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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

Charles Fuqua


A legendary king of Sipylus in Asia Minor, Tantalus is a shadowy figure belonging to the mythology of the Golden Age before the Trojan War, when men and gods were not rigidly separated. Tantalus was a son of Zeus. The story of the Tantalids may be linked to the myths of Asia Minor, specifically to Hittite traditions (West, pp. 472–475).

In Odyssey 11.576–600, Tantalus, together with Tityus and Sisyphus, is one of the three great sinners being punished in the Underworld. Exceptions to the general Homeric rule of the nothingness and unconsciousness of the dead, these three shades are credited with consciousness and are aware of their punishment. Tantalus’ punishment is one of eternal frustration: he is immersed in a pool of water that flows away whenever he bends over to drink, and a wind blows away the nearby fruit when he attempts to grasp it. A different punishment is found in Archilochus, the lyric poets, and Pindar. In these versions Tantalus is at a banquet, but he can never enjoy the feast before him because a stone is suspended over his head. Homer offers no explanation as to why he is punished. Elsewhere the most familiar explanation is that he tested his ties with the gods by cutting up and cooking his son, Pelops, for a banquet with the gods. Such cannibalism amounted to a complete perversion of Tantalus’ role as father and of the natural order. Pindar specifically denies this explanation in Olympian Odes 1—probably because of the importance of the cult of Pelops at Olympia—in favor of the view found in Archilochus and the lyric poets that Tantalus either revealed things to mortals about the gods that he should not have done or gave men ambrosia and nectar that he had stolen from the gods.


Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. “Crime and Punishment: Tityos, Tantalos, and Sisyphos in Odyssey 11.Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 33 (1986): 37–58.Find this resource:

    West, M. L. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.Find this resource:

      Charles Fuqua