Sisyphus: a Martyr or a Rogue

220px-Punishment_sisyphFor quite a long period of time I thought that Sisyphus was the symbol of martyrdom; a great man who was wrongfully judged by a whimsical tyrant god. I do not know if that has to do with inaccurate information I received in class, or it was because I was not paying attention to what my teacher was saying.

Anyway, I think that my understanding of the “tragedy” of Sisyphus settled well with my adolescent need for overdramatic reactions and very emotional and senseless perception of the world. I needed to blame someone else for my fault, wanted to constantly rebel against any shadow of the faintest rules I can spot from afar, and of course play the victim.

The idea that he had to constantly to push a boulder to the top of a mountain only to see it fall back crashing him and his efforts seemed, to a certain extend, to symbolise my efforts to impress my “entourage” with what I was doing with my life… which was not much as a matter of fact. Anyway, I grew older and hopefully I became more mature and I started to see that Sisyphus is not a martyr and much less a hero.

Sisyphus was a king but much of his character was very far from being noble. He was a deceiver, a murderer and above all he was so “full of himself”, something we cannot tolerate in those high-born people. He was skilful but not in a way to cause a threat to the craftsmanship of the gods, he was intelligent but not as resourceful as Zeus, and he was a powerful ruler but not as dominant as the Olympians.

Sisyphus defied three major rules that can in no way be pardoned. He disobeyed rules of kinship, kingship, and nature. As a start he deceived his niece and after she bore him children she discovered that he was planning to use her offspring to kill her father who of course happens to be Sisyphus’s brother. This plan holds more transgressions than any ancient Greek mind could bear: incest –although very often overlooked-, patricide, fratricide, and eventually filicide since Sisyphus’s wife will slaughter her children to prevent them from killing her father. This is simply too much!

The second transgression is in Sisyphus’s relation not to his family but to his subjects. He was known to be the founder of Corinth and a promoter of commerce and navigation. His kingdom prospered in his time, that much is true, but he was very deceitful and quite a miser. He was also famous for killing travellers and merchants who happen to come to his city which was a blunt violation to the laws of hospitality normally shown to guests and foreigners. This transgression was very offensive to Zeus who started to grow tired of the hubristic behaviour of Sisyphus.

The final transgression was against the laws of nature when he cheated death and came back to tread among the living. In all the versions that we received about Sisyphus death and his confinement in the underworld we come to the same conclusion. Through his cunning he was able to deceive whoever was watching him. Some stories say that Hades or Thanatos (Death) were tricked and chained instead of Sisyphus leading to a disturbance in the life and death cycle.

That was the final straw and Zeus had to put an end to this unruly creature and that is how he was punished in the famous way we are all familiar with.

Now, as a more mature reader of the story of Sisyphus, and although I still recognise him as a symbol of absurd and futile work, I came to see his punishment as a regulatory procedure that had to be taken to restore nature back to its order.


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