The tale of Tantalus is about as old as they come. Even to the folks we call the ancient Greeks, this story is super ancient. He's most famous for his eternal punishment: being trapped forever in Tartarus with fruit and water are forever just out of his reach. One of the earliest mentions of this awful torture pops up in Homer's Odyssey, when Odysseus pays his visit to the Underworld. There are several versions of Tantalus's story, detailing different accounts of the crime that earned him his sentence. In all the versions, however, Tantalus in some way betrays the trust of his father, Zeus, and he's held up as an example to other mortals of what happens when you mess with the gods.
The most horrific version of Tantalus's crime is told by Hyginus in his Fabulae, where we're told that Tantlus cooked his son, Pelops, and tried to secretly feed him to the gods. (Like, dang.) Some scholars believe that the tale of Tantalus is inspired by the fact that ritual human sacrifice was once part of super ancient Greek culture. The fact that the gods are horrified by Tantalus's offering, could reflect the fact that the Greek religion had evolved beyond the need for such horrific sacrifices.
Tantalus might be glad of the fact that there aren't any extant plays around about his downfall and punishment. (It'd have to be embarrassing to have that played over and over again for audiences' entertainment.) Tantalus's ghost does, however, make an appearance in Thyestes, by the Roman playwright, Seneca. In this play, the T-man is forced to urge his grandsons, Atreus and Thyestes, to do some pretty horrific things to one another. The ghost of Tantalus also puts in an appearance in Caryl Churchill's modern adaptation of the play.
The specter of Tantalus doesn't make a direct appearance in the many plays about his famous descendants Agamemnon, Menelaus, Orestes, Iphigenia, and Electra, the most famous of these probably being Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy, Sophocles's Electra, and Euripides's Iphigenia at Aulis. All the tragic things that happen to Tantalus's descendants though are sometimes blamed on the curse placed on the family by his original crime. So, in a way, the specter of Tantalus hangs above them all. These days Tantalus lives on mostly through the word "tantalize," which is inspired by his famous punishment.
Tantalus is one of the few mortals who's ever allowed on Mt. Olympus, the home of the gods. This peak in Greece is one of the most sacred places of all. It's like an extreme version of a gated community, where you have to be immortal to come hang out. Yeah, they may seem an itty bit snooty, but with the way Tantalus behaves, you can see why the gods don't make a habit of inviting mortals up there. (Way to mess it up for us all, Tantalus.)
The T-man ascends to some pretty impressive heights when he's invited to Zeus's exclusive dinner party on Mt. Olympus. After he manages to royally tick off the gods, however, he's cast down into the lowest place there is: Tartarus, the deepest pit of the Underworld. Tartarus makes the worst maximum-security prison you've ever heard of look like Disney World. This black pit is full of the most awful criminals you can imagine. This hellish place is full of inmates who all did awful things and must suffer awful punishments as a result.
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 "Tantalus" 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.
Tantalus is a super rich king and a son of Zeus. Everything is awesome.
Zeus sends Tantalus a dinner invitation to come hang out with him and the other gods up on Olympus.
There's no refusal here. Tantalus jumps right on the invitation.
There isn't really a mentor situation either. Tantalus just heads on up to Olympus.
For whatever ridiculous reason, Tantalus decides it'd be fun to chop up his son, Pelops, and serve him as dinner to the gods.
Because Tantalus is sort of ridiculously insane, he manages to turn the formerly friendly gods into major enemies when they figure out his sadistic scheme.
Tantalus is hurled from Olympus down to Tartarus, the deepest pit of the Underworld. We're guessing this was a pretty darn dramatic approach to the inmost cave.
The T-man is sentenced to be forever "tantalized" by fruit and water that's just out of reach. Sounds like an awful ordeal if you ask us.
Reward? Yeah, right. Instead of a reward, Tantalus only gets eternal punishment.
The only road Tantalus sees is the road to nowhere, since he's doomed to be tortured in Tartarus for all eternity.
Nope, sorry. There's no resurrection for Tantalus. He's stuck right where he is.
For Tantalus, the elixir is always just out of reach.
So, at the end of this story Tantalus gets stuck in a pretty awful situation. The water and fruit he wants so badly is eternally just out of his reach. His punishment may seem a tad extreme, but in a way his predicament can be seen as an allegory for the predicament of all humanity.
Some would say the thing that makes us most human is the fact that we tend to always want what we can't have. We're always "tantalized" by things that are just out or our reach. You could say then that Tantalus represents every one of us. Though he's a criminal of the first degree, we all have something in common with the eternal longing that he feels.