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Do not antagonize the Greek gods
Jul 03, 2015

Greek myth tells us the gods exact terrible punishment upon those who anger them — a punishment that is eternal. There was no such thing as parole in ancient Greece.

Greek myths provide many accounts of god-ordained punishment. Tantalus is an example. He provoked the gods and had to endure their vengeance.

Tantalus, son of Zeus, the chief god, and the nymph Plouto, was not himself a god. He was, rather, a mortal who became a favourite of the gods on Olympus. As their intimate friend, Tantalus enjoyed their trust and, among other favours, he was even invited to dine with them. But Tantalus was a false friend and, sadly, he betrayed that trust.

Ancient writers aren’t clear regarding what Tantalus actually did. Such sources as Homer, Ovid, Euripides, Plato, and others, differ in their accounts of Tantalus’s wrongdoing. Some say he revealed the secrets of the gods.

Others, like Pindar, tell us he stole the special foods of Mt. Olympus — nectar and ambrosia — and that he then shared these delicacies with mortals. This would have been viewed as an unforgivable transgression because nectar and ambrosia were food reserved for gods.

The most serious accusation of all is that he killed his own son, Pelops, then invited the Olympians to dine at his table where he served the boiled body parts of Pelops.

However, the gods were no fools. They realized what the meat in front of them was and refused to be forced into cannibalism. They wouldn’t eat.

All except Demeter, that is. Still mourning her lost daughter, Demeter was so distracted that she ate one of Pelops’s shoulders.

The gods were hugely insulted by what Tantalus had done and turned the might of their fury on him. They sentenced him to eternal punishment in Tartarus, the prison beneath Hades, the underworld. Greek myth describes Tartarus as surrounded by impenetrable walls guarded by giants, each of whom had 100 hands. Tartarus was an abyss so deep, it was estimated by the Greek poet, Hesiod (c. 750BC-650BC), that an anvil falling from earth would not reach Tartarus for 10 days.

Once Tantalus was ensconced in Tartarus, the real and terrible punishment began. He was forced to stand forever in water but could not access it. Every time he bent to drink, the water disappeared. At the same time, he had nothing at all to eat. Above his head, hung fruit of every kind — figs, apples, pears, olives — but whenever he attempted to take some of this food, a sudden gust of wind blew it beyond his reach.

This horrible punishment endured by Tantalus gave us the word, tantalize.

Tantalize, an English verb as early as 1597, is defined by Oxford as, “To subject to torment like that inflicted on Tantalus; to torment by the sight, show, or promise of a desired thing which is kept out of reach or withdrawn or withheld when on the point of being grasped.”

Do you suppose Tantalus is still in the lowest region of Hades, still hungry and thirsty?