The Death of Sisyphus

Published January 26, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

The second of my retellings of myths involving Hades.

Sisyphus was the son of Aeolus, one of the sons of Hellen.  When he was young, he set out to forge a new home for himself, and founded the city he called Ephyra, though later generations would come to call it Corinth.  He married the beautiful Merope, one of the Pleiades, the immortal daughters of Atlas.

One day, Sisyphus witnessed something incredible:  Zeus, the king of the gods, was carrying off Aegina, the daughter of the river god Asopus.  Some time later, Asopus came to Ephyra, seeking his daughter.  Sisyphus saw an opportunity to help himself out, so he told the river god that he knew where his daughter was, and that he would pass along the information in exchange for a fresh water spring in his beautiful city.  Asopus obliged, so Sisyphus shared the information that Zeus had taken Aegina to a nearby island for some romantic isolation.

The enraged river god went to retrieve his daughter, angering Zeus greatly by his presumption.  But Zeus had already fathered Aiakos on Aegina, so he turned aside from the river god’s interference, and instead focused his fury against Sisyphus for daring to tattle on the greatest of the gods.

Zeus contemplated hurling a thunderbolt at Sisyphus to put an end to him, but decided that was too fine a death for such a double-dealing wretch.  Instead, he sent Thanatos to kill Sisyphus and drag his shade down to the house of Hades.  When Thanatos arrived in Ephyra and entered the palace of Sisyphus, he did not find the king in his throne room, but found only a mournful-looking Merope sitting on the throne.

“Where is your husband, daughter of Atlas?” Thanatos asked her.  “I have business with him.”

Merope sighed sadly.  “I know; he’s been expecting you.  He’s hiding in our bedroom,” she said, then rose to lead Thanatos to the royal bedroom.  The bedroom was up on the second floor, and Merope stopped just outside the door.  “It’s through here,” she told him, gesturing towards the door.  “Sisyphus is hiding behind the bed.”

Thanatos opened the door, and stepped through it into the darkened room beyond.  “Surrender yourself to me, as all mortals must, son of Aeolus.  For I am death, and I have come for you.”

There was no reply but a quiet whimper from the far corner of the room.  Thanatos followed the sound through the darkness until he found himself suddenly tripping over something hard.  He tumbled head over heels, landing face down in something narrow, metal and constrictive.  There was a clanging of metal against metal and Thanatos found himself trapped.

Having closed the lid of the bronze pot, Sisyphus quickly began to bind it shut with many heavy ropes.  “I’ve done it!” he called out to his wife.

She opened the door, letting a bit of light into the dark room.  “Sisyphus…are you serious?” Merope asked, staring at him in disbelief.

“Of course I am!” he laughed.  “I’ve caught Thanatos, death himself!”

“The gods aren’t going to let you get away with that for long,” she told him.  “You must know that.”

“Of course I do,” he agreed.  “But don’t worry, my dear.  I already have a plan.”

Sisyphus quickly explained his plans to his uncertain wife.

In the mean time, all over the world, mortals stopped dying.  Murderers found their victims getting back up and trying to take vengeance for themselves, and sailors could not drown, no matter how long they spent floundering beneath the waves.

The first god to notice was Ares.  He was in Thrace, fighting alongside the Amazons against their enemies, trying to impress their beautiful queen.  But no matter how many times he pierced a mortal’s chest with his spear, the mortal would get back to his feet and flee, in agony but very much alive.  The more his victims got up and escaped, the more the Amazons laughed at Ares, infuriating and humiliating him.  Eventually, he turned on them in his anger, but was no more able to kill the Amazon warriors than he had been able to kill the Thracians.

Furious, Ares stormed down into the underworld to confront his uncle, Hades.  “What’s wrong with you?!” Ares demanded.  “Why aren’t you doing your job?!”

“What do you think gives you the right to storm into my throne room and berate me like this?” Hades asked coldly, getting to his feet.  “Have more respect for an elder god!”

From her own throne, Persephone laughed quietly.  “You know my brother is just impetuous,” she told her husband.  “It’s his way to yell all the time.”

Grimacing, Hades sat down on his throne again.  “Very well,” he sighed.  “I assume your complaint has to do with the way my kingdom has ceased to grow.”

“Of course it does!  What kind of war can I conduct, if the mortals I kill don’t stay dead?!”

Hades grimaced.  “If you weren’t so eager to practice your ways, maybe I would have more time to spend with my bride,” he grumbled.

Persephone set her hand on his, and squeezed it gently.  “And yet you were worried that the lands above might become overcrowded if the mortals couldn’t die,” she reminded him.

“So is it your doing or not?” Ares asked, a little unsettled by the affectionate display.  He didn’t know how to handle those, except when he was part of them.

“Of course not,” Hades replied, shaking his head.  “Thanatos never returned from Ephyra.  Something must have happened to him there.  If his failure to do his duty is so angering you, why don’t you go after him?”

Ares nodded, and returned to the surface, determined to find Thanatos and give him a piece of his mind for being so negligent of his duties.  When he arrived there, he heard the news being sung gladly from every corner of Hellas:  “King Sisyphus has captured Thanatos, and now we’ll all live forever!”  Ares struck down a few of the mortals who were so excited about their new immortality, but of course it didn’t do any good, and the mortals simply scattered in terror.

Making his way to Ephyra, Ares stormed into the palace of Sisyphus, and demanded that the king explain what had happened to Thanatos.  Sisyphus gladly showed him the bronze pot that sat beside his throne, bound tightly shut.  “I’ve trapped Thanatos in this pot,” he told him proudly.

“Oh, is that so?  No wonder you’re so famous for your wit,” Ares responded, laughing as if he was on Sisyphus’ side.  Certain that he had outwitted the cunning trickster, Ares leapt at the pot, sliced apart the ropes with his sword, knocked off the lid, and then used his sword to slay Sisyphus.

Thanatos dutifully led the soul of Sisyphus down to the house of Hades.  The god was initially inclined to be lenient, since he had enjoyed his brief vacation, but when he checked, he found that the king’s widow had not yet buried her husband’s corpse.  Merope had simply left the body where it had fallen, and was going about her daily activities, seemingly uncaring that her mortal husband had died.

Hades frowned.  “Just what kind of woman ignores her husband’s death?” he asked.

“Maybe she doesn’t know he’s dead yet?” Persephone suggested.  “If she hasn’t been around mortals very long, perhaps she doesn’t know how it works?  Or she might not realize that Thanatos has been freed.”

“She was in the throne room when Ares freed me,” Thanatos told her.  “The daughter of Atlas saw her husband being killed.”

“Inexcusable!” Hades bellowed, then turned to look at Sisyphus.  “Go back up to the surface, and tell your wife to give you a proper burial!  I won’t have any soul in my realm who hasn’t received the proper memorial rites.”

Sisyphus bowed to the god.  “As you wish,” he answered.  The soul returned to the surface, and once more inhabited its body.  Then he left the throne room, walked up to Merope, and gave her a passionate kiss.  “It worked beautifully, my dear,” he told her.  “I’m back.”

Merope sighed.  “But for how long?” she asked.

“I’m sure Thanatos will be too busy cleaning up the mess from his brief time off to bother coming after me any time soon,” he chuckled.

Sisyphus resumed his old life, and continued to reign over Ephyra for many years.  But eventually Thanatos returned for him, and this time Merope performed the proper burial rites for her husband.

But this time, Hades was not so forgiving when Sisyphus was brought before him.  “You thought you could deceive the gods and escape death.  Can you make any excuses for your behavior?”

“Every mortal wants to escape death,” Sisyphus answered.  “I’m just the only one who thought of a way to do so.”

“Arrogance.  To be mortal is to die,” Hades answered, shaking his head.  “Your transgressions can never be forgiven.  Briareos!”  The hundred-handed giant entered the throne room, and laid seven or eight of his hands on the shade of Sisyphus.  “Take him to Tartaros.”

The giant nodded, and dragged the shade into the pit of Tartaros, where he set it to eternal punishment.  Sisyphus was forced to roll a massive boulder up a tall hill, but as soon as he got it to the top, it would roll down the other side, and Sisyphus had to chase it and then attempt to roll it back up again, over and over again, for all time.

Yeah, that one didn’t work too well.  I guess there’s a reason this story isn’t normally told with any fullness.  There’s no official tradition regarding just how Sisyphus managed to trap Thanatos, so I just tried to make something up.  The bronze pot detail was meant to be humorously ironic, because Ares at one point hid in (and was then trapped in) a bronze pot to get away from some giants.

I avoided any mention of Hermes here, because I’m not totally clear on when this story takes place in relation to the birth of such a young god as Hermes.  Especially since his mother, Maia, is a sister of Merope, so even if he’s been born by this point, he might not have taken on his duties as psycopompos yet.  In fact, it would make sense that this incident with Thanatos would be the reason he was given the task of guiding souls down into the underworld upon their deaths.

BTW, Aiakos, son of Zeus and Aegina, is the father of Peleus, the father of Achilles.  (Also, in some versions, the father of Telamon, father of Aias.)  That just goes to prove the chronological improbability of the Athenian stage tradition that had Sisyphus being the father of Odysseus, rather than Laertes being his father.  Also, one of Sisyphus’ sons was Glaucos, father of Bellerophon, who was the grandfather of the Glaucos who traded armor with Diomedes, and then later was killed by Telamonian Aias during the battle over the corpse of Achilles.  Presumably, that means that the earlier Glaucos was already a young man by the time his father witnessed the abduction of Aegina.  Or something.  Also, Peleus was fairly old when he fathered Achilles (he already had a married daughter, whose son accompanied Achilles to Troy as one of the commanders of the Myrmidons).

Also, this didn’t really involve Hades as much as I originally meant it to.



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