Study Guide

Sisyphus Summary

How It (Supposedly) Went Down

The Short Story

Sisyphus is super smart, but super evil too. He does all kinds of bad stuff like impregnate his niece in a plot to kill his brother. Some say he also kills guests and travelers, and he even betrays the secrets of the gods. As punishment for his crimes, Zeus sends Thanatos, the god of death, to chain Sisyphus down in Tartarus. Sisyphus outsmarts Thanatos, though, and leaves the death god chained instead.

When Sisyphus is eventually put back in the Underworld, he escapes again by convincing Persephone to let him go back up and punish his wife for not giving him a proper burial (never mind the fact that he told his wife not to bury him). Eventually, Zeus steps in and gets Hermes to drag Sisyphus back down to the Underworld for good. As punishment for his crimes Sisyphus must push a giant boulder up a hill for all eternity.

The Less Short Story

  • Sisyphus is the founder and king of a town called Ephyra (which will one day be the big city of Corinth).
  • Although Sisyphus does a good job of promoting trade for his town and founds the popular Isthmian games, this dude has a really bad reputation all over the land.
  • Overall, he's known for being smart as whip, but he's also known for being a liar, a cheater, and a generally sadistic guy.
  • In one well-known story, Sisyphus decides that he hates his brother, Salmoneus, and goes to an oracle to figure out the best way to kill him without getting blood on his hands.
  • The oracle tells him that he's got to seduce Salmoneus's daughter, Tyro, and have some kids with her.
  • (Psst, this is a lot like the myth of Atreus and Thyestes.)
  • "Sounds great," says Sisyphus, and he goes and sleeps with his niece, impregnating her with two sons.
  • Tyro finds out what Sisyphus intends for the baby boys, though, so she kills them.
  • (Gosh, was that necessary?)
  • Sisyphus is disappointed that his plot to kill his brother doesn't work out, but in the end it doesn't matter because Zeus zaps Salmoneus with a lighting bolt for being disrespectful.
  • Sisyphus really isn't much better than his brother though.
  • There are a lot of different opinions out there about the other bad things that Sisyphus does.
  • Some say that he kills guests that come into his house.
  • People took the laws of hospitality super seriously back then, so this was a big no-no.
  • (Not that killing guests is encouraged now or anything.)
  • Others say that his idea of a fun Friday night is killing travelers that come by with a big rock.
  • (As you do.)
  • Still others say that he betrays some secrets of the gods.
  • (We're not sure why the gods would trust this guy with any secrets to begin with, but whatever.)
  • Whatever it is that he does wrong, most agree that Zeus eventually sent Thanatos, a.k.a. Death, to drag Sisyphus down to Tartarus and chain him up.
  • When they get down to Tartarus, though, Sisyphus tricks Thanatos by asking him to show how the chains fit.
  • Thanatos puts the chains on, and Sisyphus ditches him, leaving the death god chained in the black pit.
  • (Wow, Thanatos actually fell for that?)
  • While Thanatos is chained, no mortal can die.
  • Ares, god of war, gets really ticked off about this.
  • War just isn't any fun for the violent god if nobody dies.
  • So, Ares unchains Thanatos, and everybody starts dying again.
  • (Yay, Ares saves the day! Hm, sort of.)
  • Sisyphus knows Thanatos is coming for him again, so he concocts another scheme.
  • The clever king tells his wife, the nymph Merope, to throw his body out in the courtyard when he dies without burying it.
  • Once Sisyphus is in the Underworld again, he complains to Persephone that his wife was disrespectful and didn't give him a proper burial.
  • He begs the queen of the Underworld to let him go back to the land of the living to punish his disrespectful wife.
  • Persephone signs off on this, and Sisyphus's soul slips again from the Land of the Dead with no intention of going back.
  • Zeus is looking down on all of Sisyphus's shenanigans, and he's not amused.
  • The king of the gods sends Hermes to nab Sisyphus and force him back into the Underworld.
  • As punishment for all his crimes, Sisyphus is sentenced to push a giant boulder up a hill.
  • When he gets it to the top, it rolls back down again.
  • The wicked king must do this over and over again for all eternity without ever even getting a coffee break.
  • (Guess you're not so smart now, Sisyphus.)