Study Guide

Sisyphus Analysis

  • Context

    Sisyphus was a super crafty dude who made the headlines of classical literature by outsmarting Death and for paying big time for his shenanigans. More than anything else, people probably associate Sisyphus with his eternal punishment: rolling a giant boulder up a hill for all eternity.

    Plenty of classical authors include cameos by Sisyphus in their texts, especially when their characters cruise through the Underworld. For example, in Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus spots Sisyphus rolling his rock, and in Ovid's Metamorphoses Sisyphus takes a break from his labor to listen to the song of Orpheus. You can find bits and pieces of Sisyphus's story in the works of big deal writers like Apollodorus, Hyginius, and Diodorus Siculus.

    Over the years, plenty of philosophers have found inspiration in Sisyphus's endless task. Most famously, Albert Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus" uses Sisyphus's labor as an example of the absurdity of human existence. In Camus's mind, there's no greater purpose to anything that any of us can ever do, therefore making it all just as absurd as pushing a rock up a hill forever. This might sound depressing at first, but there's more to it than that. These days the term "Sisyphean task" is used to describe any activity that might seem endless and pointless.

    Don't go thinking Sisyphus only pops up in philosopher's books, though. More recently, he's inspired songs by such classic rock bands as Chicago and Pink Floyd, been a reoccurring villain on Xena and Hercules, and made a couple cameos in the Percy Jackson books. Hey, not too bad for a dude who's stuck in Tartarus for all eternity.

  • Setting

    Corinth, Tartarus

    Ephyra (aka Corinth)
    Most of Sisyphus's evil deeds take place in a town called Ephyra. Some say that Sisyphus founded this ancient city that became the city-state of Corinth, which is situated on the isthmus that connects the Peloponnesian peninsula with the mainland of Greece. Among many other things, Corinth is also the place where Medea is said to have killed her and Jason's children.

    Tartarus
    Though Sisyphus escapes this deepest pit of the Underworld at first, he eventually ends up there again. It's in this awful place that he must forever push his rock up the hill. Tartarus is kind of like the maximum-security prison of the Land of the Dead. It's the place where all the hardcore criminals are sent. Other famous inmates include Tantalus, Ixion, and the Titans.

  • The Hero's Journey

    The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. Check out a general explanation of the 12 stages.

    The story of "Sisyphus" doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

    Ordinary World

    King Sisyphus is busy being one bad dude. This clever trickster spends most of his time hatching evil schemes and getting into trouble.

    Call To Adventure

    Zeus finally gets fed up with Sisyphus and sends Thanatos to chain Sisyphus down in Tartarus.

    Refusal Of The Call

    Sisyphus definitely doesn't want to die and be chained in Tartarus, but he doesn't really have much of a choice.

    Meeting The Mentor

    Mentor? Yeah, like Sisyphus would listen to anybody else.

    Crossing The Threshold

    Thanatos flies in on his dark wings and drags Sisyphus across the threshold of death.

    Tests, Allies, Enemies

    Well, Thanatos and Zeus are definitely on Sisyphus's list of enemies at this point, but he's never really had any friends.

    Approach To The Inmost Cave

    As Thanatos and Sisyphus approach the depths of Tartarus, Sisyphus starts hatching a scheme to escape.

    Ordeal

    Sisyphus tricks Thanatos into chaining himself down in Tartarus, and the wily king sneaks out of the Underworld.

    Reward

    For a brief time, Sisyphus gets to be in the land of the living again.

    The Road Back

    Having already returned home, Sisyphus knows Thanatos is going to be coming for him again as soon he gets unchained. So, he hatches another scheme, telling his wife to make sure he doesn't get a proper burial.

    Resurrection

    After being taken to the Underworld again, Sisyphus is literally resurrected when he convinces Persephone to let him go punish his wife for not burying him properly.

    Return With The Elixir

    In the end, Sisyphus gets what's coming to him and is forced to roll a stone up a hill for all eternity. For him, the elixir he has to share with everybody is knowledge that in the end the gods always win.

  • The Punished

    Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion, Atlas—Greek mythology is chock full of dudes who tick off the gods and get some serious punishment as a result. Of course, the Greeks were far from the only folks, who came up with some crazy punishments for the "bad guys" in their mythology.

  • Loki

    In Norse mythology, the trickster god Loki managed to tick off all the other gods by helping to cause the death of Balder and for insulting the other gods afterward. For that, he's said to be tied to a rock with a snake dripping burning venom on his face. His torment is eased a bit by his wife, Sigyn, who catches most of the venom in a bowl. However, when the bowl gets full, she empties it, and Loki can't help but get a face full of venom.

  • Satan

    Satan (aka the Devil) is the main adversary of God in Christianity. There are mountains of stories and conflicting opinions about the particulars of this evil deity. A widely accepted story is that he was once a chief angel of God, but that he became dissatisfied and led a rebellion against the big guy. After Satan was defeated, he and the other rebel angels were cast out of Heaven.

    Now, Satan spends most of his time tempting people away from God and causing as much damage in the world as he possibly can. When the final battle of Armageddon comes, though, Satan will be defeated and cast into the fiery pit of Hell along with all the souls he's stolen from God. Satan is also the opponent of God in Judaism as well as Islam, where he's known as Shaitan.

  • Adam and Eve

    In Judeo-Christian tradition, these two were the first human beings on earth. They lived in a perfect place called the Garden of Eden, where they could eat anything they wanted. Well... almost anything. God told them very specifically not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

    All it took was a little convincing from a snake (who some say was Satan in disguise) and Eve was munching on some forbidden fruit and slicing some up for Adam as well. This little incident is often called "the Fall of Man," because it was when Christians believe we fell from the grace of God. As punishment for their crime, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, and all humanity has suffered ever since. (Wow, thanks a lot, Adam and Eve.)

  • Sisyphus = The Absurd

    As we point out in our "Context" section, a bunch of philosophers have gotten inspiration from Sisyphus's eternal punishment. Perhaps most famously, Albert Camus's essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" uses Sisyphus's predicament to represent the plight of all humanity, which he says is totally absurd. In Camus's mind, our continual search for meaning in life, for some sort of definitive answer that explains it all, is some ways just as pointless as Sisyphus's eternal task. Camus didn't believe in any sort of god, or that there's any such thing as concrete truth. So no matter how much any of us would like to believe that the things we do have importance on a larger scale, they just don't. Therefore, the pursuit of anything and everything is absurd.

    Before you go thinking that Camus was mad depressed, though, check out this quote from the essay: "The struggle itself [...] is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." So, since there's no larger purpose to everything, we've got to find a way to find satisfaction act of well... doing stuff... whatever that stuff is. We hope that Sisyphus got a chance to read Camus's essay. Chances are, this philosophy of absurd would be the only thing to keep him from going totally bonkers.