The Greek myth that is associated with the punishment of rolling a stone uphill is the myth of Sisyphus, originally told by the Greek poet Homer. Sisyphus was said to be the founder and first King of Corinth. The story of Sisyphus and his punishment of having to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again, has become an analogy for the endless toil of modern life.

Sisyphus' Crimes

As king, Sisyphus was said to promote commerce and navigation, but as a leader, he ruled with an iron fist and was both greedy and deceptive. He was known to kill travelers and guests, a crime that was particularly taboo during a time when travel was dependent upon the good will of benefactors. Sisyphus was also said to have betrayed the secrets of the gods. He even managed to trick and chain death itself, prohibiting Thanatos from delivering the dead to Hades, god of the underworld. Hades had to intervene and for these crimes, Sisyphus was punished

Greek Punishment

Although the relevance of Sisyphus’ punishment to his crime is unknown, it does relate to a variety of other Greek punishments that imagine Hades (named for the god of the underworld) to be a place of endless labor without reward. Once the boulder was about to reach the top, it would roll down again, and Sisyphus would have to start over. Tantalus, legendary son of Zeus, and a friend of the gods, suffered a similar punishment. According to Homer's account in the "Odyssey," Tantalus was placed into a pool of water at chin level with fruit trees just above his head. When he bent over for a drink, the water would recede. When he reached for the fruit, the branches would rise above his grasp. Tantalus would remain hungry and thirsty for all eternity.

The Sisyphean Task

French philosopher and social critic, Albert Camus, relates the story of Sisyphus to modern life in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Sisyphus embodies the absurdity of life in all its “futility and hopeless labor.” Camus calls Sisyphus a proletarian, a man trapped within the workings of the modern machine, unable to escape. In Camus' view, Sisyphus becomes a metaphor for modern life and the workplace whose absurd, routine nature becomes a kind of punishment when it is experienced as being endless.

Hope?

Although Camus views Sisyphus as a man trapped, he also considers him a kind of absurd hero. Sisyphus scorned the unjust rule of the gods and loved life dearly, so much so that he temporarily defeated death. His love for life led to endless torture. However, Camus writes that it is because of his persistence and endless effort in the face of futility that the Sisyphean task is a victory, even one that can lead to happiness while struggling. Camus turns the Sisyphean task on its head by suggesting that knowledge of futility, and endurance despite it, can lead to happiness.