This painting, by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Langetti (c. 1635 – 1676), was inspired by a hellish myth about Sisyphus. According to ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the founder of Ephyra (but later became associated with Corinth) and was the grandfather of the mighty hero, Bellerophon. Sisyphus was not too shabby himself, and had a reputation for cunning and cleverness. He was once said to have cheated death by instructing his wife to not give him proper burial rights, and because of this negligence, Sisyphus was able to return to the land of the living on the pretense of chastising his wife. Instead, upon returning to life, Sisyphus just thanked his wife for following their plan, and then he refused to return to the underworld. While that trick was controversial enough, Sisyphus was said to have further angered the gods by tattling on the high-god, Zeus, when the powerful deity kidnapped the nymph, Aegina. Zeus’ involvement in the kidnapping was revealed by Sisyphus to Aegina’s father, the river god, Asopos, who then tried to take Aegina back from the lightning-wielding divinity. Although the minor river deity could not defeat the high-god of Olympus, Zeus was still annoyed by the situation and he particularly grew wrathful against Sisyphus for speaking to Asopos. When Sisyphus died a second time (and this time could not escape death), the gods arranged a special punishment for him in the underworld. On this, the ancient scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) wrote, “Sisyphus undergoes the punishment in Hades of rolling a rock with his hands and head in an attempt to roll it over the top of a hill; but however hard he pushes it, it forces its way back down again. He suffers this punishment because of Aegina, a daughter of Asopos; for Zeus had carried her off in secret, and Sisyphus is said to have revealed this to Asopos, who went in search of her” (Apollodorus, Library, I.9.3). Such, then, is the story behind Giovanni Battista Langetti’s painting. It shows Sisyphus in his endless struggle against the unconquerable rock and hill of Hades.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.