3120 (detail): The torments of Tantalus. Bernard Picart (1673-1733), Fabeln der Alten (Musen-Tempel), 1754.
"... Your cleverest poets ... deny food and drink to Tantalus, merely because he was a good man and inclined to share with his friends the immortality bestowed on him by the gods. And some of them hang stones over him, and rain insults of a terrible kind upon this divine and good man; and I would much rather that they had represented him as swimming in a lake of nectar, for he regaled men with that drink humanely and ungrudgingly ... But we must not suppose that he was really the victim of the gods' dislike ..." (Flavius Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 3.25).
Tantalus 1 is punished in Hades by not being
able to eat or drink, as the water in the lake
dries out, and the fruits in the trees are lifted
by the wind each time he tries to reach either.
In the same way as some are famous for their lives, and others are famous for their deaths, Tantalus 1 became famous for the manner of his punishment in the afterlife. He was made to stand chin-deep in water with fruits just over his head, and whenever he tries to drink or eat, the water recedes or the fruits are lifted out of reach. And this torment, through which something seems to be offered only to be withdrawn again, has been called, in memory of its best known victim, "tantalize". Such is the Fame of this punishment.
For ever hungry and thirsty
Some have said that in addition Tantalus 1 had a stone hanging over him. But otherwise Tantalus 1 is said to see at his shoulders on either side trees with fruit growing beside the lake in which he stands with the water touching his jaws. And when he wishes to drink, the water recedes or dries up, and when he wishes to eat from the fruits, the branches are lifted by the wind as high as the clouds. Consequently, Tantalus 1 is always hungry, thirsty, and afraid that the huge stone that hangs above his head will fall on him.
It appears that the most ancient report about Tantalus 1 and his torment is the one given by Odysseus when he
returned from the Underworld and told
what he had seen:
"I also saw
the awful agonies that Tantalus has to bear. The
old man was standing in a pool of water which
nearly reached his chin, and his thirst drove him
to unceasing efforts; but he could never get a drop
to drink. For whenever he stooped in his eagerness
to lap the water, it disappeared. The pool was
swallowed up, and all he saw at his feet was the
dark earth, which some mysterious power had
parched. Trees spread their foliage high over the
pool and dangle fruits above his
headpear-trees and pomegranates, apple-trees
with their glossy burden, sweet figs and luxuriant
olives. But whenever the old man tried to grasp
them in his hands, the wind would toss them up
towards the shadowy clouds." (Odysseus.
Homer, Odyssey 11.584).
Betrayed the gods' trust
As they say, Tantalus 1 was much trusted by his father Zeus, being admitted to the banquets of the gods. But Tantalus 1 proved to have an unbridled tongue, and the thoughtless fellow reported the gods' plans to men, telling them about the mysteries of the gods, and also attempting to share ambrosia with his fellows.
King in Sipylus
Tantalus 1 reigned in Sipylus, the land about the mountain with the same name which is east of Smyrna in Asia Minor. Here, not far from the Lake of Tantalus, his grave could be seen, and in Sipylus he received his daughter Niobe 2 when she returned from Thebes after the killing of the NIOBIDS by Apollo and Artemis. Niobe 2 was transformed into a stone, and tears flow night and day from the stone at Sipylus. Niobe 2's husband was Amphion 1, the
harpist who ruled Thebes; and they say that he, being related to Tantalus 1 for having married his daughter, learned this art from the Lydians themselves, and later added three strings to the four old ones. Tantalus 1's son Pelops 1, however, was forced to run away from Sipylus when Ilus 2, the founder of Troy, launched
an army against him. On a peak of Mount Sipylus
there was a throne of Pelops 1.
Debauched Paphlagonian king
Others say that Tantalus 1 dwelt in Paphlagonia, in northern Asia Minor, and that he was the wealthy king of that region. He was a especial friend of the gods, and was permitted to ask for whatever he desired, but he was unable to bear his good fortune. For he, after sharing the table of the gods and their intimate talk, made known to men the secrets of the immortals. This is the reason for his eternal punishment, but others have added that Tantalus 1 was so immoderately given to pleasures that he asked always for more, and for a life like that of the gods. Zeus,
they say, fulfilled his prayer in the known way,
hanging also a stone over his head to keep him
continually harassed. And he was punished on earth
too; for according to some it was he, and not his
son Pelops 1, who was driven out of Paphlagonia by Ilus 2, the founder of Troy.
Turns his son into a meal
Tantalus 1 reached a very high pitch of perversion when he slaughtered his own son Pelops 1 and served him
as a meal at the banquet of the gods. It was then
that Demeter ate Pelops 1's arm. When the
gods learned what had taken place, they gave Pelops 1 life again,
joining together all his limbs. And since the
shoulder was missing, Demeter fitted an ivory
one in its place.
Now, in whatever way one looks to Tantalus 1's fate, there are only misfortunes to be found. For his country was utterly overthrown, and in death eternal torment awaited him. And his descent was not more fortunate. That is why it seemed reasonable to pray:
"O gods, may
the race of Tantalus be fortunate at last, and may
it be set free from evils!" (Euripides, Helen 855).
Yet some think that what Tantalus 1 did was extremely wrong, and that those who commit such crimes become incurable, not being able to profit by any punishment themselves, but instead serving to others as example. And not seldom these examples come from despots, great potentates, and public administrators. For these, having a free hand, are able to commit the worst offences.
Others with identical name
Tantalus 2 is one of the NIOBIDS, that is, a grandson of Tantalus 1. Tantalus 3 is the first husband of Clytaemnestra; he
was killed by Agamemnon. Tantalus 3 is called by some son of Broteas 4, and by others son of Thyestes 1. As son of Thyestes 1, Tantalus 3 should have been killed as an infant by Atreus, and served to his own father as a meal at a banquet. In both cases Tantalus 3 is a descendant of Tantalus 1.