sisyphus found a way to outsmart him. Autolycus stole from Sisyphus’ herd, and true to form, he disguised the crime almost perfectly, slipping the animals away undetected and even changing their appearance. But Sisyphus had marked the bottoms of his animals’ hooves and so was able to prove Autolycus’ crime.24
The most well-known modern adaptation of Sisyphus is Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), an essay on the philosophy of the absurd.
Sisyphus has also appeared in cinema and television, including the 1990s television series Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. More recently, Sisyphus inspired the Korean series Sisyphus: The Myth (2021).
Though Sisyphus remains a well-known mythical figure, we have very few ancient texts that describe his myth. This is not to say that he was an unpopular literary subject; on the contrary, all three of the canonical Athenian tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—wrote plays about him. Unfortunately, none of these plays have survived. The extant works that do tell the myth of Sisyphus discuss him only in summary or through hard-to-interpret allusions.
Homer: Sisyphus and his punishment are mentioned in both the Iliad and the Odyssey (eighth century BCE); however, neither epic specifies Sisyphus’ crime. In Book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus actually glimpses Sisyphus in the Underworld.
Hesiod: There are references to Sisyphus and his genealogy in the fragmentary Catalogue of Women (seventh or sixth century BCE).
Theognis: A poem in the first book of Theognis’ elegies (sixth century BCE) briefly describes the myth of Sisyphus.
Pindar: Sisyphus’ exceptional cunning is described in Olympian Ode 13 (464 BCE).
Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue and an important source for local myths and customs. In Book 2 especially, Pausanias relates some traditions about Sisyphus.
Lucretius: In Book 3 of his poem On the Nature of Things (first century BCE), the philosopher Lucretius interprets the myth of Sisyphus as an allegory for politicians who constantly seek political office only to be defeated again and again.
Ovid: Sisyphus appears briefly in Book 10 of the epic Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE): when Orpheus, seeking to restore his bride Eurydice to life, captivates the Underworld with his music, even Sisyphus stops rolling his stone up the hill for a moment.
Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman):
Apollodorus, Library: A mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE that contains references to Sisyphus.
Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) that includes sections on the myths of Sisyphus.
Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.
Kerényi, Károly. The Heroes of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.
Nünlist, René. “Sisyphus.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e1114350.
Oakley, John H. “Sisyphos I.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 8, 781–87. Zurich: Artemis, 1994.
Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.
Simon, Elliott M. The Myth of Sisyphus: Renaissance Theories of Human Perfectibility. Madison, WI: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007.
Smith, William. “Sisyphus.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed August 10, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DS%3Aentry+group%3D19%3Aentry%3Dsisyphus-bio-1.
Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. “Sisyphus.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1373. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.