Mythology Mondays: The curse of the Tantalids

I’ve noticed that some of my favourite blogs have theme days. I thought I would join in the trend! I love alliteration and clearly the only thing I know something about that starts with an m is.. Mythology!

A while back I posted that I was falling behind on my mythological conaissance and wanted to post more about it. Obviously, that didn’t happen. But now it will! And I have.. 43 more minutes to write about a myth while it’s still Monday!

I have always been interested in the family line of Tantalus, Pelops and Atreus and it’s successive curses. This is the line of Agamemnon and Orestes. I wrote an essay in second year about Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and the curse of the house of Atreus.

I think I’ll start with Tantalus and move my way down through the line on subsequent Mondays, so you can all get out your copies of Aeschylus’ Oresteia and know the whole background story.

From Tantalus, we get the word tantalize.

Tantalus is the son of Zeus and one of his many nymphs. Zeus invites him to dinner one night, on Olympus. Tantalus, always ambitious, steals nectar and ambrosia from the Gods and takes it back down to Earth to give to other mortals. This is a major faux pas in the Olympian circle. See, ambrosia is a secret of the Gods. And mortals aren’t supposed to know secrets.

Zeus is pissed at his son. Tantalus decides it would be a good idea to sacrafice his own son Pelops to the Gods, à la Abraham and Isaac. Except Tantalus cuts Pelops into tiny pieces and boils him. He then serves this as a gourmet dish to the Gods, to appease them. Also, because he wanted to prove he was smarter than them, and trick them into eating a human. Except the Gods, being all omniscient and such, knew what was going on. All but poor Demeter who accidentally took a bite of the boy’s shoulder. Zeus brings Pelops back to life, and they have to give him an ivory shoulder to replace the one eaten by Demeter.

Tantalus is sent to Tartarus, the place in Hades specially reserved for the worst evildoers. Here he is cursed with unquenchable hunger and thirst. He stood in a pool of water under a fruit tree for eternity. When he reached for a fruit, the branches would move just out of his reach. When he bent to drink, the water receded.

Poor Tantalus to taste the water tries,
But from his lips the faithless water flies:
Then thinks the bending tree he can command,
The tree starts backwards, and eludes his hand.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 4

–verb (used with object), -lized, -liz⋅ing.
to torment with, or as if with, the sight of something desired but out of reach; tease by arousing expectations that are repeatedly disappointed.

For the next several generations, Tantalus’ descendants from Pelops onwards are cursed to always reach for their desires and be disappointed. Tune in next week for Pelops!


  • By Court, March 31, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    I love it! The alliteration, a post I can read while procrastinating at 10:00am, and a great story!

    Remember we used to read that one huge mythology book you had? The one with all the different cultures? We loved that thing.

    You do such a good job breaking it down and making it interesting! Can’t wait for next Monday ;)

  • By Lisa, March 31, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    OK, I love this! Great post.

    I am definitely looking forward to reading your mythology posts each week.

  • By Ambles, March 31, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    This explains everything…

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