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In Greek mythology Tantalus (Greek Τάνταλος) was a son of Zeus[1] and the nymph Plouto ("riches")[2] Thus he was a king in the primordial world, the father of a son Broteas whose very name signifies "mortals" (brotoi)[3] Other versions name his father as Tmolus "wreathed with oak,"[4] son of Sipylus, a king of Lydia. Both Tmolus and Mount Sipylus are names of mountains in ancient Lydia. Thus, like other Greek heroes such as Theseus, or the Dioskouroi, Tantalus had both a hidden, divine sire and a mortal one. Tantalus' mortal mountain-fathers placed him in Lydia; otherwise he might be located in Phrygia (Strabo, xii.8.21) or Paphlagonia, all in Asia Minor. Tantalus became one of the inhabitants of Tartarus, the deepest portion of the Underworld, reserved for the punishment of evildoers.

His children were Pelops—eponym of the Peloponnesus—the unfortunate Niobe, and Broteas. The identity of his wife is variously given: Dione, whose name simply means "The Goddess," perhaps the Pleiad with that name; or Eurythemista, a daughter of the river-god Xanthus; or Euryanassa, daughter of Pactolus, another river-god, both of them in Anatolia; or Clytia, the child of Amphidamantes (Graves 1960, section 108). Tantalus, through Pelops was the founder of the House of Atreus.

The geographer Strabo, quoting earlier sources, states that the wealth of Tantalus was derived from the mines of Phrygia and Mount Sipylus. Near Mount Sipylys, archaeological features associated with Tantalus and his house since Antiquity are, in fact, Hittite. On Mount Yamanlar some two km east of Akpınar are two monuments mentioned by Pausanias: the tholos tomb of Tantalus (Christianized as "Saint Charalambos' tomb") [5] and the "throne of Pelops," in fact a rocky altar. A more famous rock-cut carving mentioned by Pausanias is the Great Mother of the Gods (Cybele to the Greeks), said to have been carved by Broteas, but in fact Hittite.

Story of Tantalus

Tantalus is known for having been welcomed to Zeus' table in Olympus, like Ixion. There he too misbehaved, stole ambrosia, brought it back to his people,[6] and revealed the secrets of the gods[7].

He also offered up his son, Pelops, as a sacrifice to the gods. He cut Pelops up, boiled him, and served him up as food for the gods.

The gods were said to be aware of his plan for their feast, so they didn't touch the offering; only Demeter, disturbed by the rape of her daughter Persephone, "did not realize what it was" and ate of the boy's shoulder. Fate, ordered by Zeus, brought the boy to life again (she collected the parts of the body and boiled them in a sacred cauldron), rebuilding his shoulder with one wrought of ivory made by Hephaestos and presented by Demeter.

The revived Pelops was kidnapped by Poseidon and taken to Olympus to be the god's eromenos. Later, Zeus threw Pelops out of Olympus due to his anger at Tantalus.

The Greeks of classical times claimed to be horrified by Tantalus' doings, cannibalism, human sacrifice and parricide were atrocities and taboo. Tantalus was the founder of the cursed House of Atreus in which variations on these atrocities continued. Misfortunes also occurred as a result of these acts, making the house the subject of many Greek Tragedies.

Tantalus' grave-sanctuary stood on Sipylos [8]. But hero's honours were paid him at Argos, where local tradition claimed to possess his bones. [9] On Lesbos there was another hero-shrine in the little settlement of Polion and a mountain named for Tantalos[10]

Tantalus' punishment, now proverbial for temptation without satisfaction, was to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised his intended meal from his grasp. Whenever he bent down to get a drink, the water receded before he could get any. Over his head towers a threatening stone, like that of Sisyphus.[11] It is from this story that the word tantalizing comes.[12]

In an unrelated story, Tantalus was blamed for having stolen the dog of Hephaestus, god of metals (alternatively, he convinced his friend, Pandareus to do so).

Interpretations of the Tantalus figure

The tale of Tantalus reaffirms that human sacrifice and parricide are taboo in Ancient and Classical Greek culture.

Human sacrifice may have been offered in earlier times, especially to Demeter.

Alternatively, Tantalus can be seen as a Promethean figure who divulges divine secrets to mortals. He presides over sacred initiations consisting of mystic death and transfiguration. His dismemberment of Pelops and Pelops' resurrection can be seen as an archetypal shamanic initiation.

Other characters with the same name

There are two other characters named Tantalus in Greek mythology, both minor figures and both descendants of the above Tantalus. Broteas is said to have had a son named Tantalus, who ruled over the city of Pisa in the Peloponnesus. This Tantalus was the first husband of Clytemnestra. He was slain by Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, who made Clytemnestra his wife. The third Tantalus was a son of Thyestes, who was murdered by his uncle Atreus, and fed to his unsuspecting father, Thyestes.


  1. Euripides, Orestes.
  2. Plouto is not to be confused with the god of the underworld. Lydia was rich in gold.
  3. Noted by Kerenyi 1959:57.
  4. A scholium on Euripides.
  5. Various sites called the "tomb of Tantalus" have been shown to travellers since the time of Pausanias; the most accessible today is in İzmir (Smyrna), a monumental work that is actually the tomb of a sixth-century ruler.
  6. Pindar, TFirst Olympian Ode.
  7. Euripides, Orestes, 10.
  8. Pausanias 2.22.3.
  9. Pausanias 2.22.2.
  10. Stephen of Byzantium, noted by Kerenyi 1959:57, note 218.
  11. This detail was added to the myth by the painter Polygnotus, according to Pausanias (10.31.12), noted in Kerenyi 1959:61.
  12. [1]

Sources and references

External links

  • The story of Tantalus, fully developed compiled from selected primary sources to highlight the shamanic and promethean aspects of the story. By Pindar's time this view would have been rejected.

Spoken-word myths - audio files

The Tantalus myth as told by story tellers
1. Zeus and Tantalus, (including Pelops and Poseidon), read by Timothy Carter
Bibliography of reconstruction: Homer, Odyssey, 11.567 (7th c. BCE); Pindar, Olympian Odes, 1 (476 BCE); Euripides, Orestes, 12-16 (408 BCE); Apollodorus, Epitomes 2: 1-9 (140 BCE); Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI: 213, 458 (8 CE); Hyginus, Fables, 82: Tantalus; 83: Pelops (1st c. CE); Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.22.3 (160 - 176 CE)

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