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Aside from being known for his wealth as the king of Sipylus, Tantalus is mainly famous for the punishment that he received from his father, Zeus. He committed several major crimes, which angered Zeus and eventually led to his downfall.
In Greek mythology, Tantalus was condemned to stay forever thirsty and hungry despite being in a pool of water with a fruit tree near him. His punishment was a warning to other gods and the rest of humanity not to cross the line between mortals and gods.
Origin and Background of Tantalus
Tantalus hails from a glorious lineage. After all, his father is Zeus, the leader of the pantheon, ruler of gods and men, as well as the god of thunder and lightning.
His mother, Plouto, was a nymph who lived in Mount Sipylus. Her background was no less illustrious because her father was Cronus, the king of Titans and god of time, and her mother was Cronus’ wife, Rhea, the mother of the gods and the goddess of female fertility, motherhood, and generation.
Before falling from grace, Tantalus was famous for his riches in the same way Croesus and Midas were revered for their ability to create wealth. There are no concrete details on who his wife was, as different names have been mentioned in several stories.
Some accounts would mention Euryanassa or Eurythemista, both daughters of river gods, while others say it was Clytie, daughter of Amphidamas. Some stories mention Dione, one of the Pleiades, who were daughters of the Titan Atlas and the Oceanid Pleione.
The Myth of Tantalus
Despite being fathered by Zeus, Tantalus was not a god. He lived with his fellow mortals. Sometimes, the gods would choose their favored mortals to dine with them on Mount Olympus. As a favorite of Zeus, Tantalus would often join these feasts. In this way, he had firsthand experience of dining with the gods.
On one occasion, he decided to steal ambrosia and nectar from the divine table. These were food supposedly only for the gods, but Tantalus shared it with mortals. He also revealed the secrets of the gods that he heard at the dinner table, spreading these stories among humans. Both actions crossed the line between mortals and gods, angering many deities, including his father, Zeus.
However, it was not until his last misdeed that Tantalus finally got his punishment. In a bid to test the perception of the gods, Tantalus decided to kill his youngest son Pelops and serve his body parts during the feast. After realizing what he had done, all the gods refused to eat, except for the goddess Demeter who accidentally ate Pelops’ shoulder while being distracted during dinner.
For these atrocities, Zeus sentenced Tantalus to a lifetime of torture in Hades while his descendants were subjected to tragedy after tragedy for several generations. Tantalus was condemned to endure unceasing hunger and thirst that he would never be able to satisfy.
Despite standing in a pool of water, he couldn’t drink because the water would dry up whenever he attempted to take a sip. He was also surrounded by trees heavily laden with fruits, but every time he tried to get one, the wind would blow the fruit away from his reach.
The Cursed Bloodline of Tantalus
Though Tantalus was an illegitimate child, Zeus used to favor him until he committed great sins and was given a lifetime punishment. This was the first of a sequence of unfortunate events that befell his family and affected the fate of his descendants, eventually leading to the House of Atreus, which has become known as a family line that is cursed by the gods.
- Tantalus fathered three children, who all fell victim to their own tragedies. Niobe, wife of King Amphion and the queen of Thebes, was proud of her six sons and six daughters. She boasted about them to the Titan Leto, who only had two children – the powerful twin gods Apollo and Artemis. Angered by her behavior, Apollo killed all of Niobe’s sons, while Artemis killed the daughters.
- Broteas, the second child, was a hunter who refused to honor Artemis, the goddess of hunting. As a punishment, the goddess drove him mad, making him throw himself on the fire as a sacrifice.
- The youngest was Pelops, who was cut into pieces by his father and served to the gods at a feast. Fortunately, the gods realized what was happening and revived him. He went on to lead a prosperous life after the incident and became the founder of the Pelopid dynasty at Mycenae. However, he passed on the curse to his children and established the infamous House of Atreus.
Tantalus and the House of Atreus
A complicated family riddled with murder, parricide, cannibalism, and incest, the cursed House of Atreus has some of the most striking tragedies in Greek mythology. Atreus was a direct descendant of Tantalus and was the older son of Pelops. He became the king of Mycenae following a bloody battle for the throne with his brother Thyestes. This started a chain of tragedies that befell their generation and their offspring.
After getting the throne, Atreus discovered the affair between his wife and brother, leading him to kill all of his brother’s children. Echoing the actions of his grandfather Tantalus, he tricked Thyestes into eating his dead children. Thyestes, for his part, unknowingly raped his daughter Pelopia and got her pregnant.
Pelopia eventually married Atreus without knowing who the father of her child was. When her son Aegisthus grew up, he realized that Thyestes was his true father and went on to kill Atreus with a stab from behind.
Aerope, the first wife of Atreus, gave birth to Menelaus and Agamemnon, two of the main figures in the Trojan War. Menelaus was betrayed by his wife Helen, triggering the Trojan War. Agamemnon was killed by his wife’s lover after his victorious return from Troy.
The curse finally ended with Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. Though he killed his mother to avenge his father’s death, Orestes admitted his guilt and pleaded to the gods for forgiveness. As he sought to make amends, he was acquitted at a formal trial of the gods, thereby breaking the curse on his family.
Tantalus In Today’s World
The Greek name Tantalus became synonymous with “sufferer” or “the bearer” as a reference to his never-ending torture. From this came the English word “tantalizing”, often used to describe a desire or temptation that remains out of reach. Likewise, the word tantalize is a verb that refers to teasing or tormenting someone by showing him something desirable but keeping it out of reach.
The metal tantalum is also named after Tantalus. This is because, like Tantalus, tantalum is also able to be submerged in water without being adversely affected by the water. The chemical element niobium is named after Tantalus’ daughter, Niobe because it has properties similar to tantalum.
What Does Tantalus Symbolize?
Like Prometheus, the myth of Tantalus is a story that states that trying to outsmart the gods will result in failure and punishment. By trying to interfere in the matters of the gods and upsetting the divine structures of things, Tantalus ends up with eternal punishment.
This is a common theme in many Greek myths, where mortals and demi-mortals overstep their boundaries. It is a reminder that pride goes before a fall – in this case, Tantalus was marked by the sin of pride, and believed that he was smart enough to trick the gods.
Though he was fathered by Zeus, Tantalus was a mortal and spent his life with the rest of humanity. He used to be an honored guest among the gods of Olympus until he committed atrocities that seriously offended the deities and angered Zeus.
His misdeeds eventually earned him a lifetime punishment, while his descendants endured multiple tragedies for five generations. The curse on his bloodline finally ended when his great-great grandson, Orestes, pleaded to the gods for forgiveness.