Sisyphus by Franz Von Stuck – 1920
Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra (Corinth) in Greek mythology. He was the son of King Aeolus of Thessaly, master of the winds.
The story of Sisyphus has multiple and often contradictory versions with embellishments added over time so that the only point of certainty is his terrible punishment.
He gained infamy for his trickery and wicked intelligence, but his greatest feat was to cheat death and Hades himself, not once but twice, thus living up to Homer’s description of him as “the most cunning of men” (Iliad, 6:153). In the first episode the king, after dying and descending into Hades, audaciously managed to capture Thanatos, the personification of Death, and chain him up so that no humans died thereafter.
After dying for the second time and once again finding himself in the shady underworld, Sisyphus persuaded Hades to let him out back into the bright realm of the living, for the king had cleverly arranged for his wife not to provide the usual offerings and sacrifices that were due on her husband’s death. On his release, Sisyphus, naturally, made no attempt to return to Hades but lived to a ripe old age.
When the king died yet again, there was to be no escape for him this time as Zeus himself now intervened. In Homer’s Odyssey the hero Odysseus descends into Hades and sees Sisyphus in his eternal punishment:
‘Then I witnessed the torture of Sisyphus, as he wrestled with a huge rock with both hands. Bracing himself and thrusting with hands and feet he pushed the boulder uphill to the top. But every time, as he was about to send it toppling over the crest, its sheer weight turned it back, and once again towards the plain the pitiless rock rolled down. So once more he had to wrestle with the thing and push it up, while the sweat poured from his limbs and the dust rose high above his head.’ (Odyssey, Book 11:593)
Illustration by Mxndeep
When the man, who envisioned himself being more, is actually the shadow of what he has always been, he repeats himself once, twice, a million times.
He repeats himself – mountain up with the same boulder that rolls the mountain down. He repeats himself indefinitely, before our eyes.
However, Sisyphus does not repeat himself indefinitely to his own eyes. Desperate as it may seem, he performs the same task with renewed vigor, as if it was always new.
He repeats because he does not understand it, because he does not learn from it, otherwise, the stone led to the summit would roll the back of the mountain down.
The back of the mountain only exists inside of Sisyphus. He would roll the boulder up in front of the world, that watches him, overcome the summit of understanding, and down the back of the mountain, the boulder would slide, smoothly, silently to that den within us where our “philosopher’s stones” are sheltered, transmutations of mundane experiences into spiritual gold.
The rock that Sisyphus rolled up would be lost from sight, not because it ceased to exist but because it slid to another, much deeper level of existence.
This being the lesson, Sisyphus who tried to escape death, who managed to trick fate, avoiding the natural cycle of life – birth, growing, developing, procreating, aging and dying – cannot roll his rock beyond the summit, down the back of the mountain.
The back of the mountain is also death and Sisyphus fears death. In his immaturity, futility and narcissism, Sisyphus fears degeneration and death. He wants to be forever young and immortal.
In his superficiality, Sisyphus is not able to complete tasks and end cycles. This being the most significant aspect of this myth – the cyclicity of life.
He repeats himself indefinitely, pushing the boulder uphill, without reaching the top and helplessly watches the rock sliding down the same side of the mountain, altogether with all of us.
He is too attached to the material life of possessions and status, of vanity and control, and that is exactly why he cannot let his rock cross to the other side.
Sisyphus will work relentlessly without capturing the meaning of his work.
Sisyphus may even consider himself “happy” to push the boulder up, covered in sweat and dust, gasping, arching, until it rolls the same side of the mountain down, as he does not perceive the load nor the slope.
One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Sisyphus and the ouroboros as the symbol of the eternal cycle of renewal
Sisyphus’ punishment is nothing more than blessing.
He is allowed to repeat, he is given the HOPE of one day advancing his rock to the other side of the mountain, and achieving understanding and awareness.
We are all Sisyphus, in some aspects of our lives and the myth is an excellent metaphor for all the repeated mistakes or duds that become life choices.
Illustration by Saeed Sadeghi
1- Cartwright, M. (2016, December 14). Sisyphus. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/sisyphus/