The myth of Tantalus is an interesting Greek myth.
Tantalus was a mortal son of Zeus but unlike other mortals, was a favourite with both the gods and Zeus. He was probably the only mortal, who was allowed to dine with the gods, especially the dinner-for-gods-only kind!
However, such love was not quite reciprocated by Tantalus. He had the habit of listening to the divine secrets of the gods and pass it down to the humans, more as a boast to prove his divine proximity. A few times he even tried to steal the ambrosia, divine drink of the gods, to share it with the mortals. Once, one of the gods stole Zeus’s golden pet dog and gave it to Tantalus to hide it. Later when the god came to ask for it, Tantalus claimed ignorance and said he never was given such a dog. It took Zeus’s intervention, who sent his messenger to find the dog. Such acts of misconduct were occasionally pardoned, as he was the favourite and thus Tantalus never took the gods seriously.
Once to prove the gullibility and the foolishness of the gods, he invited them for dinner to his castle. He then cut his son Pelops to pieces and made a stew out of it and served to the gods. None of the gods had quite had the stew except for Demeter, who unmindfully chewed into what turned out to be the shoulder of Pelops. She was not in a proper frame of mind as she was mourning for her daughter Persephone (Read more about it in This is Utkarsh Speaking: Demeter & Persephone). When she realised what had happened she alerted all the gods, who were now furious.
Zeus decided to punish him severely for this act of trying to make cannibals out of the gods. As a punishment he was sent to the Tartarus, the lowest region of the Underworld. There he was chained in a lake and made to stand under a tree full of ripe and juicy fruits. However, whenever he tried to pluck a fruit, the fruit would move away from him and whenever he tried to drink water from the lake, it would recede, thus depriving him of all nourishment. This gives us the word, tantalise, meaning ‘to tease someone with the sight or promise of something that they cannot have’ (Oxford Dictionary). To tease him further, sometimes the waters of the lake would rise up to his chin, but the moment he tried to drink, the waters would recede and all he would find was mud all over him. If he tried to take the waters in his hands to drink, it would flow off his hands by the time it reached his mouth. This left Tantalus eternally frustrated.
Some authors have also said that Zeus punished him further by hanging a stone over him which was always threatening to fall on him and he was eternally trying to dodge the same. The gods were so disappointed with him, that the entire family and the descendants of Tantalus were cursed to end in tragedy. (next time we will read about his daughter Niobe). However, the gods managed to resurrect his son Pelops, with an ivory shoulder, since Demeter had taken a bite of the shoulder. Pelops goes on to live a long life (To read more about Pelops, read This is Utkarsh Speaking: Olympic Games – Mythical Origins), and was probably the only one who escaped the wrath of the gods.
Many scholars were of the opinion that Tantalus was a historical figure possibly the ruler of a city called Tantalis or of a city by the name of Siphylus. Near the present day Mount Siphylus, many archaeological remains have associations with the House of Tantalus and his children.
What is of importance is the crime and punishment. Tantalus’s crime seems to be less of killing his son, than of making the gods cannibals! In the ancient times, killing ones blood-related was a grave crime, but the focus in this myth has been more of god’s deception. The gods were angry because they were misled with an ulterior motive of trying to prove that the gods were not all that intelligent as they seemed to be. Many have opined that the god’s reaction was less due to killing of the son by a father, but more due to sharing of the divine secrets with the mortals. This could have some bearing, as we have seen Zeus’s reaction to a similar incident that happens with Prometheus, a god, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man (Read This is Utkarsh Speaking: The Gift of Fire ).
Another way to look at it is that message was being given to people that gods did not like human sacrifice and the society at large should not resort to cannibalism. This theory has a significant bearing, especially since there have been records of human sacrifices to certain deities in the Greek pantheon. This myth could be seen as a case of changing perceptions towards the same, especially since some of the versions state that Tantalus offered Pelops as a sacrifice to the gods. The punishment of depriving Tantalus of all food and drink eternally brings out the severity of the punishment by the gods and that too to the favourite of the gods.
According to the theory of functionalism of mythology, every myth serves a purpose. It has to have a cause or a reason for its existence. The above myth definitely sends a loud message, that no matter how close one is to the gods, there is no messing around with them. One cannot take them for granted and above all, they seek reverence and not ridicule. If one transgresses the lines drawn, one can face severe punishment and not just the concerned person, but his sons and other family members. The entire family and descendants have faced tragic deaths and this by itself is a very important lesson in this myth.
Next we will read about Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus.