Tantalus is a figure from Greek mythology who was the rich but wicked king of Sipylus. For attempting to serve his own son at a feast with the gods, he was punished by Zeus to forever go thirsty and hungry in Hades despite being stood in a pool of water and almost within reach of a fruit tree.
The terrible punishment of Tantalus and others like him was set as a warning for humanity not to cross the line between mortals and gods.
Tantalus was the legendary king of Sipylus, a kingdom which bordered Lydia and Phrygia. Tantalus' father was Zeus and his mother Pluto, daughter of Cronus and Rhea. He was famed for his great wealth, much like those other Asian kings Croesus and Midas. So much so, the king gave rise to the Greek expression, 'the talents of Tantalus.' His wife differs in various accounts – Euryanassa or Eurythemista, both daughters of river gods, or Clytie, daughter of Aphidamantes, or Dione, one of the Pleiades. He was the father of Pelops, the charioteer hero of Olympia, and Niobe, who foolishly boasted her large number of children showed she was superior to Leto, and so her nine daughters and nine sons were killed by the goddess Artemis with the help of Apollo.
Dinner with the Gods
The first generation of mortals was given the privilege of dining with the gods on Mt. Olympus, but Tantalus misbehaved spectacularly and made his host Zeus positively livid with outrage. There are three versions of Tantalus' mischief. The first is that he gossiped with his fellow mortals as to what the gods were cooking up with their divine plans for humanity. The second version has Tantalus stealing some of the divine nectar and ambrosia served at the dinner and giving it out to mere mortals down below. These two sins were bad enough and threatened the balance of order between gods and humanity, but the third version, the most popular one, tells of an even more outrageous deed.
Wishing to test if the gods really did know everything and could tell what they were eating even if it was forbidden food, Tantalus killed, diced, and cooked up in a stew his own son Pelops and planned to serve him to all the gods at dinner. The plan fell flat when the Olympians immediately recognised that something was amiss, all that is except one. Demeter, upset at still not having found her lost daughter Persephone, absent-mindedly ate a chunk of Pelops' shoulder. For this reason, when Tantalus' wickedness was revealed and the gods decided to put Pelops back together and make him live again, the young man had to have a prosthetic shoulder made from ivory.
For his audacity, Tantalus first had his kingdom and dynasty cursed and then, in the afterlife, he was to receive one of those delicious punishments that Zeus occasionally dished out to the particularly wicked amongst the mortals. Sisyphus had to forever roll a stone up a hill each day, Ixion was tied to a flaming wheel that never stopped spinning, and Tantalus, completing the most unfortunate trio in Hades, was made to stand in a pool of water but never able to drink from it and quench his insatiable thirst as it drains whenever he bends down to drink. As an added frustration, he was positioned below a tree but can never quite grasp the succulent fruit that hangs from its boughs. He is seen in this condition by the wandering Odysseus down in Hades in Homer's Odyssey. The hero describes the scene, thus:
I also saw the awful agonies that Tantalus has to bear. The old man was standing in a pool of water which nearly reached his chin, and his thirst drove him to unceasing efforts; but he could never reach the water to drink it. For whenever he stooped in his eagerness to drink, it disappeared. The pool was swallowed up, and all there was at his feet was the dark earth, which some mysterious power had drained dry. Trees spread their foliage high over the pool and dangled fruits above his head – pear-trees and pomegranates, apple-trees with their glossy burden, sweet figs and luxuriant olives. But whenever the old man made to grasp them in his hands, the wind would toss them up towards the shadowy clouds. (Odyssey, 11:582-593)
Mt. Sipylus & the Destruction of Tantalis
Some authors give a third twist and have a rock precariously balanced overhead in perpetual danger of falling and squashing the villain instantly. This explains why Tantalus is pointing to a cliff in a scene from a 4th-century BCE red-figure vase from Apulia. This scene may also relate to one version of the Tantalus myth where the king kept the fabulous golden mastiff made by Hephaistos that had guarded Zeus when he was in the cave on Crete as a youngster. Tantalus, a receiver of stolen goods from the thief Pandareus, had refused to give up the idol until Hermes intervened. Zeus, on learning of the crime, had the king crushed under a cliff on Mt. Sipylus, the source of the kingdom's great mineral wealth.
It is interesting that the ancient authors Strabo and Pausanias both claimed the city of Tantalis was destroyed in violent earthquakes which struck throughout Lydia and Ionia. Mt. Sipylus collapsed, marshes became flooded, and Tantalis was eventually submerged beneath a lake. Could this be the geophysical explanation for the punishment of Tantalus? Whatever the reason for the myth and Tantalus' ultimate punishment, from which derives the verb tantalise, the story was a terrible reminder for all mortals lest they be tempted into immoral and impious behaviour.