Tantalus is a super rich king who gets in some deep, deep trouble with the gods. Folks disagree on what exactly he does that's so bad. Some say he shares the divine secrets given to him by Zeus, while others say he helps steal Zeus's favorite golden dog. Still others will tell you that he chops up his son Pelops, boils him in a pot, and tries to feed him to the gods at a dinner party. (Dude.) As punishment for his crime, Tantalus is imprisoned in Tartarus. There, in the deepest pit of the Underworld, he stands for all eternity in a pool of water with low-hanging fruit just above his head. Every time he tries to drink the water, it drains away, and every time he tries to have a fruity snack the branch raises just out of his reach.
The Less Short Story
Tantalus is the son of Zeus and a nymph named Pluto (not to be confused with the Roman version of Hades).
Depending on who you ask, Tantalus is either the king of Argo, Corinth, or Lydia.
Everybody agrees that he's super rich, though. (Hey, Tantalus, how about a loan? I wanna score some fresh Nikes.)
Everybody also agrees that Tantalus gets in some big time trouble with the gods.
There are a couple different versions of how this goes down though.
Tantalus's Crime: Version One
Zeus thinks his kid is pretty cool, so he invites Tantalus up to Olympus to tell him lots of divine secrets.
When Tantalus gets back to the land of the mortals, though, he just can't keep his mouth shut.
The king runs around spouting all the awesome stuff he learns.
Zeus and the rest of the gods are far from pleased, and they come up with a particularly nasty punishment for Tantalus.
(Hold your horses: We'll tell you just what that is in a second.)
Tantalus's Crime: Version Two
Tantalus is invited by Zeus to join the gods for dinner on Mt. Olympus.
This is a ridiculously huge honor.
Tantalus, who's kind of full of himself, decides he'll test just how All-Knowing the gods really are.
For some crappy reason, he figures that the best way to do this is to chop up his son, Pelops, boils him in a pot, and serve him up as dinner to the gods.
(Lesson learned: never invite Tantalus over for a potluck.)
The gods instantly see right through Tantalus's trick, though, and none of them eat the horrible dish.
Well, all except Demeter, who is too distracted by the mysterious disappearance of her daughter, Persephone, to notice, and she accidentally takes a bite. (How embarrassing.)
Zeus tries to fix what Tantalus did and puts Pelops back together again.
The part that Demeter ate was apparently Pelops' shoulder, so Zeus gets Hephaestus to make his grandson a new shoulder out of ivory. That's pretty sweet; almost a net gain for young Pelops.
As for Tantalus, he gets one of the worst punishments ever.
(Which we'll fill you about in one more second. Patience!)
Tantalus's Crime: Version Three
Zeus places the magic golden dog that guarded him at birth as the guardian of his temple on the island of Crete.
Some ragamuffin named Pandareus steals the golden dog and asks Tantalus to hide it for him.
(Why in the name of Zeus, would Tantalus agree to that?)
Zeus sends his messenger Hermes to question Tantalus about it, and Tantalus lies through his teeth.
As punishment, Zeus turns Pandereus to stone, and boy oh boy does he do something bad to Tantalus.
Okay, we'll tell you what it is now.
Though there's disagreement over what he did wrong, everybody agrees on Tantalus's punishment.
For his crimes, Tantalus is thrown into Tartarus, the deepest pit of the Underworld.
There, he's forced to stand in a pool of water, with a tree of low-hanging fruit just over his head.
(That doesn't sound so bad.)
Every time he bends down to drink the water, it drains away, while every time he reaches for the fruit it raises above his reach.
So, Tantalus is doomed to forever be hungry and thirsty, with food and water always "tantalizingly" near.