The Tale of Tantalus
In my various positions on heaven and earth, in representing thieves and schemers and con men, I am constantly reminded of the villainy of men. This reminder and my utter disgust at this fact are strengthened tenfold when I think of the tale of Tantalus, my most recent arrival here in this cursed realm.
I generally write to inform you of death, but Tantalus’ death is nothing remarkable for a mortal man. It was his life — his thieving, cannibalizing, wretched life — that I will focus on today.
For, citizens of the pit, you might have wondered at the cruel punishment of your newest neighbor, who anguishes in a calm pool of water beneath the finest of apple trees.
If you have looked closer, you may have noticed that as he bends down toward the water, it recedes out of his reach, and as he grasps at the apples, they are flung far from his hands.
The Tantalus you see in that pool in Tartarus, doomed to hunger and thirst for eternity, has fallen far indeed.
A son of Zeus, he was once welcomed at the gods’ table in Olympus, invited to feast with deities and delight in the food and the forbidden ambrosia of the heavens.
It was that food and drink that was his first undoing, for he grew to believe that if only he could bring it back to earth, he could share the secrets and immortal strength of the gods with his fellow mortals.
Alas, it was not to be, for he was caught by the gods in his trick, and was cast from Olympus with two strikes against him — one of theft, and one of hubris, that notion that he might be equal to the very gods.
But Tantalus’ treachery didn’t end there, loyal reader. The wretch knew he had to win back the favor of the gods, so he went to the most extreme, gruesome measures: he sacrificed his own kin.
Tantalus’ son Pelops was his pawn to win back the gods’ favor.
Tantalus killed and roasted the boy, then cut him into slices to serve the gods a fine meal. The deities, however, were not tricked by Tantalus’ attempt to pass off his boy as a normal roast.
They saw through the fool’s deed — most of them, anyway.
But dear Demeter, mother of our good lady of the Underworld, was still in the deepest mourning for her only daughter Persephone, and was distracted as Tantalus presented the meal. She absently took a bite of what once was Pelops’ shoulder before anyone could stop her.
In the deepest rage at his son’s final strike against the gods, Zeus tossed Tantalus out of Olympus for the last time, disgusted by this crime most foul.
Tantalus, despite his best attempts at the contrary, is survived by his son Pelops, who was granted a miracle after the gods took mercy on him and Clotho the Fate mended his broken body, even giving him a new ivory shoulder fashioned by the smith Hephaestus.
Tantalus died alone and shamed on earth, finally taken from his wretched life by natural causes. For just as the Greeks cast out Ixion for his crime of patricide, none of the good people of Greece could bear to be seen with a murderer and a cannibal.
The man now dwells in this isolation in the depths of Tartarus, forever kept from the food that once sustained him on earth and the drink once attempted to take from the heavens.
Tantalus has exhausted the all the pity of the heavens and all the patience of the earth, and has finally taken his rightful place in this pit.
Yours most truly,
God of herds, travelers and hospitality, roads and trade, thievery, cunning, diplomacy, language and writing
Special Messenger to Zeus
Author's note: The story of Tantalus is such a sensational one (cannibalism, thievery, hubris and more) that I felt I had to include it in this storybook. I haven't deviated too far from the original other than my addition of Hermes' opinions and perspectives. Tantalus was a son of Zeus, and did once command respect at the gods' table. One day, he stole food and ambrosia from Olympus and took them back to his people on earth, hoping to transfer the power and secrets of the gods to mortals. Zeus cast him out of Olympus after discovering his audacious schemes and ambitions to be as powerful as the gods. I do draw a connection at this point in my story that's not super clear in the original tale. In my version, Tantalus decides to work his way back into the gods' favor by sacrificing his son in their honor. In the original, it's not clear how this event is connected to the theft, or how Tantalus was able to access Olympus again after being thrown out the first time, so I decided to connect the dots myself. Either way, Tantalus cooked Pelops as an offering, then served his son to the gods in Olympus one last time. The gods uncovered his treachery, kicked him out of Olympus, and healed Pelops, who had been cut into pieces and had his shoulder eaten by Demeter. Tantalus, banished from the heavens, died a natural death on earth, and then was sentenced to a tantalizing eternity of constant hunger and thirst, as Hermes details. I did add in the details of how he died (alone and shamed), but added true context, since according to the myth, the Greeks would have been horrified by crimes like those of Tantalus).
"Tantalus." Greek Mythology, web source.
"Tantalus." Wikipedia, web source.
Image information: "Tantalus," by Gioacchino Assereto. Source: Wikimedia Commons.