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  • Two Myths of Sisyphus
  • Bruce Milem

[We present below a preliminary translation of an ancient Greek manuscript, recently discovered by Dr. __________, containing two variations on the myth of Sisyphus. The document is in fragments, with gaps at the beginning and partway through.



… [Upon] his capture, Sisyphus was brought before the council of the gods, who were informed of all his crimes. After withdrawing from the chamber for many hours, they returned to sentence Sisyphus to his fate. He was doomed to roll a rock up a hill, watch it roll back to its starting place, and begin again, and to repeat this for all eternity. He would do this alone, without the comfort of company, in perpetual dark. He would not need sleep, food, or drink, and so would not receive any break from his labor; and unlike the other souls in Hades he would remain as lucid as in life. As they departed the chamber, the gods congratulated one another on this judgment, on the absurdity and pointlessness of the existence they had prepared for Sisyphus. Even Zeus and Athena, the most exacting, agreed that the punishment was fair.

And so Sisyphus's labors began. He was transported to his hill and his rock. Immediately he felt in his heart an anxious command to push the rock up the hill, and he began at once. With effort he could move it, but he had to keep pushing up the slope to stop it from rolling back [End Page 440] down. When he had nearly reached the top, the slope grew steeper, and the rock slipped from his grasp and rolled past him all the way down to the bottom. Still anxious, he hurried down to try again. Yet the next time ended no differently. Every attempt he made ended in failure. Sometimes he stumbled. Sometimes the slope was too steep or he was too weak. Sometimes a pain in his back or his legs made him lose his grip. He was always tired, though he did not need sleep. He was glad that no sun beat upon his back, but the continual dark hid whatever view could be had from the heights of the hill.

Years passed in this way. He lost count of how many attempts he had made. As he toiled he thought about his punishment. One puzzle was why he kept pushing the rock. He was completely alone. No guards kept him at his task. He did not want to do what he was doing, he did not enjoy it, he did not find any satisfaction the further he pushed the rock. He thought that if he ever did get the rock to the top of the hill, the accomplishment would mean nothing to him. But if he resolved to rest or walk away from the hill, the command he felt in his heart immediately brought him back to the stone. It was his duty, something he must do, even if it was not his desire. Maybe the gods gave him this heart of his as part of the sentence.

He understood the gods' intentions for his punishment. It was to be pointless, meaningless, absurd. There was no reason for the rock to be on top of the hill. No good would be served by it. Sisyphus had been given a nearly godlike existence, able to live forever untroubled by the ordinary demands of mortal bodies, but he would devote it to this hard, futile labor.

Yet, remembering his crimes, he came to see the gods' judgment as fair. His crimes were unforgivable, and he looked upon them now as the worst possible fruit of his self-regard. What he had done was wrong, and the gods' punishment was right. As this reflection deepened within him, he saw that his labor proved the gods' fairness and their love of justice, even though none but they and he knew his fate. The gods wanted the reality of justice, not the mere appearance of it. He grew to admire them, to feel that they were right to punish him as they did. And he saw that the eternity of his punishment was not a...


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pp. 440-443
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