Sisyphus was the legendary founder and king of Corinth. He was infamous for his ability to cheat death. On several occasions, Sisyphus convinced the gods of the underworld* to let him return to the world of the living. Eventually, he refused to go back down to the underworld, and the gods punished him for his trickery.

Once Sisyphus had seen Zeus, the king of the gods, carry off the nymph* Aegina. When her father Asopus asked Sisyphus about his daughter’s whereabouts, Sisyphus said he would tell him in exchange for a spring of fresh water for his city. Asopus agreed and Sisyphus told him where Zeus had taken his daughter. Angry at Sisyphus for betraying him, Zeus sent Thanatos (Death) to take Sisyphus to the underworld. Sisyphus tricked Thanatos, tied him up, and threw him in a dungeon. While Thanatos was locked up, no mortals* died. The gods disliked this unnatural situation, and they sent Ares to free Thanatos and capture Sisyphus.

However, Sisyphus had more tricks to use. He instructed his wife to leave his body unburied. Hades, the god of the underworld, was so angry at the wife’s neglectfulness that he allowed Sisyphus to return to the upper world to tell his wife to bury his body. Once back home in Corinth, Sisyphus defied the gods by refusing to return to the underworld. He remained in Corinth and died in old age.

But after death, as punishment for his trickery, the gods condemned Sisyphus to rolling a great stone uphill forever. Just as he would almost succeed in pushing the stone to the top of the hill, the stone would roll past him to the bottom, and he would have to begin again. {See also Myths, Greek.)

* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades

* nymph in classical mythology, one of the lesser goddesses of nature

* mortal human being; one who eventually will die

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