Who is Sisyphus this man who struggles endlessly in Hades to push a rock to the top of a mountain, only to watch it roll down again? Who is this man who knows only labor and futility in death? This man who is denied rebirth by Persephone the merciful and denied rest by his very host and Lord Hades? This man Sisyphus who was so mighty and clever in life now knows only backbreaking strife and heartbreaking frustration. Ah but why?
Once, Sisyphus was a king. He founded the city Ephyra which later became known as Corinth and he had a lovely and loyal wife and a fine, fine palace by the sea which shone in the light of the setting sun; an inviting trap for the unwary traveler. And so as sailors and soldiers and wanderers alike came to his home seeking shelter, Sisyphus would invite them in, all smiles, and feast them and hear their news and entertain them with bards and dancers and put them to bed in the finest, most sumptuous rooms with soft beds and a warm fire and as soon as they were asleep he would slit their throats and steal their belongings.
This violation of the Code of Hospitality soon attracted the attention of Zeus who consulted with Hades on the subject and decided that the easiest way to be done with Sisyphus was just to kill him and move on. So Hades called Thanatos and told him to fetch Sisyphus, “But,” said Hades, “Sisyphus is a crafty one. Best take these along with you.” And Hades presented Thanatos with a set of special manacles and shackles that could bind a spirit tight, to ensure Sisyphus made it to the Underworld without any trouble.
Sisyphus was quite surprised to find Death standing in his bedroom that night with a pair of handcuffs and shackles but he thought quickly because he was, after all, ridiculously clever.
“Why Thanatos, is it that time already? What is that contraption you have there?”
And as Thanatos displayed the handcuffs and shackles and explained what they were for, Sisyphus oohed and ahhed until he had Thanatos right where he wanted him. Then he quickly snapped the shackles shut on Thanatos’ wrists, then ankles and, to make things even worse, fastened a dog collar to his neck and dragged him, struggling, to an alcove in his room where he shut him up inside a wooden chest.
It wasn’t long before Hades noticed Thanatos was missing. He wasn’t the only one. Ares was soon rather frustrated at the lack of death on the battlefield, as it made it rather difficult to tell who was winning. He complained to his father Zeus who sent Hermes to investigate the situation. Although everyone knew that Thanatos had been on his way to see Sisyphus when his whereabouts were last known, it was a full month before They figured out what happened.
In the meantime, Sisyphus knew he’d be found out soon enough and he call his wife to him and said to her, “My darling I fear that my time is coming soon and I want to make sure that you know my wishes before I die. When I have passed on I do not want the usual ceremonies and offerings, I want you to throw my body in the street and leave me there for the buzzards to eat.”
His wife was horrified at this idea. What would the neighbors think? But he said, “If you truly love me, you will see my final wishes carried out to the letter.”
Of course, she figured he was talking nonsense. He looked healthy and strong to her and would probably change his mind before the end anyway, so she agreed and promised that she would toss his body into the middle of the street for the buzzards to eat when he should finally pass away.
And so when Ares had finally had enough of the other Gods indecision and burst into Sisyphus’s home and grabbed him by the throat demanding to know what had become of Thanatos, Sisyphus was ready. He pointed to the chest in which Thanatos was imprisoned and Ares hastened to release him and give him a good shaking while he was at it. Thanatos and Ares then shackled Sisyphus and Thanatos hauled him down to the Underworld where he belonged.
It wasn’t long before Sisyphus’s wife found his body and, since her promise was still quite fresh, she remembered it and tossed his body out into the street to feed the buzzards and alarm the neighbors.
When Sisyphus was taken to the underworld, he was lost among the masses of backlogged deaths and it took him a few days to make it to the throne room of Hades. There he appealed to the King of the Dead and His Queen Persephone and he complained that his wife did not give him a proper funeral. He pointed out that because his body was above ground, it was really improper for his spirit to be in the underworld. And since no one had placed a coin in his mouth for the ferryman, Charon had been ripped off. The injustice of it all. Since there was no one on Earth who cared for him, his wife certainly didn’t, that was obvious, the only way things would possibly be set right, is if he handled it all himself and, he proposed to do so immediately. Persephone saw reason in this and assisted Sisyphus to make his departure after extracting several solemn promises not to dawdle so that he could return before he was missed.
Sisyphus returned home immediately, retrieved his body, hopped right back into it and went on living as if nothing had happened. Thanatos flat out refused to go chasing after him again and the other Gods must’ve decided that he wasn’t worth the trouble because they went on with their own business and left Sisyphus to his.
It came to pass that as Sisyphus was enjoying the countryside, he witness the abduction of a certain young maiden, who was the daughter of a certain river God by a certain amorous King of the Gods.
Sisyphus wasted no time in letting the River God Asopus know that he knew what had happened to his lost and beloved daughter but, of course, the information would not be free. Sisyphus wanted a spring in his citadel for the convenience and enjoyment of his household. That was the price of his informing on Zeus and he considered it a bargain well made.
Zeus soon got wind of this, of course and was furious. Who was this Sisyphus to inform upon him? And anyway, wasn’t he supposed to be dead? He sent Hermes to gather him and Hermes dragged him back to the Underworld post haste where he was brought immediately before the throne of the King and Queen.
There was no talking his way out of things now. As Thanatos stood by glowering at him and the Queen Persephone refused to even look upon him, so furious was she that he had betrayed her mercy by breaking his word to her, King Hades brought down his punishment. That he should remain in the Underworld forever, with no chance of rebirth, and every day he should roll a stone to the the top of a mountain and every night it should roll back down again.