Mystical tales Children

Pinching words

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi   | Photo Credit: Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

Some characters from Greek mythology have lent their names to phrases in English. For example, a job that is never ending and futile is often called a “Sisyphean task”. This is derived from the punishment meted out to Sisyphus.

The son of King Aeolus of Thessaly, Sisyphus founded Ephyra (now known as Corinth). He was deceitful, cruel and greedy. He was jealous of his brother Salmoneus and consulted the oracle at Delphi to see how he could kill the latter without suffering any consequences. Though he promoted trade and commerce, he would often kill travellers to maintain his control over trade routes. Not surprisingly, he fell foul of the Olympians.

Finally, when he betrayed one of Zeus’ secrets, the king of gods ordered Thanatos or Death to chain the king in Tartarus, the deepest part of the Underworld reserved for evil folk. Usually it would be Hermes, the messenger of the gods, who would escort the souls to Hades. So when Thanatos appeared, Sisyphus was wary. Being the crafty soul that he was, he asked Thanatos to demonstrate how the chains worked and took the chance to imprison Death himself. This meant that there were no more deaths on Earth.

The angry gods rescued Thanatos and devised an unusual punishment for Sisyphus. He was forced to roll an enchanted boulder up a hill. Just as he reached the top, the boulder would escape his grasp and roll back down. Sisyphus had to go back down and repeat this task for eternity. Thus, we have a Sisyphean task.

Forever hungry

Yet another English word that is drawn from Greek mythology is “tantalise”, from Tantalus, a king who was punished with eternal hunger and thirst. The word refers to being in sight of something that you want very much but cannot get. Let’s take a look at what Tantalus did.

The king was a friend of the gods and was a welcome visitor to Zeus’ table at Olympus. Having interacted with the gods, the king was seized with a desire to know if they were truly all-knowing or omnipotent. To find out, Tantalus invited the gods to a banquet, killed his own son, Pelops, and served a dish made from the latter’s body. Only Demeter, who was mourning the loss of her daughter Persephone, absent mindedly ate the shoulder. The other gods knew what Tantalus had done and refrained.

Zeus ordered Clotho, one of the Fates, to restore the boy and Hephaestus made him a shoulder from ivory. Tantalus was punished by imprisonment in Tartarus. He was made to stand in a pool of water over which hung a tree with succulent fruit. If the king bent to scoop water to drink, it would recede from him. If he tried to reach up to pluck a fruit, the branch would swing away, permanently being tempted without ever being satisfied.


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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 6:57:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/pinching-words/article24946751.ece

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