Miscellaneous Myths: Tantalus

It’s an unfortunate truth that some people, both fictional and otherwise, end up being defined pretty much exclusively by one noteworthy part of their life. Actors defined by single roles, artists by single works, public figures by single scandals, characters by single qualities. This is often very reductive, taking a complex and nuanced figure, and flattening them into a simple caricature of themselves. People are always more complicated than the stories about them. But when the person in question is primarily known for their eternal punishment in the Underworld, we can safely assume they got up to some ****. So let’s talk about Tantalus, and how exactly this Ancient Greek mythical king got himself one of the most iconic afterlife punishments in the history of Hades. So, Tantalus is a demigod, son of Zeus, which is at this point about as exclusive as being left-handed, and not only is he a demigod, he’s a really beloved one. The Olympians like and respect him a lot, as a king, a friend, and a gracious host. Or at least, they did, until… THE INCIDENT. Now, what exactly “The Incident” was varies depending on who you ask. The generally accepted telling is that, one day, Zeus and the other gods came over for dinner, and Tantalus, ever the dutiful host, decided that the best way to honour the gods would be to sacrifice something important to him. So he kills his son, Pelops, and cooks him for dinner. Now, there’s no explanation given as to why he thought this was a good idea, because if Ancient Greece had a top-tier taboo, it was killing family members, and if it had a second extreme taboo, it was cannibalism. Each one is already bad– doubling down just seems double-bad. So the gods figure out, “That’s a human person,” and refuse to eat. Except for Demeter, who’s not really paying attention, ’cause she’s still super bummed out about Persephone ditching her for the Underworld six months of the year, so she fails to read the room and absent-mindedly eats some Pelops shoulder… Happens to the best of us, I’m sure. Anywho, the gods are very upset with Tantalus, so they give him a stern talking-to, teach him the error of his ways, and *snrrk* Just kidding. Obviously they throw him into Tartarus. So they trap him in a pool under a fruit tree. Whenever he tries to drink the water, it recedes, and if he tries to reach the fruit, it pulls away, leaving him perpetually hungry and thirsty, with relief always just out of reach. This punishment is why the word “tantalizing” describes this kind of situation. The gods then revive Pelops, replacing his missing shoulder with a nice ivory prosthetic, and Pelops goes on to father the House of Atreus, a long line of unfortunate Greek kings mostly known for having very tragic lives. In fact, this family later produces Agamemnon, a crime which I can only assume was later added to Tantalus’ already extensive rap sheet. So this was the most well-known version of the story, but it’s not the only version. In the “Olympian Odes” (poems dedicated to victories in the Panhellenic Olympic Games) the poet Pindar tells us: “No, no, no, I know what they told you, but Pelops wasn’t killed at that dinner. See, what happened was Poseidon took one look at him and got OUTRAGEOUSLY HORNY!” So, yeah, in this version, Pelops is carried off to Olympus for… appropriately Ancient Greek reasons, and this produces a rumour that he was killed, even though he’s actually fine. Tantalus is still sent to Tartarus in this version, but this time, it’s because, when the gods have him over for dinner, he steals ambrosia and nectar, which is a violation of the laws of hospitality, and one of those things you got in a lot of trouble for in Ancient Greece. Zeus, along with all of the flashy weather stuff, is also the god of hospitality, so violating that had a tendency to get one smote with extreme prejudice. Anyway, Tantalus gets dunked on, and meanwhile, Pelops decides he wants to marry this lady Hippodamia, and he has to win a chariot race to do that, so he goes to Poseidon and is like: “Hey man, could you do me a solid ’cause we banged that one time?” And Poseidon’s like “Hell yeah!” And lends him a really fast chariot so he wins the race, And I gotta say, I don’t think there’s a ballsier power move than getting a major deity you banged one time to be your wingman. So overall, Tantalus’ crimes include: family murdering, attempted cannibalism, violating the laws of hospitality by stealing from his host, and subjecting the ancient world to Agamemnon. That’s pretty bad stuff, but does he really deserve his eternal torment in the Underworld? Yes, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not Agamemnon. In one little-known myth, he and his buddy Pandareus (who was blessed by Demeter to never get indigestion, not a joke) conspire to steal a magic golden dog that was created by Hephaestus to guard baby Zeus. A dog… made by Hephaestus… who is… Zeus’ son… that… guarded Zeus… as a… baby… That dog. Was created by Hephaestus. To guard Zeus. Who was a baby at the time. OK, so there’s like 5 absurdities in that story, but the point is, Tantalus stole a dog. Who does that?! He deserves whatever he gets. *Red performs Duran Duran – Hungry Like the Wolf*
I smell like I sound, I’m lost and I’m found And I’m hungry like the wolves. Straddle the line, with discord and rhyme, I’m on the hunt, I’m after you! Mouth is alive, all running inside And I’m hungry like the wolf I really gotta do this more often because every time my poor left hand is like: “Why are you using me?! You never use me!!!”
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnBui-d2SGw

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