Tantalus’ Crime and Punishment

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This Italian vase from the 300s BC shows a different version of the story where a spirit holds Tantalus back from a basket of bread and a jug of water

This Italian vase from the 300s BC shows a different version of the story where a spirit holds Tantalus back from a basket of bread and a jug of water

Tantalus (TAN-ta-luss) was a Greek king (and a son of Zeus) who was so full of hubris that he thought he could fool the gods. When Zeus invited Tantalus to come up on Mount Olympos and eat dinner with the gods, Tantalus would steal the gods’ special food (ambrosia and nectar) to give to his friends back on earth!

And then Tantalus did something worse than that. He invited the gods over for dinner at HIS house, and tried to trick them into eating human flesh. Tantalus had his own son, Pelops, cut up into pieces and boiled in the stew. Most of the gods figured out what was happening and didn’t eat any, but Demeter was so worried about Persephone, who had been kidnapped, that she ate a little piece of Pelops’ shoulder. This is a terrible way to treat your guests.

For this crime, Zeus himself killed Tantalus, and Tantalus had to spend his whole afterlife in the underworld, Hades. His torture was that he had to stand forever waist-deep in a pool of water, with a fruit tree dangling branches full of ripe fruit over his head. He got terribly hungry and thirsty, but whenever he bent down to drink the water, it would all magically drain away, and whenever he reached up to pick some fruit, the branches would lift up out of his reach. But no matter how hungry or thirsty he got, he was already dead, so he could never die. (That’s where our word “tantalizing” comes from.)

Because of Tantalus’ hubris – thinking he was smarter than the gods – Tantalus’ children, Pelops and Niobe, and his grandchildren, Atreus and Thyestes, and his great-grandchildren, Agamemnon and Menelaus and Aegisthus, and their children Orestes, Electra, and Iphigeneia were all unlucky.

Learn by doing: what do all people’s problems have in common?
More about Pelops, Tantalus’ son

Bibliography and further reading about Tantalus:

The Pride of Lions: The Story of the House of Atreus, by Norma Johnston (2002, unfortunately out of print right now, but maybe your library can find it). For teens.

D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, by Edgar and Ingri D’Aulaire.

The Odyssey, by Homer. Translated by Robert Fagles. The story of Tantalus is in Book 11.

The Oresteia, by Aeschylus, translated by Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics). The story of Tantalus’ great-grandson Agamemnon. Fagles is a great translator! Includes a version for performance.

More about Pelops (who comes back to life!)
Ancient Greece
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By | 2017-07-16T01:35:54+00:00 July 16th, 2017|Greeks, Literature|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Tantalus’ Crime and Punishment. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 16, 2017. Web. December 12, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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