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In Greek mythology Sisyphus or Sisyphos was the king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth). He was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. Through the classical influence on modern culture, tasks that are both laborious and futile are therefore described as Sisyphean (/sɪsɪˈfiːən/).

Sisyphus was the founder and first king of Ephyra (supposedly the original name of Corinth). King Sisyphus promoted navigation and commerce but was avaricious and deceitful. He also killed guests to his palace and travellers, a violation of xenia, which fell under Zeus’ domain, thus angering the god. He took pleasure in these killings because they allowed him to maintain his iron-fisted rule.

As a punishment for his trickery, Hades made Sisyphus roll a huge boulder endlessly up a steep hill. The maddening nature of the punishment was reserved for Sisyphus due to his hubristic belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus himself. Hades accordingly displayed his own cleverness by enchanting the boulder into rolling away from Sisyphus before he reached the top, which ended up consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration. Thus it came to pass that pointless or interminable activities are sometimes described as Sisyphean.

Homer describes Sisyphus in both Book VI of the Iliad and Book XI of the Odyssey.

Ovid, the Roman poet, makes reference to Sisyphus in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. When Orpheus descends and confronts Hades and Persephone, he sings a song so that they will grant his wish to bring Eurydice back from the dead. After this song is sung, Ovid shows how moving it was by noting that Sisyphus, emotionally affected, for just a moment, stops his eternal task and sits on his rock, the Latin wording being inque tuo sedisti, Sisyphe, saxo (“and you sat, Sisyphus, on your rock”).

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates looks forward to the after-life where he can meet figures such as Sisyphus, who think themselves wise, so that he can question them and find who is wise and who “thinks he is when he is not”