Tantalus and Tethys

Tantalus, by Gioacchino Assereto, 1630s–40s

Tantalus (Tantalos) is a son of Zeus, great-grandpap of Agamemnon and Menelaus, and possibly a real historical figure. He was the ruler of an Anatolian city named Tantalis, Tantalos, or Sipytos. A port was named for him, and the city had a fairly well-known sepulchre of him.

Tantalus is claimed as Phrygian, sometimes the King of Phrygia, though his city was in the western part of Anatolia, where the kingdom of Lydia emerged. Since his son Pelops is called Pelops the Lydian, Tantalus may have belonged to a pre-kingdom royal family of Lydia.

Like the ungrateful Ixion, Tantalus too was invited to Zeus’s table by Mount Olympus. Tantalus wasn’t a very good guest, and stole the immortality-granting ambrosia. He brought it back to his people, and revealed the deities’ secrets.

Le Festin Donné aux Dieux par Tantale, Hugues Taraval, 1767

His misbehaviour didn’t end there. Tantalus sacrificed his own son Pelops, cutting him up and boiling him, and served him by a banquet for the deities. The Divine attendees found out just what was on the menu, and refused to touch it. Demeter, however, was so distraught over the loss of her daughter Persephone, she absentmindedly ate part of the shoulder.

Clotho, one of the Fates, resurrected Pelops on orders from Zeus. She collected the body parts and boiled them in a sacred cauldron, and rebuilt the shoulder with an ivory replacement made by Hephaestus and presented by Demeter. Pelops grew up to be very handsome, and Poseidon taught him how to use chariots. Sadly, Zeus punished him for the sins of his father, and kicked him out of Olympus.

Tantalus was forced to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree with low-hanging branches. When he tried to pick fruit, the branches moved away from his grasp. Likewise, when he knelt to take a drink, the water receded. A threatening stone towered above his head.

In another version, Tantalus was blamed for stealing a golden dog Hesphaestus made to watch over the infant Zeus, who was hiding from his father Kronos. Tantalus’s friend Pandareus had really stolen the dog and given it to him for safekeeping, but when Pandareus asked him to return it, Tantalus denied he either had it or had seen it. Other versions depict Tantalus as the one who stole the dog and gave it to Pandareus.

Tantalus may be derived from Talantalos, “who has to bear much.” It’s related to talas, “wretched.” The English word “tantalize/tantalise” comes from his name.

Copyright Bernard Gagnon

Tethys is a Titan, the daughter of Gaia and Uranus, wife and sister of Titan Oceanus (Divine personification of the sea), and mother of the 3,000 river gods and the 3,000 Oceanid sea nymphs. Mythology obviously doesn’t operate under the normal scientific facts of conception, pregnancy, and childbirth!

According to one tradition, Tethys and Oceanus, not Gaia and Uranus, are the parents of the Titans. This may, however, be a misunderstanding of context and intent. Oceanus possibly was referred to as “from whom the gods are sprung” on account of how many river gods he sired, and Tethys may have been called “mother” due to her role as Hera’s foster mother.

Copyright Nevit Dilmen, GFDL, Creative Commons CC-BY 2.5

While Zeus was overthrowing his father Kronos, his mother Rhea took Hera to Tethys and Oceanus for safekeeping. They were very loving, attentive foster parents. Later on, Hera helped to reconcile the couple after an argument and resulting cessation of sexual relations.

Out of love for Hera, Tethys forbade the nymph Callisto (yet another of Zeus’s conquests) from touching the ocean after she was turned into a bear and placed in the sky as the constellation Ursa Major. This constellation never sets below the horizon.

One of Saturn’s moons, discovered in 1684, is named after Tethys.

Tethys is derived from tethe, “grandmother.” Other sources, however, believe her name was derived from that of the Mesopotamian goddess Tiamat, due to parallels between their stories. Tiamat possibly is derived from the Greek and Akkadian words for “sea,” and a cognate of the Northwest Semitic word tehom (the deeps, abyss). Tethys was identified with the sea, and her name was used as a poetic term for it.

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3 comments on “Tantalus and Tethys

  1. Nick Wilford says:

    For a change, I’d heard of both of these. I think Tantalus deserved what he got after serving that unsavoury dinner!

  2. Toni says:

    Tethys good. Tantalus bad!

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