Monday, January 21, 2013


Classical myth is remarkably continuous. Who doesn't know something or other about this myth or that? And it is so open-ended, to boot. The myth of Sisyphus is the perfect case in point. The myth awaits so readily the clever thought that will push it, re-define it, and allow it to return unrequited for another later attempt at comprehension.

M. Gerberg, New Yorker 20 Jul 1998 (click)
Homer allowed Odysseus to behold Sisyphus in the world of the dead. Masterfully, Homer describes the effort involved in the Sisyphean toil, and he nearly outdoes himself with that famous line that brings the enormous burden crashing repeatedly back to rest upon the plain: αὔτις ἔπειτα πέδονδε κυλίνδετο λᾶας ἀναιδής. (Od. 11.598) The rhythm and the crash of the line mimic the sound and speed of the roll, nothing but dactyls until the final spondee makes it rest.

Homer fails to explain why Sisyphus suffers this punishment. Indeed, we assume, with Odysseus, that the Sisyphus' engagement with the burden is a punishment. The context certainly suggests that Sisphyus is being punished: the great disgracers are nearby — Orion, Tityus, Tantalus — all under the watchful judgment of Minos. And there will never be any rest for these wicked. But Homer only says that Sisphyus works his boulder.

Apollodorus stated why: "He is punished for this reason: When Zeus secretly carried of Aegina, the daughter of Asopus, Sisyphus is said to have revealed this to Asopus, who was looking for her." (Bibl. 1.9.3, trans. Simpson) The tragedians thought otherwise, for each of them made Sisyphus clever trickster who chose to outwit Death, keeping mankind from dying until Ares could liberate Death: the result was endless torment for the immortal trickster. (vid. Pherecydes FrGH 3 F119)

Since artists and writers have been contemplating Sisyphus' punishment — both the whys and the thats — for centuries since Homer, it is fitting that Nina Kossman has gathered six poems in her collection Gods and Mortals: modern poems on classical myths (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2001), 165 - 67. Kossman's little anthology may be seen as an augment to Jane Davidson Reid's listing in The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts: 1300-1990's (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 1008 - 1009, in which Reid indexes 5 paintings, 17 poems, 3 choreographic pieces, 6 dramas, 3 sculptures, 1 monumental essay (by Camus), and a "satirical lithograph". It goes without saying that Reid's index records only a small fraction of all artistic work on Sisyphus since Titian. (Reid should not have been able to overlook the dozen or so classic New Yorker cartoons on the Sisyphus theme, of which Mark Gerberg is only a representative above.)

Readers of this blog will know of other contemporary work that makes one think anew about Sisyphus's heroism as self-sacrifice. (See on Condie's Matched trilogy.)

Artists expand upon the endurance of Sisyphus. They speculate on the reasons why he is made to endure.

In a series of OGCMA slides, I look for the essential contribution made by each of the poets anthologized by Kossman. I didn't think I could fairly cite each poem without violating copyright. But the slides have excerpts and analysis which will hopefully encourage readers to acquire Kossman's anthology and pursue each cited poet.
Stephen Mitchell, "The Myth of Sisyphus" OGCMA1009NOTSisyphus_Mitchell
H.M. Enzensberger, "instructions for sisyphus" OGCMA1009Sisyphus_Enzensberger
Lucille Clifton, "nothing is told about the moment" OGCMA1009NOTSisyphus_Clifton
José Emilio Pacheco, "New Sisyphus" OGCMA1009Sisyphus_Pacheco
Miguel Torga, "Sisyphus" OGCMA1009NOTSisyphus_Torga
Delmore Schwartz, "The Maxims of Sisyphus" OGCMA1009NOTSisyphus_Schwartz

The earliest Sisyphus poem indexed by Reid is Elizabethan:
Michael Drayton, Sonnet 40 of Idea (1619), OGCMA1008Sisyphus_Drayton
If you encounter an especially rich allusion to the Sisyphus myth, please document it in a comment below.


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