Several ancient mythological figures, according to the tales told about them, were reportedly torn apart and put back together again by their loved ones. The Egyptian god, Osiris, is one famous example, whose body was said to have been torn apart and scattered, only for most of the pieces to be gathered up and brought together again so that Osiris could rule over the dead. Similarly, the wine god, Dionysus, according to one version on his story, was lured away from the safety of his powerful father, Zeus, and was ripped into pieces and eaten by Titans. A goddess (different accounts name Athena, Rhea or Demeter) was able to salvage Dionysus’ beating heart, which was then delivered to Zeus. The lightning god was then able to impregnate Semele with that heart, bringing Dionysus back to life. Finally, as the title of the article gives away, Greek mythology also told that a figure called Pelops, too, had the unpleasant fate of being torn apart and then brought back to sentience. Instead of being regrown like Dionysus, Pelops’ experience was more like Osiris’ tale of being put back together again like a puzzle. Yet, like the story of Humpty-Dumpty, those who are torn apart often can’t be perfectly put back together again.
No story about being torn apart is pleasant, but Pelops’ story is especially cruel because the culprit was Pelops’ own father. Pelops’ dad was Tantalus—a wicked and mischievous Lydian king who came up with the horrific idea of murdering his own son and making meals from the body so as to serve the dishes to the gods as a test of their omnipotence (for he planned to not disclose the origin of the mystery meat to the gods until after they ate). Fully committed to his plan, Tantalus carried out the gruesome scheme of having his son butchered and transformed into an inconspicuous feast. The gods, omnipotent or not, answered Tantalus’ dinner invitation and arrived for the banquet, not giving any hint at that time if they had suspicions. Before long, however, the godly guests finally spoke out that there was something amiss about the feast and they uncovered the terrible secret behind the mystery meat. Nevertheless, their detective work did not, it seems, come to a conclusion before some exploratory bites were unfortunately taken from the food. After arresting Tantalus, the gods decided to put Pelops back together again and resurrect him from death. Yet, there was a predicament—a few nibble-fulls of Tantalus’ body were unfortunately missing and irretrievable. The gods, therefore, decided to patch the victim’s body up with ivory. The Roman poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), narrated the scene:
“[Tantalus] dismembered the boy,
and the gods (so they say) reassembled the limbs. The rest was recovered,
and only the part which unites the neck with the upper arm
had been lost. A piece of ivory set in the empty space
could serve the purpose as well, and Pelops was fully restored”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 6, approximately lines 407-411)
And so, after being killed, butchered and partially eaten, Pelops was reassembled and resurrected, with ivory replacing what was missing. Pelops’ father, Tantalus, was not so lucky. Instead, the murderous king was sentenced to perpetual torment in the realm of the dead, where food and drink was kept tortuously just beyond his grasp. Fittingly, Tantalus left a linguistic legacy of words such as ‘tantalize,’ ‘tantalized’ and ‘tantalizing,’ that refer to mixed feelings of desire and torment caused by a yearning for a coveted something that is just out of reach. Unlike Pelops, Tantalus would not be saved.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Prometheus Moulding Man from Clay, by Constantin Hansen (c. 1804-1880), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Statens Museum for Kunst.).
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.