According to ancient Greek myth and legend, if a wanderer had the misfortune of taking the wrong path through the Isthmus of Corinth, they might run into a dangerous figure named Sinis. This curious man had an abnormal helping of physical strength, and he oddly focused all of his muscular power on an obsession that he developed for pulling down and bending trees. This obsession was so intense that he was eventually nicknamed Pityocamptes (Pine-Bender). Yet, his behavior soon took a horribly dark turn. Before long, Sinis’ fascination with bending trees by himself was not enough. He discovered it was much more fun to invite passersby to try to do the same thing. As most of the travelers who encountered Sinis were not as strong as he was, they almost always failed to replicate his feat. Sinis, unfortunately, was delighted and amused when others could not bend or hold down bent trees. He even began to pull over trees for people who could not do it on their own, and had them take over from there, encouraging them to try to keep the bent tree from springing back up. Inevitably, most people could not hold the trunk for long and the tree would fly out of their grasp. Not satisfied with this, Sinis then apparently began tying his guests (who we will now call victims) to the pulled over trees with rope. Now, when the tree trunks slipped out of a person’s hands, the tied victim would be traumatically dragged along with the tree as it snapped back to its upright position. On this peculiar myth, a scholar named Pseudo-Apollodorus (1st-2nd century) wrote, “Sinis was referred to as Pityocamptes [or the Pine-Bender]; for living on the Isthmus of Corinth, he forced passers-by to bend pine trees to the ground, and when they were too weak to do so, they were hurled into the air by the trees to meet with a miserable death” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.16.2).
Unfortunately, Apollodorus’ account of Sinis is the least gruesome of the ancient stories, and therefore the tale will only get more horrific from here. One can imagine that Sinis became more sadistic in his methods as he grew tired of simply flinging his victims up into the air through the use of a single bent tree. Sinis soon made the horrible discovery that two trees were better than one, especially when they were pulled down from opposite angles. Now, in this situation, if he used his previous technique of tying his victims to the trees, the poor souls who were tied up would no longer be simply flung into the air—instead, when the two trees sprang back to their upright positions, the victims would be torn apart as the ropes pulled their limbs in opposite directions. This more hellish version of the myth was told by Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), who stated, “Sinis, it should be explained, used to bend over two pines, fasten one arm to each of them, and then suddenly release the pines, the result being that the bodies were pulled asunder by the force of the pines and the unfortunate victims met a death of great anguish” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.59).
Through gruesome murders such as this, Sinis became a villain of great renown. Supervillains, naturally, come into conflict with superheroes, and in this case, the ancient Greek hero who saved the day was Theseus. As the story goes, Theseus somehow was able to subject Sinis to the same torments that Sinis had imposed on the victims. Yet, whether Theseus had Sinis flung into the air by a single tree or pulled apart by two trees is unclear.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene From A Vase Depicting Theseus and Sinis, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana, and the University of Leuven).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).