The Myth of Sisyphus

Originally from Thrace, Sisyphus travelled to the Peloponnese with his brother Salmoneus. Both were overbearing; each hated the other; and, when Sisyphus seduced his brother’s daughter Tyro, it was purely because he had learned from an oracle that a son born from the union would kill Salmoneus. Frustratingly for Sisyphus, Tyro discovered the prophecy and killed every child she bore him In the end he simply gave up. (In another myth, as we have seen, Tyro married Cretheus, ruler of Iolcus, by whom she bore Aeson, the father of Jason – whose consort Medea would play a vital part in the mythology of Corinth.)

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Sisyphus’ wiles were not restricted to attempts at fratricide. He even tried to cheat death. When Zeus changed into an eagle to abduct the local nymph, Aegina, taking her to the island which now bears her name, Sisyphus (who saw everything from Acrocorinth, Corinth’s acropolis) offered to reveal her whereabouts to her father, the river god Asopus, if Asopus created a well on Acrocorinth. Soon the Spring of Peirene (namesake of the fountain in the city below) was bubbling merrily and Zeus was exposed.

On Zeus’ orders, Death came to Corinth to shackle Sisyphus. But Sisyphus outwitted him. Asking the god to demonstrate how best to wear them, he clamped Death in his own chains and imprisoned him Death’s power was broken; no one could die – but this was not a blessing. Warriors maimed in battle, the very old, the very ill, all begged to die and at last the gods sent Ares to set Death free and end Sisyphus’ life instead. Even now, Sisyphus refused to go quietly. Before he died, he ordered his wife to leave his corpse to lie in Corinth’s agora. Only the buried could enter Hades, so when Ares arrived there with Sisyphus’ soul, Sisyphus argued (quite correctly) that he should not be admitted. Instead, he should return to the upper world to scold his wife for her impious behaviour and organize his funeral. His ruse worked and, once home in Corinth, he stayed put. Zeus was not amused. He sent Hermes to escort Sisyphus back to Hades, where he punished the trickster for eternity, condemning him to roll a heavy boulder up a steep hill, only for it to crash back down again before it reached the top.

However, Sisyphus was not completely impious. Once, by the sea, he discovered the body of his nephew Melicertes, whose mother, Ino, driven mad by Hera, had leapt with him into the waves, and whose corpse a dolphin had brought ashore. Sisyphus buried Melicertes at Isthmia near Corinth, establishing funeral games in his honour – the two-yearly Isthmian Games, which in antiquity were sacred to Poseidon.

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