T is for Tantalos

Published April 23, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Ack, it’s 8:20 and I’m only just starting today’s post…and it’s Thursday, myth day!  (The whole myths on Thursdays was supposed to let me write ’em in advance and make this easier, not harder…though I didn’t actually have class today anyway, but…)  Okay, gotta jump right in and hope to finish in time to take my much-needed bath!

Some sons of Zeus were better than others.  Some were gods themselves, some became mighty heroes, saving those in peril, or at least fighting terrible foes for their own personal gain.  But sometimes he had a son like Tantalos…

Zeus had an affair with a Titaness named Pluto, and fathered Tantalos on her.  As his mother’s name implied, Tantalos was born into fabulous wealth, and he ruled all of Lydia from his seat on Mt. Sipylus.  But unlike his parents, Tantalos was not not immortal.

He married a daughter of the Titan Atlas, and they had three children:  Pelops, Niobe and Broteas.  Broteas was a scultor, and when he was grown, he carved an enormous statue of Cybele into the side of Mt. Sipylus.  Niobe married the King of Thebes, and met a very sad end there.  And as to Pelops, he would go on to great things, but only after he had caused his father’s downfall…

Tantalos wanted more than anything to be immortal like his parents and his wife.  He didn’t want to grow old and die like the other mortals.  So when he was invited to join his father and the other gods at dinner one night, he listened carefully to all their convesations–even those they told him not to listen to–keen to learn the secret of immortality.

It seemed that only those who partook of ambrosia could become immortal.  So once Zeus and the other gods had gone to sleep after their fine feast, Tantalos found the hiding place of the ambrosia, and stole some for himself, careful to leave enough that the theft would not be noticed.  The next day, he returned home as if nothing had happened, pleased with himself for having obtained the ambrosia.

He drank some every day for a year, and was pleased to note that he seemed to stop aging.  As a test, he asked his son to stab him, and found that he no longer had blood like other men, but ichor, such as the gods had.

Tantalos grew very bold now that he knew he couldn’t die.  He began to raid other kingdoms, adding their land and gold to his own kingdom in Lydia, swearing that he would ensure that Lydia–and its king!–would always be known as the wealthiest of all.

And as he grew more and more confident in his immortality, he began to throw the most lavish feasts.  He would go to any lengths to serve his guests the most exotic dishes, and provide them with the finest entertainments.

Sometimes he would send to the lands far to the east, and have his men bring back peacocks for his table, using their beautiful feathers to decorate his clothes.  Other times he would send to Ethiopia for elephants to serve his guests.  Once he even sent his men north to Hyperborea, to hunt gryphons to feed to his hungry guests!

And as to the entertainment!

He hired philosophers before there were such men.  He hired the finest bards and the most brilliant poets.  He brought in dancing girls from lands where the ladies went about under-clad.  He brought barbarians from the north to perform exhibitions with strange weapons unknown in Lydia.

But most scintillating of all, according to his guests, was the conversation of Tantalos himself.  Because he would repeat for his guests things he had heard at the table of the gods.

He told them the very words Hera would use to nag her brother-husband, berating him for his lechery towards other women and lack of interest in her.  He told them how Aphrodite would complain of the amorous attentions of Hermes and Apollo, yet cast dreamy, desirous eyes at Ares, who–of course!–was more interested in polishing his shield than in her advances.  He even shared his father’s lament that his sister and two of his daughters continually refused to wed–or even take lovers unwedded–despite how many men, mortal or immortal, desired their company.  And it was he, Tantalos, who first told mortal man that Hephaistos, the mighty smith of the gods, was lame in both legs, one a birth defect and the other an injury so terrible that even a god could not heal from it.

And, most entertaining of all, Tantalos made a game of his immortality, inviting his guests to do him any injury they liked, because they could never harm him.  Most refused to harm him anyway, as that would have been a rude thing for a guest to do, but a few attended his feasts as would-be assassins, and yet they left as should-have-been assassins.

After some years of this, the gods began to suspect Tantalos had betrayed them.

He didn’t seem any older than he had been the night he visited them on Olympos.  And he seemed to survive many wounds he surely should not have.  Worst of all, Aphrodite and Hera noticed that men were snickering before their temples, as if they knew gossip about those fair goddesses.  And Hephaistos found the images of him in the temples were beginning to have their legs replaced with deformed ones.

Zeus, being fond of all his children (except, perhaps, Ares), wanted to believe that his son Tantalos had not done these terrible things.  He suggested that they pay him a visit to find out.  So he sent Hermes down to visit Tantalos, telling him that the gods wished him to play host to them in repayment for his visit to Olympos.

Tantalos smiled when Hermes told him the news.  “Tell our father that I will be glad to provide you with a feast unlike any that has ever before been placed in front of guests!”

Hermes relayed the message to Zeus, and added that he didn’t like the way Tanatalos had smiled at the request.

Of course, Tantalos really hadn’t meant anything by it.  He just wanted to give his best ever feast.  After all, even for a demi-god like himself, the gods rarely stopped by for a chat en masse.  They needed something truly exotic, something even Tantalos had never served before.

But at his last feast, he had served roast gryphon.  What was even more rare and precious than that?

“Is something the matter, Father?” his young son Pelops asked, looking at him curiously.  The boy was on the cusp of manhood, barely fifteen, and delightfully beautiful to look at.

What could be more rare and precious than that?

The first god to arrive was Hermes, leading his aunt Demeter by the hand.  Demeter was beside herself with worry, and constantly looked about her, hoping to catch sight of her missing daughter, Persephone.  But of course she was not in Lydia, so Demeter’s agitation remained unbearable all through the evening.

The rest of the gods assembled quickly, as Tantalos was greeting them all with the same warmth and generosity that he always showed his guests.  But–apart from the distracted Demeter–they could all feel that something was wrong.  There was a sickly smell in the air which made them all queasy with disgust.

Tantalos placed the meal before them, and told them that it was the finest meat in all the world.

The gods stared at the food in horror, and would not touch it.  Except for Demeter, who absently ate a bit of the meat in front of her, though even she realized what it was after a few bites, and would not touch the rest.

There was a tumult of activity.  Everyone spoke at once, shouting and accusing.  Much came to light that had been dark, some things returned to the dark from the light, and one thing was brought back from the darkness.

In outrage, Zeus struck Tantalos with a thunderbolt, but as he was now immortal, it failed to kill him.

“Drag him down to Tartaros!” Zeus commanded, and Hermes quickly obeyed, though he was surprised to find that Tantalos did not resist.

They were soon in the throne room of Hades, but the god was strangely restless, and kept gazing off to one side, as if he would rather be somewhere else.  Hermes thought that very odd, but even he did not realize that it had anything to do with Demeter’s equally odd behavior…

“Why have you brought a living mortal before me?” Hades finally asked, as if only just realizing that something was amiss.

“This traitor is mortal no longer,” Hermes explained, prodding Tantalos with his staff.  “He must have stolen ambrosia from Olympos when he was Father’s guest.  On top of that, he’s been spreading gossip about us, things he overheard us say in secret.  But the worst thing was his feast tonight!  This monster in human form had the gall to murder his own son, cook him, and serve him to us at the banquet!”  Hermes shoved Tantalos forward, causing him to stumble and fall to his knees.  “We brought the boy back to life, but Demeter accidentally ate part of his shoulder, so we had to replace it with ivory.”

“How could my sister do such a thing by accident?” Hades asked, perplexed.

“Seems her daughter’s gone missing lately, and she’s been distracted,” Hermes explained.  Hades twitched almost guiltily at the words, giving Hermes an idea just where his half-sister might be found…

“Is this true?” Hades asked, looking at Tantalos, despite that gods rarely lied; even Hermes, the god of liars, was usually truthful, unless he had something to gain, personally, from a lie.

“It isn’t true at all,” Tantalos assured him, bowing his head.  “I’m completely innocent!”

“You lying dog!” Hermes shouted, raising his staff to strike his half-brother again.

“This is interesting,” Hades said, holding up a hand to stop Hermes.  “Tell me your side of the story, then.”

Tantalos nodded, and smiled at Hades warmly.  “I was some time ago the guest of my father on Mt. Olympos, and at that time, I mentioned how very beautiful my son Pelops was.  Not long after, my uncle Poseidon came to visit me, and he fell madly in love with my son.  He took the boy away by force, leaving me some ambrosia as payment.  I am being punished to silence me from telling the world that one of the gods has stolen my son for his own perverse pleasures!”

“You don’t honestly think anyone is going to believe such a ludicrous tale, do you?” Hermes asked, his eyes narrowed with disbelief.

“I think there are probably those who very much would believe it,” Hades said.  “However, I am not one of them.  You should have known that as the god of the dead, I could not be unaware of the dead being restored to life.”

“Or perhaps you’re in league with your brother Poseidon, having committed a similar rape yourself,” Tantalos said, with a sickly smirk.

Hades rose from his throne in anger, and raised his hand to strike Tantalos, but regained his calm, cold composure almost instantly.  “Briareos!” he shouted instead.  The Hundred-Handed Giant immediately reported to the throne room.  “Take this creature into Tartaros,” he said, gesturing at Tantalos.  “Set him a punishment that will match his cruelty and greed.”

Tantalos was dragged down into Tartaros, and fastened in place inside a pool of icy water that came up to his chin, with a fruit-bearing tree (or the image of one, since nothing so luscious could grow underground) growing just above his head.  Then a thirst and a hunger were set upon Tantalos, but if he tried to lower his face to the water to quench his thirst, the waters receded.  And if he reached up towards the fruit, the branches would raise up so that he could never eat again.

Such was the penalty for betraying the gods.

I wanted to fit all the major variations of the Tantalos tale into one, but…I still had to leave one out; it just didn’t fit.  There’s one where some other guy steals something from a sanctuary of Zeus and hides it with Tantalos, and Hermes is sent to retrieve it, but Tantalos lies and says he’s never heard of it, and yet when the thief comes back for it, Tantalos still claims he’s never heard of it.  That one doesn’t really work for me on any level, which is probably why I didn’t work too hard to try to fit it in.

The thing about the gods having “ichor” came out of the translation of the Iliad I’m always quoting.  No idea how accurate the word “ichor” is to whatever was in the original Greek.  Someday I’ll re-learn ancient Greek and find out.  For the moment…yeah, no clue.

It’s funny that I originally thought Hades wouldn’t be in this story, considering that’s always the reason Demeter’s distracted and eats Pelops’ shoulder.  (The question is, why is it the shoulder?  What’s the significance there?  I’m sure there must be one…)

I hope I remembered correctly that Mt. Sipylos is the one with the giant goddess statue on it; otherwise I just made an idiot of myself.  But I saw that that was the mountain where Tantalos ruled, and it said his son the sculptor made the first image of Cybele, so I sort of assumed that particular myth was intended to explain the 300 foot tall woman carved onto the side of the mountain.  (I believe one of the other ancient things on the side of the mountain is directly named after Tantalos, if memory serves….)

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