Tantalus

Mortals
Fast Facts:
  • Pronunciation: tan-tal-luh-s
  • Origin: Greece
  • Parents: Zeus and Plouto
  • Wife: Dione
  • Children: Pelops, Niobe, Broteas

Who Is Tantalus?

Tantalus was the King of Phrygia, the ancient region at the western end of the Anatolian plateau. He was also the son of Zeus and the nymph Plouto, and was infamous, not for his rule of the kingdom, but for the extraordinary mistake he made and the consequences that followed. Simply put, he thought he could fool the gods.

Once a welcomed guest at the dinner table of his powerful father Zeus, Tantalus ended up in the depths of the underworld with a punishment befitting the worst criminals. He was condemned to eternity in Tartarus standing in water up to his chin, with branches of fruit always just out of reach and water draining away as soon as he tried to drink. Tantalus was damned to the fate of being forever tantalized.

Origin

As a favored son of Zeus, Tantalus was often invited to Mount Olympus to dine at the table of his father. A trusted confidant, he was privy to the divine secrets discussed among the gods and goddesses during meals of nectar and ambrosia, the foods of immortality and sustenance of the gods.

In an effort to impress his mortal friends, he took advantage of the hospitality of the gods and betrayed their trust. The unworthy Tantalus took nectar and ambrosia to share with mortals, and gossiped about the divine secrets of the gods.

Adding further to his attempts to deceive his divine father, he coveted one of the god’s favorite objects: a golden dog, which Zeus had received as a gift from Hephaestus, the blacksmith god. The dog acted as a guardian for Zeus when he was a baby and later stood in his temple in Crete. Pandareus, a friend of Tantalus, took the dog, and gave it to him to hide. When Pandareus returned to retrieve it, Tantalus denied knowing anything about the golden dog. Pandareus, unable to return the stolen object, was turned into stone for his crime.

Although the gods were disturbed by his behavior, Tantalus had not yet pushed his luck to the point of punishment by the deities as they were hoping he would correct his ways. But the unscrupulous and unworthy king continued on a path that would lead to his demise.

He invited the Olympian gods to a feast. What he served for their dinner was the body of his own son, Pelops, who he had murdered, carved into pieces, and roasted. The gods realized what their meal consisted of and refused to eat. The exception was the goddess Demeter, who was distracted by the loss of her daughter Persephone who had been abducted to the underworld. Demeter ate the shoulder of Pelops.

The gods restored Pelops to life by putting all of the carved parts of his body to boil in a magical cauldron. Demeter replaced the missing shoulder she had eaten during dinner with ivory.

This time, Tantalus had gone too far and the gods couldn’t tolerate his terrible behavior any longer. He had to be punished for the horrific acts of cannibalism and murdering his own son. Zeus killed him and destroyed his kingdom of Phrygia. He was then taken to Tartarus to stand in the lake with a fruit tree above him just out of reach. When he went to drink, the water would recede so he couldn’t quench his thirst. He would stay in this manner for all of eternity, existing with the temptation of food and water that was forever unattainable.

Family of Tantalus

Evil King Tantalus was married to a nymph daughter of Atlas. Together they had two sons, Pelops and Broteas, and a daughter named Niobe. All three were seemingly cursed, perhaps under the guise of retribution for their father.

After being reconstituted, Pelops grew up to be quite handsome and was later kidnapped by Poseidon and taken to Olympus to be his lover and apprentice. He learned to drive the chariot of the gods and later married Hippodamia. They had many children, including Atreus, who went on to have many important mythological descendants.

Tantalus and his family were the victims of curses received from his own sinister deeds, which caused his several of his sons to perish.

Broteas insulted the goddess Artemis by refusing to honor her. As punishment, he was driven to madness. The insane Broteas threw himself into a fire, thinking he wouldn’t burn.

Niobe married Amphion, king of Thebe, and had 12 children. In a tactless manner similar to that of her father, she bragged to the Titaness Leto, who only had two children herself, about her reproductive abilities and the beauty of her offspring. Leto called upon her twin deities, Apollo and Artemis, to kill all of the children of Niobe, who was left to grieve and weep until she was turned into stone. The Weeping Rock stands in Mount Sipylus located in Turkey.

Linguistic Influence

The meaning of the verb tantalize is to torment with the sight of something desired but always out of reach, creating perpetual disappointment. It is the legacy of King Tantalus and his evil ways.

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