The Myth of the Myth of Sisyphus
“This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth” – The Myth of Sisyphus
“By God, I’d rather slave on earth for another man – some dirt poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive – than be lord of all the lifeless dead” – The Odyssey
The sun beat mercilessly down on yet another cloudless afternoon, the weather much the same as any other day the fallen king could remember. Thousands of years and not once a cloud in the sky, now there was a fucking meteorological oddity. What an injustice, as if somehow his life wasn’t bad enough that the weather too must be turned against him.
The king bent down to take hold of his charge and paused for a moment to gather up his strength, his body and spirit tense with anticipation of the coming struggle. At last he let forth a yell, and with a mighty heave he forced his nemesis onward. He wiped his brow with a filthy hand and looked ahead to survey his future. He had been toiling all morning and his entire being was exhausted, his breath labored and his vision blurry with strain. The end was in sight though, for several steep yards ahead of him lay the hilltop, where the ground flattened out into a nearly level plateau. The end was near, but first he had to finish it.
Inch by torturous inch the king raised his burden up that godforsaken slope, the hilltops’ promise of a momentary respite breathing some measure of strength back into his spirit. When at last he mounted the summit his body finally gave out and he fell forward onto his hands and knees, gasping for air. Moments later he steadied himself and rose, just in time to see the boulder roll past him and back down the cliff. He watched it bounce, helplessly, downhill towards the bottom, and with a look of almost indescribable fury he turned to rage at the sky. “Every! God! Damned! Time!” He roared each word into the void. He roared other words. He cursed the gods most boldly. He cursed the hill on which he stood, he cursed his useless fate. He cursed the sun that beat so harshly down upon him, he cursed the mother that bore him into his miserable existence. But most of all he cursed that fucking rock, that god damned good for nothing rock to which his god damned horrible life was yoked by some invisible harness.
“That does not sound very kingly” noted a bemused voice to his side, and he turned to greet his companion, who was himself chained to a boulder on the summit.
“It’s not dignified but I can’t help it, Prometheus, this is so frustrating.” Sisyphus looked back down the mountain and gestured hopelessly as his boulder rolled out of sight. “Half a days work lost in two seconds right in front of my eyes. Do you have any idea how this feels?
“I don’t know quite what that feels like exactly, but please, Sisyphus, don’t bitch to me about pain. You’re not the only person who’s going to suffer today,” the Titan said with an air of resignation.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry. When’s the eagle coming?”
“Should be a few hours yet. He’s switched it up recently to the late afternoon.” Prometheus shrugged, the chains tying him to his own rock clanking wearily. “Not that it matters much to me, either way I’m out a liver.”
Sisyphus paced the hilltop, frustration slowly ebbing away to his baseline sentiment of a general sense of overwhelming despair. In truth he wasn’t certain which he preferred, docile and depressed or furious and impotent. “I hate Zeus. I hate him. It’s been millennia and I’m still doing this every day. And for what? Talk about a grudge.” He kicked a pebble and watched it fly off the hill. “You think he meant to leave us out here to rot for eternity? Maybe he just forgot about us, and one day he’ll remember and come…”
“Silence.” The Titan commanded. “This is your life. It shouldn’t be too hard to internalize, you’ve been at it for thousands of years.” Prometheus gestured at himself, “Me, I’m at peace, and you’re well aware I have more cause to complain than you. What did I even do, really? I stole fire from the Gods and gave it to you humans. So what? They still had just as much fire after I took some! You can’t run out of it, that’s not how fire works. And what did I even get out of it? Mary fucking Shelley names Frankenstein after me. That’s what I get. Talk about fruitless endeavors, I should have let you lot figure out how to barbeque on your own. Undeserved as it may be though, the punishment isn’t really that bad.”
Sisyphus looked over, astonished. “How could things be worse?”
“Look, an eagle pecks my liver out every day. It’s miserable and I hate it, but it just doesn’t take that long. It’s been thousands of years and the old boy knows exactly what he’s about, it takes maybe ten minutes. After that I’ve got a full day to relax, and it’s horrible but I’ve gotten used to it. Honestly you want to know the worst part?
“What do you mean the worst part? An eagle eats your liver every day. What’s worse than that?”
“The sunburns,” Prometheus said.
“There hasn’t been a cloud in the sky since I got here. Blazing sun every day and Zeus has me sitting here chained to a fucking rock with no shirt on and no shade. At least you get a shirt.”
Sisyphus stared out into the distance; he fancied he could just make out a fruit tree some ways off beyond the hill. “I guess you have a point. Our prisons are definitely better than Tantalus. Just imagine being next to all the food and water you could ever need and never being able to grasp it?” He shuddered at the thought. “Zeus is a monster. He makes Torquemada look like Jimmy Carter.”
“Yes, but Tantalus is also a terrible person, he deserves everything he gets. And his descendants?” Prometheus shook his head violently and spat in disgust. “What a nest of horrors. That monster spawned the House of Atreus! Now there was a family the world could have done without.”
Sisyphus went back to pacing. “Whatever Tantalus may or may not deserve, I still hate the Gods. These punishments are always so disproportionate to the crime.”
Prometheus smirked, shaking his head in bemusement at his companion. “Sisyphus, I almost envy you your humanity. Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, none of them know anything of fair. They predate fair. Their actions are entirely outside of whatever bounds you set on your own.”
“So you’re telling me I have no business complaining about this? Let me set a stage for you. Imagine a young woman, a beautiful thing, gorgeous, the kind of creature about whom we should be writing paeans to fidelity and to whom we should be swearing undying devotion. That kind of woman, they’re a rarity these days. Think Helen but less of a whore. Imagine this woman just walking around minding her own business, picking flowers and being cute. Apollo sees her and desires her and because he’s a god the whole ‘no means no’ rule doesn’t apply, so he chases after her. And that’s terrible but per your rules I can’t judge him for it. The worst part happens next. Gaia sees this from start to finish and, instead of protecting her, she turns Daphne into a fucking tree.” Sisyphus punched the air in frustration. “Talk about blaming the victim! What did that accomplish!?”
“Well it got her away from Apollo, didn’t it?” Prometheus laughed, “Look you’re viewing this in the wrong way. You’re looking at this as if some measure of solace can be found in victimizing yourself, but I assure you there isn’t. It would be a sad thing to spend the rest of your existence pitying it, no matter your lot. Surely there is a certain nobility in being the patron saint of futility. I was just reading a great piece on you called the Myth of Sisyphus, you get a hero’s write-up.
“Reading? When do you have time to read?”
Prometheus jingled his chains. “Do I look busy? Anyways you should give this a look, he greatly admires your struggle. Good thing the author can’t see the truth of what your torment has done to you, it’s a shame to see you now. Don’t you remember what you were? You beat the Gods. You put Death himself in chains! ‘His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole of being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.’ He wrote your life a love poem, and this is how you repay him?
Sisyphus sighed mournfully as echoes of memories of a past he could barely remember drifted to the fore. Him standing in the underworld, exultant, Death chained before him. His return from the underworld to the land of the living, to his wife, whose face he could no longer remember, another casualty of times passage. He had long repressed his joys, knowing that whatever memories that might have given strength could also have further ruined him, brilliant reminders of what great heights he had fallen from. “It’s not so easy, friend. Maybe long ago these ‘passions of the earth’ fueled me, but now? Hope drives the fires of passion and mine is long since gone.”
“How much false hope is driving the rest of mankind? How many people are going through the motions in hope of erecting for themselves a future that will never be? My friend, it is the very knowledge of your fate that should provide your strength. You know your game is up, you can take solace in knowing that you’re out of the rat race, that there is no other lot towards which you can aspire.”
“I’ll try to remember that next time I’m rolling that fucking rock up the hill,” Sisyphus said bitterly. “What other words of comfort does this genius offer?”
Prometheus sighed with exasperation at his pupil and looked at him knowingly, similarly to how he imagines one would look woman at the moment of realizing she was about to break his heart. “The saddest part is that right now is your moment of triumph, and you’re wasting it bitching. ‘the lucidity that was to constitute your torture at the same time crowns your victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.’”
“Victory? Is the rock still up here, did I miss something? Look this all sounds lovely but at a certain point the high mindedness of philosophy meets with the brutalities of life, and no one knows this better than us. It’s all well and good to for you to try to validate your existence in your own head, but these thoughts won’t save you when the eagle comes.
“I’m sorry. I am. I wish I could be happier, that I could accept this and take my punishment like the man I was. But I would trade my status as the poster child for futility for one more breath of the life I used to have.” He gestured at the blasted landscape of the underworld around them, “Is this worth it? I think not. Better to be a happy idiot fucking his wife by the sea. Also the eagle looks to be on his way here, there’s a dot in the sky coming in this direction with intent.”
Prometheus swore. “I thought I had a few more hours. You should go, you’re not going to want to be here for this. I’ll see you later this evening. We can talk more then”
“Aye, we will.” Sisyphus turned and left the heights of the hill, walking back down towards his burden. Shortly afterwards the screaming began.
‘The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy’