Thursday, July 13, 2006

Sisyphus - the man, the myth, the punishment....

I've often compared the sensation of starting a book to feeling the way Sisyphus did while looking at the boulder he had to push up that mountain, knowing full well that once he reaches the top, it will roll down and the process will have to be done all over again. Once you finish a book, you eventually have to (or should, if you want to have a career as a writer) start again. Since I'm at the point where I'm facing Chapter One, Page One again, Sisyphus has been on my mind. And then I realized I didn't know why he was thus condemned, so I decided to do a little research.

Not surprisingly, Sisyphus was not a nice guy. He was supposedly the founder of Corinth (and hey, I've been there!). He was also big on marketing and promotion, encouraging folks to come to his fair city. But then he'd murder them. Kinda negates the whole "Come to Corinth!" thing, and no wonder he had to keep up with the promoting.

He also seduced his niece and stole his brother's throne. But there's more! Not only is he a lascivious, disloyal murderer in life, he's still trying to pull fast ones when he dies, more than once.

The first time Sisyphus shuffles off this moral coil, it is decided that he should be chained in the underworld. The God of Death (who apparently was some guy name Thanatos -- Hades being the God of the Underworld instead) decides to put him in this new invention. We would call them handcuffs. Sisyphus plays stupid and asks for a demonstration. Thanatos, not being the smartest god in the pantheon, complies, with the result that he finds himself locked in the handcuffs. He also may or may not have been shut up in a closet; reports vary. I think Rod Serling used this idea for an episode of the Twilight Zone, if memory serves, except it was the devil he had in the cupboard.

So there's Thanatos, locked up, with the result that nobody can die. Good for everybody...except that warmonger, Ares. He whines to Hades, who takes action and goes for Sisyphus. (And many years later, Hollywood decides to make two movies based on this idea -- Death Takes A Holiday and Meet Joe Black).

But our boy Sis ain't done yet. Oh, no, it takes more than death to get that man down! He tells his (no doubt long-suffering) wife not to give him the proper burial rites. In fact, he tells her to just toss his body in the public square. I'm thinking her reaction was probably, "Hey, no problem, Loverboy!"

So down he goes to the underworld, but he then manages to meet up with Persephone, Hades' wife, and gives her this whole song and dance about how his wife didn't bury him properly (!) and Persephone takes pity on him and lets him go to get his proper burial.

Really, what was Persephone thinking? Sisyphus has been down to the underworld not once, but twice. He's a liar, cheat, murderer and all-round bad guy. But you let him get back to Earth again and expect him to come back? Was she really that dim? Or was he that convincing a talker (I think the evidence says "yes.") Or maybe she and Hades had a spat and she wanted to get back at him. Or did Sisyphus amuse her, and amusements are few and far between in the Underworld, so she let him go?

Anyway, and no surprise, he doesn't voluntarily return. He's finally found soaking up the rays on the beach and is taken back to Hades by Hermes. I can just imagine Sisyphus's next move: "Hey, Hermes, cool footwear! Winged boots! Wicked! Where'd ya get 'em? Can I try one on?" But alas, the jig is up for ol' Sis, and he's chained to the rock which he's doomed to push up a mountain only to have it roll back down when he gets near the top.

I wonder if his wife, upon reaching the underworld, ever went to watch?

And thus, having discovered some interesting bits about Sisyphus, wondering if I can use that handcuff trick somewhere in one of my upcoming books, I hie myself to my file cards to begin "fleshing out" THE NOTORIOUS KNIGHT. (If you want to know about the file cards, go here.)

No comments: