The Myth of Sisyphus

In Greek mythology, the myth of Sisyphus has multiple (and often contradictory) versions with embellishments added over time so that the only point of certainty is his terrible punishment.

Sisyphus was the reputed founder of the Isthmian Games, a festival of athletic and musical competitions in honor of the sea god Poseidon. He was also the founder and first king of Corinth. 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 Homer’s Iliad, Book VI, Sisyphus, living at Ephyre (later Corinth), Sisyphus, was the son of Aeolus who Homer describes as a human who rules the winds. Aeolus is an eponymous ancestor of the Aeolians, and the father of Glaucus. In post-Homeric times he was called the father of Odysseus through his seduction of Anticleia. Both men were characterized as cunning.

Sisyphus Cheats Death

In the first trip 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. Only the intervention of Ares resolved the crisis, and Death was freed to pursue his natural work.

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.

Before Sisyphus died, he had told his wife to throw his naked corpse into the middle of the public square (purportedly as a test of his wife’s love for him). This caused Sisyphus to end up on the shores of the river Styx when he was brought to the underworld. Complaining to Persephone that this was a sign of his wife’s disrespect for him, Sisyphus persuaded her to allow him to return to the upper world.

Working on the kindness of wife of Hades, Persephone, the king pleaded that if he were released he would be able to instruct his wife to carry out the proper rituals and all would be well. On his release, Sisyphus, naturally, made no attempt to return to Hades but lived to a ripe old age, largely thanks to Death now not wanting to go anywhere near him following his previous experience of being put in chains.


Zeus, king of the gods, made sure that humans would not be encouraged by the feats of the trickster Sisyphus. His fate would have to be long and tedious. As a punishment for his crimes Hades made Sisyphus roll a huge boulder endlessly up a steep hill in Tartarus. In Homer’s Odyssey the hero Odysseus descends into Hades and, coming across many a fallen hero, he sees Sisyphus and 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)
Different versions

Legends related that when Death came to fetch him, Sisyphus chained Death up so that no one died. Finally, Ares came to aid Death, and Sisyphus had to submit. In the meantime, Sisyphus had told his wife, Merope, not to perform the usual sacrifices and to leave his body unburied. Thus, when he reached the underworld, he was permitted to return to punish her for the omission. Once back at home, Sisyphus continued to live to a ripe old age before dying a second time.

In some versions, Hades was sent to chain Sisyphus and was chained himself. As long as Hades was trapped, nobody could die. Consequently, sacrifices could not be made to the gods, and those that were old and sick were suffering. The gods finally threatened to make life so miserable for Sisyphus that he would wish he were dead. He then had no choice but to release Hades.


Sisyphus was the founder of the Isthmian Games and grandfather of the hero Bellerophon. Sisyphus remains best remembered as a poignant symbol of the folly of those who seek to trifle with the natural order of things and avoid humanity’s sad but inescapable lot of mortality. The adjective ‘Sisyphean’ denotes a task which can never be completed.

Pointless or interminable activities are sometimes described as “Sisyphean”. Sisyphus was a common subject for ancient writers and was depicted by the painter Polygnotus on the walls of the Lesche at Delphi.

Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays

Albert Camus was a French-Algerian philosopher, author, dramatist, and journalist. He was the recipient of the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature at the age of 44, the second-youngest recipient in history.

Camus’s reputation rests largely on the three novels published during his lifetime—The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall. As well as his two major philosophical essays—The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel.

Influenced by philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Camus introduces his philosophy of the absurd. The absurd lies in the juxtaposition between the fundamental human need to attribute meaning to life and the “unreasonable silence” of the universe in response.

The Myth of Sisyphus - Albert Camus

One of the most influential works of this century, this is a crucial exposition of existentialist thought. Influenced by works such as Don Juan, and the novels of Kafka, these essays begin with a meditation on suicide: the question of living or not living in an absurd universe devoid of order or meaning. With lyric eloquence, Camus posits a way out of despair, reaffirming the value of personal existence, and the possibility of life lived with dignity and authenticity.

The Absurd

The human condition is characterized by the probability of suffering and the certainty of death—a fate which human reason cannot accept as reasonable.Sisyphus was, in fact, like Autolycus and Prometheus, a widely popular figure of folklore—the trickster, or master thief. It appears to belong with other Greek imaginings of the world of the dead as the scene of fruitless labors.

Camus claims that the realization of the absurd does not justify suicide, and instead requires “revolt.” He then outlines several approaches to the absurd life. In the final chapter, Camus compares the absurdity of man’s life with the situation of Sisyphus. The essay concludes:

“The struggle itself … is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.

The myth of Sisyphus is a potent image of futility. Camus’ response is that only the ‘lucid’ recognition of the absurdity of existence liberates us from belief in another life and permits us to live for the instant, for the beauty, pleasure and the ‘implacable grandeur’ of existence. Lucidity is the clarity and courage of mind which refuses all comforting illusions
and self-deception. Lucidity is Camus’s notion comparable to Kierkegaard and Sartre’s anguish, but in the end Camus is more positive than either Kierkegaard and Sartre.

Camus draws the political moral from his confrontation with the absurd in The Rebel (1951) which is an ethic of uncompromising honesty and lucid revolt against absurdity. Its most obvious enemies are found in the stifling atmosphere of conventional bourgeois morality, and more horrifyingly, in totalitarianism, of either fascist or communist varieties. Though a member of the communist party as a youth, Camus became openly hostile to communism, rejecting the idea that the ends can justify the means and the arrogance of philosophies of history which claim to know the end in advance.


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