What are the Ancient Greeks trying to tell us?

The Story of Sisyphus probably isn’t something that springs to mind when we talk about Spotify’s hottest releases of 2020 so far. However, Stephen Fry’s new collaboration with Debbie Wiseman doesn’t fail to speak to a modern audience (despite the stories being over 2000 years old). As this telling of the story begins, our main character Sisyphus, the King of Corinth, has already cheated Death once and starts to hatch a plan to do it again. He asks of his young wife that when he dies, she throw his body into the town square, place no coin on his tongue and make no offerings to please the rulers of the underworld. In doing this, Sisyphus arrives in the underworld, “naked, an ear torn off and one of his eyes hung down from his socket.” When Persephone, Queen of the underworld, questions the state of his arrival, he explains that it's due to the disrespect and disobedience of his wife – she has neglected the proper rituals and shown defiance towards the gods of the underworld. Sisyphus, seeing Persephone’s outrage at this, offers to go back to the overworld, as a young man, to ensure his wife spends the rest of her life in misery – a punishment for her crimes. Foolishly, Persephone agrees, and Sisyphus is sent back to the overworld as a healthy man to grow old all over again. Years later when, eventually, Sisyphus is taken back to the underworld as an old man, the gods congratulate him and offer him a chance at immortality as a reward for his cunning. They propose a simple choice; spend the rest of eternity in heaven or go back to the overworld and live forever. All he must do to achieve immortality is push a boulder to the top of a mountain. Sisyphus opts for the chance at immortality and begins to push the boulder up the steep slope. Just before reaching the top, Sisyphus tumbles back down to the bottom and must start all over again. Sisyphus is still there, repeatedly failing at this impossible task, to this day.

On the surface, this is a story about disobedience and respect; Sisyphus is punished by the gods for daring to challenge their power and dominion over the mortal world. The message we must take from this is: not to question our station in the world and abide by the rules of the universe, without trying to intervene. Maybe. But I think the reason these stories last so long, is because they speak to something innately true about our human condition. Does this story do that? How many people do you know who have tried to cheat death by defying the gods of the underworld? Or maybe that isn’t what the story is saying.

When Sisyphus is given the choice, between spending eternity in Elysium (Heaven) or going back to the overworld as an immortal being, he opts to try and return to the overworld. This seems odd. I think most people would rather spend the rest of time in a paradise of serenity and perfection than have to outlive all their friends and loved ones; leaving them stuck on dreary old planet earth. So why then, does Sisyphus choose to go back? As Fry narrates, “…an eternity skipping through the fields of Elysium, with the dull and well behaved or an eternity above, in the real world of fun, filth, frolic and frenzy.” Herein lies, I think, the true meaning of this ancient story. Sisyphus is a man bound to the shackles of the material world, only ever seeking transcendence in the hollow, frivolous pleasures of his base instincts – sex, alcohol, power, gluttony. Even when given the opportunity of an eternity in heaven, he wants to muddle back in with the dirty realities of mortal life. He isn’t able to see the bliss of transcendence even when it is literally handed to him by the gods. He will forever be chasing the banal pleasures of his former life, never reaching a state of satisfaction or inner peace.

This is a much more compelling message, and much more likely to be the driving force behind this ancient myth. Why do we chase the messy and modes of pleasure given to us by the material world? We must seek transcendence in the natural cycle of life and death – commune with our spirit to reach a place of worship and service to others. This is the only way we will find true meaning. By looking within, and letting go of our base desires, we will find acceptance and appreciation for the beauty and natural order of divinity in the universe.

Sisyphus will always be chasing the high he needed to survive, even now he’s dead. That mortal life doesn’t exist anymore, and it never really did. All we ever have is a limited time on this earth to spread as much laughter, joy and love as possible before we will, inevitably, shuffle off this mortal coil. Be kind, love your neighbour and look for the beauty in the limitless wonder of life before it’s too late.

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