Words such as ‘tantalize,’ ‘tantalized’ and ‘tantalizing’ refer to mixed feelings of desire and torment caused by a yearning for a coveted something that is just out of reach. Such feelings were intimately known by a mythical or legendary figure named King Tantalus (or Tantalos). He was a wicked or mischievous Lydian king who spectacularly ran afoul of the gods. Tantalus’ fall had several stories. In some versions, he angered the gods by revealing heavenly secrets or items to mortals. Yet, the most popular tale was that he murdered his own son, and made meals from the body, which he then tried to serve to the gods as a test of their omnipotence. Fortunately, the gods discovered Tantalus’ scheme and they brought the murdered son back to life. As for Tantalus, he was sentenced to perpetual torment in the realm of the dead. His punishment was described by Homer (c. 9th or 8th century BCE), as well as by many other ancient poets and scholars over the following millennia. Common elements from these diverse accounts of Tantalus’ torment were summarized by a later scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) in a text called The Library:
“The punishment suffered by Tantalos in Hades is to have a stone suspended over him, and remain perpetually in a lake, seeing at either side of his shoulders fruit-laden trees growing by its bank; the water grazes his chin, but when he wants to drink from it, the water dries up, and when he wants to feed from the fruit, the trees and their fruits are raised by winds as high as the clouds” (Apollodorus, Library, E.2.1).
It is from this tormented figure, Tantalus, that the words ‘tantalize’ and ‘tantalizing’ derive. They operate almost like a simile or a metaphor, employed to refer to emotions and situations that are similar to Tantalus’ hellish predicament. Fine words, indeed, even if they allude to murder, cannibalism and torture.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Torment of Tantalus, by Bernard Picart (c. 18th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.