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The Myth of Sisyphus: What is the Worst Punishment?

The Tricks of Sisyphus

The Myth of Sisyphus
The Myth of Sisyphus

The myth of Sisyphus has become analogous to working futilely at an arduous task forever. But how are we to interpret to the punishment he received from the gods?

Many have reached different conclusions of what the punishment of pushing a rock up a hill eternally means, and some are more interesting than others. In any case, the story of Sisyphus is not only captivating for the punishment he received, but because also because of the life he led.

Sisyphus was a trickster, he was sinister, conniving, intelligent, and rebellious. In fact, he reminds me a lot of different popular characters throughout history that play the role of the ingenious villain, constantly subverting those that are more powerful than they are by employing delicate ruses. The Joker is a modern incarnation of this archetypal character.

After finding out that his brother would inherit the kingdom he thought was going to be his, Sisyphus (the first King of Corinth) consulted the oracle of Delphi about how he would be able to kill Salmoneus (his brother) without facing the consequences. The oracle told Sisphus that Salmoneus would be killed by his grandchildren, and so, he had sex with his brother’s daughter to seal that fate. His plan didn’t work, as Salmoneus’ wife (Tyro) figured out what was going on and killed her children.

And when Zeus sent the equivalent of the grim reaper, Thenatos to kill Sisyphus, the latter managed to trick death into showing him how he used his chains, and when Thenatos did, Sisyphus took advantage. He tied up death, and for a while, no human beings died as a result. The result displeased the gods and brought havoc on earth, and it had turned into a scene from the Walking Dead, where severely dismembered and bleeding bodies roamed around.

Sisyphus spent his life tricking mortals and gods alike. He sometimes did so for personal benefit, and other times to improve the conditions of his people. For example, he negotiated a deal with the river god, Asopus (who had lost his daughter Aegina). He offered to tell him where she was (Zeus had taken her), in exchange for providing his kingdom with a spring that flowed on the Acropolis of Corinth.

This obviously angered Zeus and was why he decided to send Thenatos down to kill him. He even manages to trick the gods a final time when they come for him (he had angered several at this point) by getting her to improperly dispose of his body. He used this as an excuse to go back to earth, reprimand his wife, and teach her about the proper way of conducting a funeral. He never shied away from using people as devices for his goals, including his own wife. When he was allowed to go back to earth, he didn’t come back. Instead, he died of old age, and when he confronted the furious gods after his death, they sentenced him with the eternal punishment of pushing a boulder up a hill, that would roll back down right when he was near the top.

Interpretations of the punishment

Lucretius, the Epicurean philosopher, saw Sisyphus as an embodiment of politicians who tried to reach the top but constantly failed – with the quest for power being as empty an ideal as a boulder. Others such as Friedrich Welker have interpreted the punishment as the vain struggle to attain knowledge. And in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus saw the punishment as representative of the absurdity of human life. But Camus also thought that there are reasons to believe that Sisyphus wasn’t miserable – that he was, in fact, happy with his punishment. The idea here being that the struggle to the top itself is what brings joy to a man’s heart, and not the attainment of an external reward. And there is truth to that, as the reward itself only gives man temporary happiness before he begins his pursuit of the next reward. And it is the case, that the struggle to the top is what brings meaning to a person’s life.

But I think it’s important to consider who Sisyphus was, and why the gods have particularly chosen that punishment instead of any other. Remember, the gods could have punished Sisyphus in any way they like, but they chose to give him the task of systematically pushing a boulder up a hill for eternity.

Why would Sisyphus hate that?

Sisyphus is a trickster. He played ruses on people to get what he wanted. He was a master at manipulation, to the point where he made it an art form. It isn’t difficult to see that he took great pleasure in doing so, even if it meant angering the gods. In fact, the gods were often his victims. And now, his punishment was to do something quite… honest.

His job was to push a rock up a hill, a predictable, boring, arduous, routine, that allowed little room for invention. There were no other people around that he could psychologically take advantage of. He was alone, and he had no way out. He couldn’t be creative or use his wits or feel the thrill of barely making it out alive.

More than just being boring, the task was also safe. Sisyphus was clearly someone who embraced danger and uncertainty. I think one way (that I haven’t yet read about) to interpret this story, is that the worst punishment one could have, is to be forced to retire his true nature. There are some people who could find joy in pushing a boulder up a hill and down, perhaps to get stronger, and become more proficient at doing so.

And as Camus said, most people enjoy the climb to the top more than being at the top anyway, and so the challenge of pushing a rock up the hill could theoretically provide them with at least some pleasure. But Sisyphus was not “most people”, to him, the joy he had in life was not in pursuing something, but in manipulating others by using his cleverness and inventiveness.

The ultimate punishment, then is not hard labor, or repetitive labor, or even ultimately futile labor. The worst possible punishment is living against your nature, against what you are.

References:

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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