Study Guide

Tantalus Themes

  • Justice and Judgment

    Zeus brings the hammer of justice down on Tantalus in this story. Whichever version of Tantalus's crime you go with, everybody agrees on his punishment. It really has to suck, right? Being forever tormented by food and water that's just out of reach must be pretty awful. We have to hand it to Judge Zeus, though, this verdict is a creative form of justice. It definitely makes us not want to get on Zeus's bad side. In many ways, this story seems like a warning to other mortals to not cross the gods, and it gets across the idea that there's a divine sense of justice in the universe.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. What are Tantalus's possible crimes?
    2. Does Tantalus deserve his punishment? Why, or why not?
    3. Which character represents justice in this story? Explain your answer.
    4. Think of another verdict for Tantalus. Explain your choice.
    5. Compare and contrast the punishment of Tantalus to that of Ixion or Sisyphus.
  • Temptation and Agony

    It's easy to interpret Tantalus's horrific payback as symbolic for something that all of us have to deal with in life. His legend is more than just a bedtime story designed to make little Greek kids afraid of rustling Zeus's jimmies. We can also look at his eternity of unfilled desire as an extreme example of a condition that every human person has to deal with, that is, the presence unachievable goals. Sometimes, we want something really badly, but we can't get it, and it sucks. We even know that we can't get it, but that doesn't stop us from trying for the rest of our lives. The difference between Tantalus and us is that we have the chance to control our wants and desires, while Tantalus is stuck with the very impossible-to-avoid needs of hunger and thirst.

    Questions About Temptation and Agony

    1. How does Zeus choose to make Tantalus suffer?
    2. In what ways can Tantalus's suffering be seen as a metaphor for the human condition?
    3. Is suffering ever a good thing? Is it good at all in this story? Why, or why not?