Here's your A+!
There were many unfortunate people who were perpetually punished in the Underworld because of their evil or wrong-doing, or through lack of respect for the gods. Worse yet, it was the horrible method of their punishment that made them so memorable. Sisyphus was one such person, sentenced to forever roll a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back over him just as he reached the top.
Another such criminal was Tantalus. His name means "lurching" or "most wretched", and his torment was unique indeed - He was made to stand chin-deep in water with all kind of sweet-smelling and delicious fruit dangling just over his head, but whenever he tried to drink or eat, the water would magically recede or the fruit would miraculously be lifted just out of his reach. It's this torment, through which something seems to be offered only to be withdrawn again, that has been called, in memory of its best known victim, "tantalize". Here's how it happened...
ORIGIN AND PARENTAGE
There is great debate over the origin and parentage of Tantalus. His mother was Pluto (no, not that Pluto!) who was daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. His father was reputed to have been either Zeus or Tmolus, who with his wife Omphale ruled over the land of Lydia. Others claim that Tantalus was a king of Argos, or of Corinth; and yet others say that Tantalus originated in Lydia and then went north to reign in a place called Paphlagonia. Whatever. Don't you wish us darn ancient Greeks kept better records? :)
At any rate, we do know that he became the father of Pelops, Niobe, and Broteas. What we don't know is if the mother was Euryanassa, daughter of the River-god Pactolus; or Eurythemista, daughter of the River-god Xanthus; or Clytia, or even the Pleiad Dione...again, opinions differ on the identity of his wife.
Still, that doesn't really effect our story, one way or another. What's important to know is that Tantalus endeared himself to Zeus and became his good buddy. Talk about having friends in high places! His pal Zeus admitted Tantalus to exclusive Mount Olympus, lofty home of the gods, where the lucky guy got to attend all the Olympian feasts and banquets, partying hearty on nectar and ambrosia, the food of the gods. Nice work if you can get it!
Well, you would think that Tantalus would be grateful for his good fortune and would pay daily homage to his friend Zeus, whose devotion made all this possible. But instead his new-found stature went to his head. Copping an attitude, Tantalus betrayed Zeus' confidence and the jerk stole the divine food, nectar and ambrosia, to share with his mortal friends back on earth.
Is that any way to repay friendship? I would think not! But wait, it gets worse. Before his crime was discovered, Tantalus committed another, this one even more vile and serious. Inviting the Olympians to a banquet of his own, held at his home on Mount Sipylus, or perhaps at Corinth, he soon realized that his stock of food wasn't sufficient for the invited guests. What's a vain man to do?
MURDERS HIS SON PELOPS!
You won't believe what the monstrous Tantalus did next. Either to demonstrate what a giving host he was, or perhaps to test his friend Zeus' ability to know all, he summoned his son Pelops and proceeded to murder him. Cutting his son into many pieces Tantalus next added the boy's limbs to the stew prepared for the gods and served it to them.
Yuck! The gods were astute enough to immediately know that something was wrong, and they refused to eat the stew, recoiling in disgust and horror. But Demeter, goddess of the Harvest, still in mourning at the loss of her daughter Persephone, absentmindedly ate all the flesh from the left shoulder of Pelops. She took quite a few bites before the other Olympians hastened to stop her.
Needless to say, Tantalus got all that he deserved for his unspeakable crimes. First his kingdom was destroyed by the gods and then he was struck dead by Zeus on Mount Sipylus. But I'm here to tell you that the beast didn't find peace in death. As punishment for his evil ways Tantalus was sentenced to reside forever in the Underworld, hanging from the bough of a fruit tree which leans over a marshy lake. Perennially consumed by hunger and thirst, yet he is unable to quench his needs.
You see, whenever Tantalus bends down to drink from the waters that lap up against his waist and often reach his chin, they drain away, leaving nothing but black mud at his feet. So close and yet so far, just barely out of reach, Tantalus forever seeks to quench his thirst with the tantalizingly-close waters.
Similarly, each time that Tantalus reaches for the splendid fruit hanging from the tree, sweet pears and shining apples, ripe figs, olives and pomegranates, a gust of wind blows them just out of reach. With stomach rumbling, and with the fruit-laden branches oh-so-close, still the tormented criminal can't grasp the food, no matter how he tries.
THAT'S NOT ALL!
How's that for cruel and unusual punishment? Still, how can you feel sympathy for Tantalus, considering the severity of his crimes? But wait, there's more. Tantalus had committed a third crime, the theft of a golden dog created by Hephaestus, the craftsman god, to watch over baby Zeus when he was growing up on the island of Crete. The golden dog had afterwards been dedicated as the guardian of Zeus' temple at Dicte, where it had been stolen by a variety of suspects. The pilfered property eventually came into the possession of Tantalus and when the original thief asked for the return of the golden dog, Tantalus swore an oath by Zeus that he knew nothing about it.
Hence his additional crime was not only theft, but also perjury. Word of the oath reached Zeus and he sent Hermes to interrogate Tantalus, who insisted and swore up and down that he'd never seen the stolen dog. It didn't take long for clever Hermes to expose the lie and that's when Zeus crushed the culprit under a crag of Mount Sipylus.
From there it was straight to the Underworld for Tantalus. And as if perpetual hunger and thirst wasn't bad enough, Zeus arranged that an enormous stone, taken from Mount Sisypus, overhangs the tree, constantly threatening to further crush Tantalus' skull.
So besides being always hungry and thirsty, Tantalus must also contend with daily paranoia. That'll teach the chump!
By the way, there was a happy ending amid all this insanity - After the fitting punishment of Tantalus was set, Zeus ordered Hermes to collect the limbs of the boy Pelops, who had been murdered by his father and served as an entree to the gods. Zeus told Hermes to place the body parts in the same cauldron and to boil them again, then the King of the Olympians laid a magic spell.
Clotho, one of the Three Fates, next re-articulated Pelops, and Demeter replaced the shoulder that she had eaten with an ivory one. Rhea, mother to Zeus, breathed life into him as Pan danced for joy. A new and improved Pelops emerged from the cauldron, adorned in such radiant beauty that Poseidon carried him off to Olympus in a chariot drawn by golden horses. There, Pelops became Poseidon's cup-bearer and attendant, much like young Ganymede was to Zeus.
I guess Poseidon found Pelops too tantalizing to ignore...:)
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