He was the father of the sea-god Glaucus by Merope. He was said to have founded the Isthmian games in honour of Melicertes, whose body he found lying on the shore of the Isthmus of Corinth.
He promoted navigation and commerce, but was avaricious and deceitful. He killed travelers and wayfarers. From Homer onwards, Sisyphus was famed as the craftiest of men. When Thanatos came to fetch him, Sisyphus put him into fetters, so that no one died till Ares came, freed Thanatos, and delivered Sisyphus into his custody.
But Sisyphus was not yet at the end of his resources. For before he died he told his wife that when he was gone she was not to offer the usual sacrifice to the dead. So in the underworld he complained that his wife was neglecting her duty, and he persuaded Hades to allow him to go back to the upper world and expostulate with her. But when he got back to Corinth he positively refused to return, until forcibly carried off by Hermes.
In the underworld Sisyphus was compelled to roll a big stone up a steep hill; but before it reached the top of the hill the stone always rolled down, and Sisyphus had to begin all over again (Odyssey, xi. 593). The reason for this punishment is not mentioned in Homer, and is obscure; according to some, he had revealed the designs of the gods to mortals, according to others, he was in the habit of attacking and murdering travellers. The subject was a commonplace of ancient writers, and was depicted by the painter Polygnotus on the walls of the Lesche at Delphi (Pausanias x. 31).
According to the solar theory, Sisyphus is the disk of the sun that rises every day and then sinks below the horizon. Others see in him a personification of the waves rising to a height and then suddenly falling, or of the treacherous sea. It is suggested by Welcker that the legend is symbolic of the vain struggle of man in the pursuit of knowledge. S. Reinach (Revue archéologique, 1904) finds the origin of the story in a picture, in which Sisyphus was represented rolling a huge stone up Acrocorinthus, symbolic of the labour and skill involved in the building of the Sisypheum. When a distinction was made between the souls in the underworld, Sisyphus was supposed to be rolling up the stone perpetually as a punishment for some offence committed on Earth, and various reasons were invented to account for it.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.