At the bottom left of the Underworld scene on the monumental krater that’s currently on loan from the National Archaeological Museum of Naples for conservation treatment, poor Sisyphus is consigned to pushing a rock up a hill, only for it to forever fall down again. It’s a huge thing, and Sisyphus needs all of his strength to force it upwards. He’s not helped, either, by a fierce creature named Ananke (Necessity) who watches over, goad in hand, forever binding him to this futile task.
This is one of three examples that survive in South Italian depictions of the Underworld, and in browsing online for images, I’ve been (occasionally) amused by the countless cartoon variations and adaptations of Sisyphus’s fate. Mid-year review season has just passed by here, so Zachary Kanin’s 2014 New Yorker illustration of Sisyphus’s office manager asking for an update feels especially pertinent at the moment.
But it begs the question: how did one of the primeval sinners become a figure of fun? What follows is the fruit of a preliminary—and doubtless incomplete—investigation, one that starts from Homer, Virgil, and Lucretius, and runs through Titian and the British satirical magazine Punch all the way to Albert Camus.
But first of all, we should clarify what Sisyphus did wrong. As ever with Greek myths, it depends on what you read,(1) but the recurring theme is that Sisyphus’s eternal suffering came about due to his cheating Death and thereby disturbing the cosmic order. Putting together the different tales that survive, we get this: Zeus intended to kill Sisyphus because he was miffed at him—specifically, for revealing that Zeus had abducted a young lady to said young lady’s father. So Thanatos, the personification of death, was sent to take hold of Sisyphus and transport him down to the Underworld. Yet this “craftiest of men” (Homer, Iliad 6.153) tied up his hunter, and thus continued living. In fact, with Death rendered ineffectual, everyone on earth could stay alive.
After some time, Ares managed to liberate Thanatos, but Sisyphus had another trick up his sleeve. He’d persuaded his wife not to undertake the funerary rituals that were necessary for any soul to enter the afterlife. So, on being taken down to the Underworld, Sisyphus could legitimately say that he wasn’t ready, and ought to be returned to the earth above in order to remonstrate with his wife. Remarkably, this ruse worked on Hades, and Sisyphus was able to live a while longer. Eventually, though, his time came and the gods were intent on ensuring that Sisyphus remain, quite literally, dead and buried. Accordingly, they imposed the punishment for which he remains known to this day: to roll a heavy rock uphill forever.
Sisyphus’s fate was deeply rooted in Greek literature. In Homer’s account of Odysseus’s travels home from Troy, the Greek hero visits the Underworld, and sees Sisyphus among the dead:
…seeking to raise a monstrous stone with his two hands. In fact, he would get a purchase with hands and feet and keep pushing 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 shameless stone. But he would strain again and thrust it back, and the sweat flowed down from his limbs…
—Homer, Odyssey 11, 593–600 (2)
Like Tityos and Tantalus, whose sufferings Odysseus also witnesses, Sisyphus was an exemplar of eternal punishment—but it’s worth noting that, in the Homeric conception of the afterlife, there’s no clearly defined zone for those destined for everlasting torment. Further, Sisyphus’ fate says much about the ancient Greek mindset. Unendurable punishment was conceived not only as excruciating bodily torment (so Tityos, who had to endure having his liver being torn out by two vultures—forever), but also as unremitting drudgery. Ancient Greek society was, in essence, an agricultural one, and entailed plenty of rigorous labor. So it’s to be expected that suffering was imagined in such futile and soul-destroying terms.
From what survives in Greek art, it seems that Sisyphus was the most popular of the sinners in the Underworld. Images of him pushing his load up a rocky outcrop or hill occur on a number of Athenian black-figure vases from around 530 B.C. and suggest that, if nothing else, his punishment offered a subject that could be presented clearly and simply.
He is often watched over by Persephone and/or Hades, the rulers of the Underworld, and sometimes the fearsome guard-dog Kerberos is present. Some of the vases on which the famous sinner was depicted may have been destined for graves, but it’s difficult to say whether there was any “moralizing” intent in the painters’ choice of scene. Furthermore, a good number of the extant examples come from Etruscan sites such as Orvieto or Vulci, which in turn raises a new question: would the Etruscans have recognized this figure? Depictions of Sisyphus do survive from Etruscan tomb paintings, but these are a couple of centuries later than the Athenian vases. However, one of the earliest surviving depictions of Sisyphus’s punishment is a sandstone relief from Foce del Sele near Paestum, a Greek settlement not far from Naples, so perhaps it’s plausible that he was known more widely in Italy. There are certainly parallels between the Etruscan and Greek ideas about the Underworld, and some characters that were common to both (for example, the Etruscan Phersipnei is equivalent to the Greek Persephone).
At least one Athenian vase-painter had fun with story. On either side of a red-figure krater (mixing vessel) now in Warsaw, youths cavort in typical post-symposium style.
It’s no surprise to find such depictions on a krater—the shape was intended for wine—but what is odd is the sight of one of the young men struggling with a rock. Is this merely a drunken recreation of Sisyphus’s fate? Or, to take things a little further, a warning against excess?(3) The suffering of sinners in the Underworld was certainly not immune to mockery in ancient Greece. Sisyphus the Runaway and Sisyphus the Stone-Roller are the titles of two satyr-plays (not outright comedies, but light relief that followed a trilogy of tragedies) assigned to Aeschylus, and Aristophanes has plenty of fun in presenting Dionysos and his slave descending to the Underworld in his comedy The Frogs. An anecdote related by Plato demonstrates nicely how frightful sufferings and eternal misery were easily dismissed as mere scare-mongering. But as death approached, attitudes changed:
For let me tell you, Sokrates, that whenever someone gets close to thinking he will die, fear and worry come upon him about things that didn’t occur to him before. The stories told about what goes on in Hades, how the wrongdoer must suffer punishment there, which he earlier laughed at, now torment his soul in case they are true…
—Plato, Politeia, Book 1, 330e (4)
However much it might have been mocked, the eternal suffering of Sisyphus and his fellow sinners retained its currency in Roman conceptions of the afterlife. When the Sibyl guides Aeneas around the Underworld in Vergil’s Aeneid, she makes passing reference to those “who roll a great boulder” (6.616), while Ovid records the goddess Juno witnessing Sisyphus pushing or chasing “his rock that will always return” (Metamorphoses 4. 460). We also find some writers putting his punishment to allegorical ends. The philosopher-poet Lucretius was an Epicurean, and considered political ambition to be futile. He equates a man’s thirst for power with the needless suffering of the rock-pusher:
Sisyphus also appears in this life before our eyes, athirst to solicit from the people the lictor’s rods and cruel axes, and always retiring defeated and full of gloom. For to solicit power, an empty thing, which is never granted, and always to endure hard toil in the pursuit of it, this is to push laboriously up a hill the rock that still rolls down again from the very top…
—Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 3.995-1002 (5)
The allegorical potency of Sisyphus’s fate is what I find most intriguing, so allow me to jump ahead a few centuries. A recent exhibition at the Prado presented a fascinating case study from the sixteenth century.(6) In 1548, Mary of Hungary, the sister of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, commissioned the Venetian artist Titian to paint four canvases for her palace at Binche, near Charleroi, Flanders. These were large—each over two meters across—and depicted the famous Greek sinners: Tityos, Tantalus, Sisyphus (all of whom had been seen in the Underworld by Homer’s Odysseus), and Ixion, who was fixed to a spinning fiery wheel for his crimes. Only the Sisyphus and another version of the Tityos survive today.
Titian would have been familiar with Ovid and Virgil’s accounts of the Underworld, but he depicted Sisyphus bearing his burden upon his shoulders rather than rolling it up the hill. In the background, amidst blazing fire, snarl two fierce dogs, and a serpent slithers at Sisyphus’s feet. The subject matter was, at the time, highly unusual for Titian, and the inspiration for the paintings is likely to have come from Mary of Hungary. The sinner-portraits were hung between the windows of the palace’s Great Room (on the opposite wall were a series of tapestries entitled the “Seven Deadly Sins”). No visitor could fail to be overawed by these scenes, the intent of which was clear. Just as those who rebelled against the gods would suffer, so too would anyone who rose up against Mary’s brother, the Emperor.
As might be expected, though, what once served as propaganda could just as easily be turned into satire. Fast-forwarding a few more centuries, it’s clear that Sispyhus and his suffering offered a gold mine to political cartoonists. The rock and its pusher can be easily labeled, and doing so allows for pertinent comment on the political issues of the day. Browse online and you’ll find countless variations on the theme (a number are collected by Wolfgang Mieder in his book Neues von Sisyphus. Sprichwörtliche Mythen der Antike in moderner Literatur, Medien und Karikaturen (Vienna, 2013)). Thus far, the earliest example I’ve been able to find comes from British periodical Punch. One of its regular contributors was Richard Doyle (1824–1883, uncle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and his first cartoon for the magazine was entitled “The Modern Sisyphus” (1844).
Here, Sir Robert Peel, the British prime minister, struggles with a rock labeled Ireland. The rock is endowed with the face of Daniel O’Connell, and readers would recognize the Irish nationalist leader who was seeking the repeal of the Act of Union of 1801, which had combined Ireland with Great Britain.
Sisyphus the Absurd
Yet just as Sisyphus’s fate became a staple for a satirist seeking a quick idea, others continued to see (or seek) meaning in his eternal struggle. One of the most fascinating examples is Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sispyhus (1942; first English translation in 1955). In this essay, Camus begins with the “one truly serious philosophical problem”—suicide, or whether life is or is not worth living.
For Camus, humanity seeks to find meaning or purpose in life, but will always fail to do so in the face of a universe that is eternally indifferent. Rather than giving up on life, however, Camus argues that one should acknowledge that this human pursuit of significance is a contradiction that can never be reconciled. It is, in a word, absurd—and we should accept this absurdity. In this regard, Sisyphus becomes something of an ideal figure. Camus describes him,
the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay covered mass, the foot wedging it…(7)
Yet the rock will always fall, and Camus considers what Sisyphus must think each time he returns to the foot of his hill. In these moments, he is at his most wretched and tragic, yet “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn”. In acknowledging the futility of his task—the absurdity of his situation—Sisyphus is able to accept his fate, even reach something resembling contentment:
The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
This seems a good place to leave Sisyphus for now. I’ve offered a rapid sweep through centuries of iconography and thought, and doubtless there are other examples to consider.(8) I’d be eager to hear of your favorite depictions—so long as it’s not too much effort…
1. The following contain good overviews of the stories involving Sisyphus, and have been valuable in preparing this blog: J.H. Oakley, “Sisyphos I,” in LIMC VII (1994), 781–7; E.G. Wolfson, Envisioning the Unseen: Sisyphos in Chthonic Landscapes (MA Thesis, Washington University, St Louis, 2013); E. Thompson, “Sisyphus as a Means of Imagining the Underworld” and “Some Jokes about the Underworld on Greek Vases as Evidence for Debates about the Afterlife” (conference papers available via SSRN); and C. Sourvinou-Inwood, “Crime and Punishment: Tityos, Tantalos, and Sisyphos in Odyssey 11,” BICS 33 (1986), 37–58.
2. Homer, Odyssey, trans. A. T. Murray, rev. G. E. Dimock (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
5. Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, rev. M.F. Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).
6. See M. Falomir, Las Furias: Alegoria politica y desafio artistico (Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2014).
8. After completing a final draft of this text, I managed to get my hands on a great anthology, Mythos Sisyphos. Texte von Homer bis Guenter Kunert, edited by B. Seidensticker and A. Wessels [Reclam Verlag Leipzig, 2001]. It mainly contains texts, but also includes a number of illustrations.