When I was growing up, one of my favourite activities was reading the old Greek and Roman myths about the capricious gods, heroic demigods, and the long-suffering humans who were forced to deal with the unhinged and bonkers stuff that the gods inflicted upon them. Mythology is a lot of fun. These stories tend to carry with them lessons and morals. They are in some ways ancient religious texts, ones absent dogma. The stories are less prescriptive and more about the reader developing their own understanding of what is meant to be conveyed. I suppose that can be said of any art, but myths are their own special thing. And I do indeed love them.
That said, one of the stories that always stuck in my craw was the story of Sisyphus. In life, Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra, a province in Greece. He was, by all rights, a terrible king. He thought himself too clever by half and was always deceiving people. He sometimes killed guests in his kingdom, a grave violation of the old Greek cultural rules about hospitality. But the terrible fate Sisyphus is known for stemmed from his successful attempt to deceive the god of death, Thanatos. Essentially, after Sisyphus wronged Zeus, king of the gods, Zeus ordered Thanatos to chain Sisyphus in Tartarus, Thanatos' realm and the Greek version of Hell. Sisyphus tricked Thanatos into chaining himself. The god of death unavailable, nothing could die anymore. Wholly unnatural, the gods were not pleased with this turn of events. Ares, the god of war, was particularly pissed off, given that all of the battles between men he watched over suddenly lost all of their stakes. Ares freed Thanatos and Sisyphus had to pay for his transgressions.
Penance came in the form of an impossible task - pushing a boulder up a hill that simply would not cooperate. He had to keep rolling it up the hill until it nearly reached the top, at which point it would roll back down the hill. Sisyphus would then have to go back down and start again. And it would happen again. And again. Into eternity. Sisyphus was a man beyond hope.
I am a big fan of redemption. Eternal torment is passé. It is my firm belief that no one is beyond some form of respite, no matter what they've done. I also love to root for the underdog. And so I offer you this story, Athena.
He awoke, naked in darkness. Mucous-glued eyes, thick with salt and filth, struggled to split open. Fingers, cracked and bleeding, blindly scrabbled to find purchase on the sharp angles of the rock upon which the man lay. With a grunt that nearly broke into a scream, he pushed himself up to a seat.
Fresh from a slumber of long unknown hours, the man was utterly spent.
He thought it might be better if he were to lay back on his hard bed. He tried, just for a moment, and winced at the pain that coursed through his back. He awkwardly bent his arm to rub his shredded hide. The jagged excuse for a cot had done a number on him.
“Sisyphus,” came a sibilant voice from the shadow. “I have a task for you.”
Fuck. It was him. Again.
Sisyphus turned his body so he could let his feet dangle over the edge of the boulder. His thighs and arse burned as he shifted. Just like everything else. With a screech this time, the man hopped down to stand unsteadily on the dark stone of the path. Drawing himself up as best he could, he peered out into the inky blackness before him. He felt compelled to blink, so he did. With some difficulty. Once. Twice.
On the third blink the path lit up before him. Rock walls jutting from the floor up into the sky funnelled him down a long corridor. He looked up. There was no upper edge to the stone, no cliffs high up above. It just stretched on into infinity. The sky was of pitch and just as endless.
Where was the light coming from? There was no source, no point of reference he could see. It was a question he had asked himself time and time again. Since... since when? When did he come to find himself down here? How did he find himself here?
A ghostly image passed through his mind’s eye. Some brief flash of understanding accompanied it. It was a woman’s face. She was gorgeous. And familiar. The mere thought of this unknown beauty sent his heart into a frenzy. And Sisyphus could not remember her name. Somehow, he knew that if he could only recall how she was known to him, he could find his way out of this dark labyrinth. He was not sure how he was so certain, but certain he was.
“A fool’s errand.” It was the self-assured creature’s voice again. “You will never remember anyone. You will spend the rest of your days here, with me. Alone.” A noise that hissed as if a songbird had devoured a mountain of daggers echoed down the hallway. It was the same terrible laugh indelibly etched onto his memory. Sisyphus wished he were less familiar with it.
He trudged down the hallway, counting each step and wishing that he had back the harsh discomfort of his rock bed. But try as he might, he could not cease his feet moving. Every so often, he would turn his gaze to the smooth stone of the walls, searching desperately for a crack or a crevice, some means of escape from the torture of his existence. He looked down at the path before him, to perhaps find a sharp stone with which he could open his throat. He found nothing but his own lament. If only he had chanced upon these dark thoughts of self-destruction when he had been back near the blade-like shale of his bed.
But nothing ever went his way in Tartarus.
The sores on his feet opened again. Blood gushed from a crisscross of fraying scabs on the soles, making each step warm and slippery. He did not slip, to break a leg or be somehow slowed before he had attempted his task. Sisyphus’ nemesis would never allow that.
“You must be getting tired.”
Sisyphus blinked. He cranked his head up to look at the sky. He saw with some disappointment that there was nothing there. But he was buoyed nonetheless. This new disembodied voice had not been that of Thanatos! It was a woman’s, soft and sweet as honeyed wine. Completely alien, and yet somehow well-known to him.
“Would you like to rest?”
Sisyphus looked around, this time for a different reason. The voice was coming down to him from the heavens, but he was concerned less for her and more for the presence of Thanatos. This was new. If his master found out that he was speaking with someone who was not him... things were bad, but they could always get worse. But Sisyphus could not chance missing an opportunity for escape. If escape was indeed what she represented. Whatever she was, she was something new, something clearly not of Tartarus…
“Yes,” Sisyphus croaked. “Yes, I would.”
“For how long would you like to rest?”
Sisyphus furrowed his brow, marching his involuntary march into the never-changing corridor. This was not a question he was expecting. How long should anyone like to rest?
“For as long as I sleep.”
“You had that last night. And how did that make you feel?”
Sisyphus paused for some time, again considering her question. He might as well have been up all night, for how rested he felt. Just as it had been the night before, and the one before - every night since he could remember.
“Like a man who needs a rest.”
The laughter that echoed down the hallway was as sweet as Thanatos’ laughter was bitter. The feminine tinkling was balm for Sisyphus’ soul, a medicine that let the broken man forget for a moment, to stand a little taller as he marched his terrible march. He smiled then, at a feeling that was as rare in his life as the notion of escape. A real chance at escape, not the desperate seeking that set in every day during this long walk to the site of his ordeal.
“Who are you?”
“I ask the questions,” she said, laughing again. “What would you like, Sisyphus?”
Again, Sisyphus was tongue-tied. The woman had given him the gift of light. A brief respite from the never-ending dark. And so he felt he owed her a response worthy of that gift. One that represented the truth of him, in all his terror and desperation.
“I would like to die,” he said, more lost fragments of memory suddenly returning to him. “I would like to die, but that is impossible. My captor is Thanatos, the god of death, and he has decreed that I shall never die.”
The man’s memory began to return to him.
“Above,” he said, pointing up into the ink from which the woman spoke to him, “I was not a moral man. I was not faithful to my wife, I cheated the men of my city out of their hard work, I rent the flesh of my enemies as they dined in my home. I denied the gods their existence and I was given the ultimate punishment for my sin.” Sisyphus hung his head in shame.
“I tricked and bound Thanatos before he was freed by Zeus and I was cast down to this place,” he said with a wan smile. “And what good did it do me? I am to be tortured for eternity.”
“What respect do you owe the gods, that they would reduce you to this?” The voice asked, spitting the words out as though she had drunk a mouthful of poison. “Nothing you did on earth can compare to what these capricious creatures have done to you. Eternal torment? Fuck the gods. And fuck this hell they have built for you!”
“My thoughts exactly.” Sisyphus laughed. He had relaxed, satisfied that Thanatos was not listening to the conversation. “But what good does spite do me? All I have had is an eternity of spite, and still here I walk, every day, to push my rock up the hill.
“‘All you have to do is get the rock to the top of this hill,” Sisyphus said, with a barely controlled rage simmering in his words. “Then, you will be free.’
“Thanatos told me that aeons ago, right at the beginning of all of this. I cannot remember where any of these scabs came from, how many days it has been since this line of scar tissue grew from a failure,” he said, peering at his palm, “but I remember that conversation as though it were yesterday.”
“When I first arrived,” Sisyphus continued, “I believed I could prove Thanatos wrong. At the time, though, I simply was not strong enough to move the rock. I could barely get the stone more than an inch up the long incline to the top of the hill, strain and scream as I might. With time, with days and weeks of long walks and fierce effort, the rock began to move more easily. Six inches. One foot. Three feet. Five feet. Through my efforts, my body was transformed. No longer was I the soft and useless despot that had sat atop the Ephyran throne. I had become as strong as Heracles himself!”
“Of course, that was not enough,” Sisyphus said, wincing at the cuts on his feet as he plodded along. “I cannot remember the first time I pushed the rock so high that I was just about to crest the hill, but I can remember that this has happened countless times since. Indeed, all I do is reach the threshold of victory.”
“Every day, every fresh attempt, something different happens. A previously unseen rock finds its way in my path, throwing me off balance and sending me tumbling down the hill. A tree root in this barren hellscape somehow grabs my ankle, a crow startles me, a long forgotten scent of my mother’s cooking shocks the focus out of me.
“I let go of the rock and tumble. It is always terrible, the fall. Full of wounds and horror. Sometimes the rock rolls over me. I know I will never die, but my ability to feel pain is as good as it ever was when I was alive!
“And then, after the dust settles and the throbbing aftermath of my fall begins to make itself known in my bones and sinew, I hear it. The laughter of the dead god at my failure. It is endless, but somehow it ends. When the cacophony does finally comes to a halt, I must suffer the final humiliation. The walk back to my bed every night is a long and shameful affair, full of self-doubt and questions as to whether or not I could have done something, anything, to avoid my fate and get the rock up the damn hill.”
Sisyphus sniffed. Tears. He had not cried in an eternity. And now they were flowing again.
“Here I am, broken and battered, sleeping a restless sleep, and still my destroyed feet betray me by forcing me to walk to the site of my failure every morning,” said Sisyphus, still awed by the wetness on his cheeks. “If you can even call this morning.”
“This self-pity is getting tiring,” said the unseen woman. “Let me ask you this: if you did escape, if you did somehow make it out of Tartarus, what would you do with yourself?”
Sisyphus let his mouth hang open, his feet pistoning up and down in a noxious rhythm.
“I do not know. I would sleep, for one thing. In a soft bed.”
“And then... I would return to my wife, if she is still alive. I would go to her and tell her that I am sorry for my unfaithfulness. I would make things right with my subjects. I would stop killing my guests.” Sisyphus laughed a weary laugh.
“You are a goddess, are you not?” he asked after a moment.
“Yes. I was wondering when you would grasp that. I am Athena.”
The goddess of wisdom. Sisyphus recalled vaguely hearing about her an age ago, from a priest in his old kingdom of Ephyra. He was a holy man who swore up and down that Athena’s blessing was the key to freedom. Sisyphus had dismissed him back then, just as he had dismissed all of the gods and their adherents. Now he found himself tortured by one such formerly unbelieved god. This new other, however…
“Will you help me to escape?” The words spilled out of Sisyphus’ mouth in a jumble, almost as if they were trying to climb on top of each other.
“Well, now,” replied Athena, her tone coquettish. “I do not know if you understand what you ask.”
“I understand it very well,” Sisyphus said. “You will give me your blessing and I will gain the wisdom to escape this foul pit.”
“That is a very… simple way of putting it. You are ignorant of the complexities of your desire. Freedom may be yours yet, but do you know the price of your freedom?”
“Whatever the price,” said Sisyphus, “it cannot be more burdensome than the hell of this existence.”
“That is certainly what you think,” Athena responded, her voice troubled. “And in some ways, it is true. In other ways, the burdens are much greater.”
“Speak plainly with me, please, I beg you, goddess. Will you give me your blessing or will you not?”
“Of course, I will,” Athena said, her tone lightening. “I offer it freely to all those that ask, especially those with heavy hearts. And yours, Sisyphus, yours is the heaviest of all. So why do you not just stop moving?”
Miraculously, Sisyphus found himself having come to a stop in that interminable hallway in Tartarus. When he realized what had happened, Sisyphus fell to his knees and wept. After a moment, he felt a soft touch on one of his raw shoulders. He looked up to see the woman from his memory.
Long dark hair flowed down onto the goddess’s naked breasts, obscuring the left side of her face. A simple polished brass helmet was atop her head. A single soft eye of impossible purple stared at him from atop a long aquiline nose. Her mouth was soft and kind. She was pure beauty, a creature the like of which Sisyphus had long since abandoned hope of ever seeing again.
“You do remember me, then. This is good. If you had not remembered me and still found yourself in this place, you might have been beyond redemption.” Athena laughed a puzzling laugh. “But there is hope for you yet.”
The goddess turned from Sisyphus for a moment, her arms moving to seemingly pull something out of an unseen sack. When she swiveled to face him again, she was holding a vial.
“This potion,” Athena said, “is a draught from the cellars of Dionysus himself. It is pure ambrosia. We gods keep it jealously close. The immortals fear a human who has drunk ambrosia more than anything else in the world.”
“Well, all of the gods do, excepting me.”
“As a human, you are not subject to the same rules as the gods. Our limitations are not your limitations. It will grant any man that drinks it true knowledge, the power to alter the course of history in whatever way he or she sees fit. And the gods are without any way to interfere with the actions of a man who has drunk ambrosia. Upon discovering this quirk of his potion, my dear old dad Zeus decreed that all human beings are forbidden to drink the stuff.”
“You know what I say about the rules?” Athena asked, winking at Sisyphus. “Fuck the rules.”
“There are two things that you need to understand about this path you threaten to take, Sisyphus,” Athena said, her voice becoming serious again. “Once you drink ambrosia, there is no going back. Like Pandora, you will have to live with the consequences of your actions. You will find the freedom you seek, but you will also be subject to the weight of your knowledge. You might be asking yourself, what weight?
“Consider this: when you return home to live among your friends and family, you will never be able to discuss what you have learned with those you love the most. If you try to tell them about your time here in Tartarus, they will think you have gone mad. None of them will have drunk ambrosia. The mere suggestion anyone that you have rubbed shoulders with the gods, even in this hellscape… you will end up turned out on the street, flogged by priests, or worse. This knowledge will be for you, and you alone.”
“You must also consider that you will have the knowledge of the gods, but you will not have the longevity of the gods,” Athena said with finality. “You have survived here eternally, pushing your rock up the hill, because Thanatos has decreed that you shall not die. Once you escape Tartarus, that covenant will have been broken. You will be subject to death, just the same as everyone else.”
“Even if you kill him, Sisyphus, you will nonetheless die when your time comes to an end. Can you handle that? You can say no, and you can live forever here. No judgment from me if that is your wish.”
Sisyphus considered the goddess’s words. How could she expect him to say anything but yes, despite all of her warnings? So, he could not speak of his time in hell once he escaped. All the better – he would sooner forget it. He had told her escape at any price, and he had meant it. And now it appeared that she offered him an even greater boon.
“You won’t scare me off,” Sisyphus said. He nodded at his benefactor.
Athena smiled, handed him the bottle, and clapped for the man. He tore the cork from the neck of the flask with his back teeth, spat it out, and downed the contents in a matter of seconds, closing his eyes as he did so. Athena giggled. He did not pause to taste it, which is a shame, for ambrosia is the most delicious beverage in the world, the preferred drink of the gods. But, a broken man does not care for such niceties.
Sisyphus opened his eyes and looked out onto the hallway of Tartarus. Athena had disappeared. Smiling as radiant knowledge blossomed within, Sisyphus continued his long hike down the hallway towards his destiny. This time, however, the march was most certainly voluntary.
“Sisyphus,” said Thanatos as the man entered the large domed space where he was scheduled to take his final test. “I am so happy to see you. I was a bit worried you would not show up.”
Sisyphus listened to the fell god’s voice with the ears of a wise man, one who had drunk ambrosia. There was indeed fear in the death god’s voice. Sisyphus smiled.
“Oh, I am sorry, Thanatos. I did not mean to keep you waiting. I was delayed.”
“Hmmph,” the god said, unconvinced. “Never mind that. Now, I have a test for you. Push this rock...”
“To the top of the hill and you will have your freedom,” Sisyphus said, interrupting Thanatos. “Yes, yes. I know the drill.”
“My, what a sharp tongue you have developed, Sisyphus.” Unease had replaced the brash confidence in Thanatos’ voice. “Have you been speaking to anyone?”
“No one of interest, I can assure you.”
Sisyphus looked at the rock that lay before him. It sat at the bottom of a hill that stretched nearly a mile into the black heavens above at an impossibly sharp angle. The rock was as tall as Sisyphus and as wide as he was from fingertip to fingertip with his arms stretched straight out from his sides. The cave floor upon which it rested was bare. Bare, that is, except for a tiny stone. It was so small that Sisyphus had nearly missed it. He picked it up.
“Ah, ah, ah, Sisyphus,” said Thanatos, wary amusement evident in his voice. “That is not the rock. A nice try, however.”
Sisyphus just smiled and raised his right hand, which had formed a fist around the small stone. He brought it down on the side of the much bigger rock. It made a loud knocking sound, but neither boulder nor pebble proved any worse for the wear.
“Sisyphus,” said Thanatos unctuously, some of his insufferable self-assurance having returned, “have you lost whatever mind you have left, my friend? You are supposed to move the rock up the hill, not bash them together like an uncivilized wretch.”
Sisyphus ignored the god, reaching up into the air and striking the boulder again. And again. And again. Seconds stretched into minutes stretched into hours. The man spent an eternity smashing the boulder with his tiny stone over and over, hearing and disregarding the voice of Thanatos as the god taunted and jibed and cajoled him, desperately trying to get Sisyphus to stop what he was doing and push it up the hill instead. Sisyphus’s hand ached and bled and was falling to shreds. When the pebble became too slick with blood to hold properly, Sisyphus switched hands and restarted his impossible task with his left hand.
Sisyphus wondered many times if his efforts were futile, if he were better off just pushing the rock up the hill instead, as the dark god suggested. But Sisyphus had drunk ambrosia and knew that to be a lie.
Finally, after hours of labour, it happened. What had started as a hairline fracture in the boulder had run its jagged way down the side of the rock. With one final bloody smash of the tiny stone, a thin round shard separated and slid down the boulder. Sisyphus stooped to grab his prize.
“You are a fool, Sisyphus, if you think you can cheat like this! Your soul is mine!”
Sisyphus ignored Thanatos, taking his first step up the slope. He slipped on his third step. How had Sisyphus ever made his way up the slope before, pushing the enormous boulder? It was much too steep! He would never be able to do it now! But Sisyphus had drunk ambrosia and knew that to be a lie.
Thanatos laid more traps for Sisyphus as he trudged up the hill one final time. He avoided rocks that came barrelling down the hill, roots that popped out of the dust to trip him, snakes that appeared from little homes in the crags. Each time, Thanatos raged with threats and promises of his demise. Thanatos would remove the curse, make him mortal, and end his life on that slope. But Sisyphus had drunk ambrosia and knew that to be a lie.
As Sisyphus approached the crest of the hill, Thanatos began one final assault. He threw everything he had at his prisoner on the cusp of escape, every deadly trick in his book. But Sisyphus had drunk ambrosia. He knew everything that death was planning well before each plan was executed. Sisyphus avoided cracks, crushed spiders, dodged more snakes and boulders, and stopped in his tracks to let an earthquake finish shaking the slope. He did everything perfectly.
Thanatos howled with frustration when Sisyphus took his first step on the flat of the top of the hill. This man, the man who had spent an eternity failing, had suddenly beat him! How had it happened?
“Who helped you? I know it was one of my brothers and sisters. Was it Zeus himself? Why would any of them help a wretch like you? What did they give you? What blessing?”
Sisyphus could see Thanatos then, see him for all that he was. A thin pale creature in a black robe and an exposed bald pate, he spread his arms and fingers, bone white with the curved black hooks that stood in place of his fingernails. The god snarled and stamped his foot. Death itself was standing between Sisyphus and the doorway back to earth. Back to his friends and family. Back to life.
Sisyphus grinned as he found that he was unafraid.
In the days of his youth, back before he had spent his adult years sitting idle in the throne room, before he began drinking mead and molesting the young servant girls when his wife was not around, Sisyphus had been quite the accomplished discus thrower. Cocking his arm back, he hoped that he would not fail. But Sisyphus had drunk ambrosia and knew failure to be a lie.
He released his makeshift discus. It found its mark in the frog belly white of Thanatos’ neck, shearing off the monstrous creature’s neck. He fell, the god of death having finally taken his own medicine.
Brushing his long grimy hair back with hands whose wounds were knitting together before his very eyes, Sisyphus stepped up to the body and took one final moment to look at the creature that had imprisoned him for so long. Tears began to flow from the man’s eyes again. Athena’s warning had been her own little joke. The decapitated god and what he represented no longer held any sway over him. Sisyphus had joined the ranks of the immortals.
“Athena sends her regards.”
Sisyphus spat the little drop of ambrosia he had been keeping in the pocket of his cheek onto the body and slipped quietly through the doorway, smiling.
If you enjoyed Athena, please note that the goddess of wisdom plays a pivotal role in The Yoga of Strength. I would ask that you please consider purchasing a copy of the book when it is available for sale!