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Persephone oversees Sisyphus in the underworld , black-figure Attic amphora , around  530 BC BC , State Collections of Antiquities (Inv. 1494)

Sisyphus ( ancient Greek Σίσυφος , Latinized Sisyphus ) is a figure in Greek mythology . It is said to have been around the year 1400 BC. BC, king of Corinth and son of Aiolus , distinguished themselves through great wisdom and contributed greatly to the expansion of Corinth.

Today he is best known for his role in popular belief as a rogue , shrewd rascal and archetype of the "wicked" who despises people and gods and who, through unscrupulous cunning, repeatedly succeeds in tricking death and blocking the influx of Hades by the god of death Thanatos binds. After his liberation, Sisyphus is arrested, but the dead man manages to return to life with a trick: he orders his wife, the Pleiad Merope , not to bury him or to make any sacrifices for him. To settle this nuisance, Thanatos releases him once more, whereupon Sisyphus escapes death one more time.

Literally, Sisyphus has become a punishment. Homer does not mention any reason for the punishment, why specify different since antiquity various authors reasons: Once Sisyphus is for his recalcitrance punished the god Thanatos, one time for his craftiness, even as he the father of the gods Zeus to the river god Asopos suggests, because the one whose daughter Aegina stole. Finally he is forced by Hermes for his iniquity into the underworld , where as a punishment he has to forever roll a boulder up a mountain, which, almost at the summit, rolls back down into the valley every time. This motif was already formative for the reception of Sisyphos in antiquity, today Sisyphean work or Sisyphean task is a catchphrase for a fruitless and difficult activity with no foreseeable end.

In modern times, Albert Camus ' essay The Myth of Sisyphus made Sisyphus a leading figure in absurdism . This radical reinterpretation revived the Sisyphos reception and stimulated many other new interpretations of the Sisyphos figure.


Titian depicts Sisyphus

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is the son of the Thessalian king Aiolus , the founder and king of Corinth and the grandfather of Bellerophon .

Ino had killed Melikertes , her own son, in the madness and threw herself into the sea with the corpse when she came to her senses again. A dolphin brought the boy ashore. Sisyphus found him, buried him on the Isthmus of Corinth and donated the Isthmian Games in his honor. (Theseus or Poseidon is named as the founder at the specified location.)

Sisyphus asked the oracle of Delphi how he could kill his brother Salmoneus . Thereupon he received the answer that he should father children with Tyro , the daughter of Salmoneus. These would then kill Salmoneus. He became involved with Tyro and she gave birth to two sons. However, when she heard about the oracle, she killed her own children.

Autolycus secretly stole cattle, sheep and goats from Sisyphus. He noticed that his herds were getting smaller, while those of Autolykos continued to increase. He marked his animals on the hooves and was able to prove the theft. He went to Autolycus to confront him. But since he did not meet him, he seduced his daughter Antikleia , who shortly afterwards married Laertes and gave birth to Odysseus .

Sisyphus is said to be the most devious of all people; he revealed the plans of Zeus by informing the river god Asopos that it was Zeus who had kidnapped his daughter Aegina . Zeus then decided to punish Sisyphus and sent Thanatos , death, to him. But Sisyphus overpowered him by making him drunk and shackling him so strong that death's power was broken and no one died again. Only when the god of war Ares freed death from the violence of Sisyphus (since he didn't enjoy the fact that his opponents no longer died on the battlefield), Thanatos was able to exercise his office again.

But Sisyphus was kidnapped into the realm of shadows by the god of war. But before Ares did so, Sisyphus forbade his wife Merope to offer him a dead offering. When no sacrifices were made for him, he persuaded the god of the underworld , Hades , to let him quickly return to the human world to order his wife to offer him a dead sacrifice. Back home, the sly man enjoyed life by his wife's side and mocked the god of the underworld. But suddenly Thanatos appeared before him and forcibly took him to the realm of the dead.

Sisyphus by Franz von Stuck , 1920

Sisyphus' punishment in the underworld was to roll a boulder up a steep slope. However, the stone slipped away from him shortly before reaching the summit and he always had to start over. Today, therefore, a task that, despite great effort, is never completed is called Sisyphean work .

“And further I saw Sisyphus in tremendous pain: how he wanted to move away a boulder, an enormous one, with both arms. Yes, and bracing with hands and feet, he pushed up the block onto a hill. But if he wanted to throw it over the hilltop, the excess weight turned him back: the block, the shameless one, rolled down into the field again. But he kept pushing him back, tensing himself up, and sweat ran from his limbs and the dust rose over his head. "

- Homer : Odyssey , Canto 11, 593–600. Translation by Wolfgang Schadewaldt



At least since Roman antiquity, the reception of Sisyphus has primarily focused on his punishment. In modern times, the Sisyphos figure serves as a general language metaphor for senseless effort: this meaning appears again and again in caricatures; the proverbial Sisyphean work denotes a pointless work characterized by recurring patterns without goal and success. This fixed idiom also exists in English (Sisyphean task, Sisyphian task) , French (travail de Sisyphe) , Polish (syzyfowa praca) , Spanish (trabajo de Sísifo) , Italian (fatica di sisifo, lavoro di sisifo) and Russian (д .сизи́рфод .сизи́рфо) ) .

After Camus

In 1942, the French author Albert Camus Sisyphos developed a philosophy of the absurd that is closely related to existentialism in the philosophical essay Der Mythos des Sisyphus (original title: Le mythe de Sisyphe. Essai sur l'Absurde ) . The essay is to be seen in connection with the play Caligula (world premiere in 1945) and the novel Der Fremde ( L'Étranger , 1942), as Camus deals with the same topic in these three works. Similar motifs can also be found in The Plague . The last two sentences of this essay have become famous: “The fight against peaks can fill a human heart. We have to imagine Sisyphus as a happy person. ”This radical reinterpretation of the torments of Sisyphus has established an existentialist view of the myth and revitalized the handling of the myth. From now on, both in literature and in the fine arts, there was an intensive examination of the myth, which gave rise to very different interpretations of the Sisyphus figure.

Sisyphus is now increasingly read as an allegory of the human condition . This interpretation was already present in antiquity, but in the wake of Camus 'reassessment it now often receives an affirmative, affirmative content, Sisyphus' activity is usually described as meaningful. Now texts appear in which Sisyphus praises the stone, for example Fred Portegies Zwart's poem Sisyphus sings the praise of the stone , published in 1988 .

The figure of Sisyphus was chosen as a symbol by Jacques Monod in 1970 to represent science - which must always be questioned.

A frequently encountered figure of thought after Camus considers (and often rejects) the possibility that the Sisyphos torture will come to an end: For example, in the final section Sisyphus' last descent of the novel Feuerfunken by Elmar Dod (Münster 2009, p. 187 ff.), 3rd Volume of the “nihilistic” novel trilogy Colorful Veils of Nothing (Vol. 1: Nachtfahrt , Vol. 2: Day of Enlightenment , Münster 2006/2007): Sisyphus recognizes that the gods are his dream and decides on a last, liberating one Descent into the abyss into which the stone had rolled.

A variant of this solution is that the stone remains on the summit. Ulla Hahn, for example, questions this solution in S.'s ballad in 1988 . Sisyphus is dependent on his torment: “S. was // S. only when he touched the rock [...] S. had survived. To live / not learned. […] “Similar to Günter Kunert , who describes in News from Sisyphos in 1992 how Sisyphos pushes the stone down again after a short phase of triumph, after otherwise being unable to get a job. In the ironic poem Sisyphus by Robert Garioch , Sisyphus caused the stone to fall itself in order to secure its activity and thus its income: “But how did it come about that he gave the rock a tiny push? / The heartless rock rumbles down to the valley floor, / Sisyphus staggers behind it: his income is certain. " Günter Grass describes Sisyphus as his private saint and compares the end of Sisyphus work with dangerous utopias:" Sisyphus is nothing more than the knowledge that the stone does not stay on top - and then saying yes to it. For me, there is no more terrible idea than that one day the stone would stay on top. [...] All utopias work with the promise: if everything goes as my utopia dictates, the stone will one day be on top. "

Another variant of how the torment comes to an end is seen in the wear and tear of the stone: Erich Fried published the poem Premonition of Final Victory in 1967 , the title of which associates the end of Sisyphean work with the Holocaust. It describes Sisyphus' fear of the stone's wear and tear. The poem closes with the question “What remains? // Nothing but the torment / his torment / to have survived ”. Also in Heiner Müller's fragment tractor ("Mutual wear and tear by Mann Stein Berg [...] Or to the conceivable zero point: nobody moves anything on a surface.") And in Hans-Ulrich Treichel's poem Sisyphos' denial , the possibility of wear is thematized, albeit with a different assessment: “And the stone was soon / just the rest of the stone. / A few years ago it slipped into my sink. "


A third variant is that Sisyphus simply leaves the stone. This is often used in the literature of the GDR as a parable on a way out of socialism. Günter Kunert relates the Sisyphus work in his poem Sisyphus 1982 to communism with a quote from Brecht's Praise of Communism "[...]" The simple / that is difficult to make ": / Finally let the stone roll back / where it belongs." This hope also brings Volker Braun in his poem Das Vogtland, published in 1965/68 . To express it: As with many writers in the GDR, Sisyphus embodies everyday people. The working people in the GDR in their everyday life are referred to as "capable sons / Sisyphus". Braun counters Sisyphus, who embodies the daily grind, with the mythological figure of Heracles and the hope for a change: "Until we stay on the slope / stay now and let the burden / roll, the anger, into the valley". A similar perspective on everyday life in the GDR can be found, with a feminist twist, in the poem Frau Sisyphos by Christa Alten , published in 1974 : The description of the everyday life of the overworked woman ends with the question "Daily Frau Sisyphus / her exhausted face, / at Engels, Lenin, for how much longer ? ” Manfred Jendryschik is also thinking of an end to Sisyphean work by giving Sisyphus the meaning of grinding down the boulder on the slope until it is the right size to be used as a weapon against his guard.

In the visual arts of the GDR a change took place around 1972 in the mythologizing representation of workers: If Heracles was understood as a symbol of the worker, Sisyphus now becomes a paradigmatic metaphor for the worker. The most striking examples of this are the pictures by Wolfgang Mattheuer : The flight of Sisyphus , Sisyphus hewn the stone and The high-spirited Sisyphus and his people , some of which were also processed literarily.

Naranath Bhranthan

Statue of Naranath Branthan

The ancient Indian legend of Naranath Bhranthan, also known as "the madman of Naranam", shows how different the interpretation of the same image can be in a context other than the occidental context: like Sisyphus, he too rolled over and over again, albeit differently than this one, of his own free will Stein up a high mountain, but only to enjoy the unrestrained rolling of the stone back into the valley. The mountain Naranathu Brandhan Mala, named after him, in the Palakkad district of the southern Indian state of Kerala is the destination of numerous pilgrims every year in mid-October.



Web links

Commons : Sisyphus  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Duden: Sisyphus work
  2. Merriam Webster: Sisyphean
  3. ^ Dictionnaire de francais Littré: Sisyphe
  4. ^ Dictionary Sisyphus work
  5. Dictionary Sisifo
  6. Dictionary Sisifo
  7. ^ Dictionary Sisyphus work
  8. ^ Translation by Vincent Wroblewsky quoted. n. Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus. quoted n .: Myth of Sisyphus. Pp. 112-115.
  9. For the entire section cf. also the section The Happy Man? Sisyphus after Camus. by Antje Wessels, Bernd Seidensticker Afterword. In: Myth of Sisyphus. Pp. 246-253.
  10. ^ Jacques Monod: Chance and Necessity . Philosophical questions in modern biology . DTV Deutscher Taschenbuch, 1996, ISBN 3-423-01069-X , p. 17 - Camus quoted as the motto: The myth of Sisyphus .
  11. Ulla Hahn: Ballade by S. quoted. n. Myth of Sisyphus p. 161.
  12. ^ Günter Kunert: News from Sisyphus. In: Myth of Sisyphus. P. 135.
  13. ^ Robert Garioch: Sisyphus. Translated from the Scottish by Sabine Lucia Müller quoted. n. Myth of Sisyphus. P. 227.
  14. ^ Günter Grass in Die Zeit. of July 1, 1999, quoted n. Myth of Sisyphus. P. 134.
  15. Heiner Müller: Tractor. quoted n. Myth of Sisyphus. P. 215.
  16. Hans-Ulrich Treichel: Sisyphus denial. quoted n. Myth of Sisyphus. P 156.
  17. ^ Günter Kunert: Sisyphos 1982. In: Mythos Sisyphos. P. 194.
  18. Volker Braun: The Vogtland. quoted n. Myth of Sisyphus. Pp. 213-214.
  19. Christa Alten: Mrs. Sisyphos. quoted n. Myth of Sisyphus. P. 187.
  20. Manfred Jendryschick: The known situation, I. cit. n. Myth of Sisyphus. P. 158.
  21. See the chapter Real Existing Sisyphus. In: Peter Arlt: The Flight of Sisyphus. Greek Myth and Art - A European Pictorial Tradition, Its Topicality in the GDR and Today. Kunstverlag, Gotha 2008, pp. 83-103.
  22. Wolfgang Mattheuer: The flight of Sisyphus. 1972, oil on hardboard, 96 × 118 cm, Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Galerie Neue Meister. Depicted in The Flight of Sisyphus. P. 85.
  23. Wolfgang Mattheuer: Sisyphus hewed the stone. 1974, oil on hardboard, 96 × 119.5 cm, Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Galerie Neue Meister. Depicted in The Flight of Sisyphus p. 86.
  24. Wolfgang Mattheuer: The high-spirited Sisyphus and his people 1976, oil on canvas, 200 × 200 cm, Dresden, State Art Collections, New Masters Gallery. Depicted in The Flight of Sisyphus. P. 88.
  25. Introduction , last accessed on August 10, 2013 (English).
predecessor Office successor
Jason King of Corinth
14th century BC Chr.
(Fictional chronology)