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Rock and Roll in Greek Mythology

March 29, 2011
Sisyphus by Titian

I want to dip into a bit of Greek mythology today.  Those Ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about the human condition and they have left a legacy of interesting, entertaining and even informative tales for posterity.  My focus for today is Sisyphus.

Sisyphus was the king and founder of the city-state of Corinth in Ancient Greece.  He advanced navigation and commerce but was known for his greed, megalomania and for breaking laws of hospitality by killing travellers and guests.  He had such a high opinion of himself and his cunning that he felt he could interfere in the doings of the Gods, including the King of the Gods, Zeus.  Zeus, not known for his restraint or tolerance, ordered Sisyphus to be chained in the Underworld.  Sisyphus used his cunning to outwit various Gods in an attempt to avoid death and punishment in the Underworld but, as with all men, death caught up with him in the end.

With Sisyphus securely in the Underworld Zeus was able to devise a fitting punishment for this prideful and cunning plotter.  Sisyphus was sentenced to move a large rock up a hill, but each time he nears the top the rock will roll back to the bottom, thus causing him to continue for eternity.  This has led to the term ‘sisyphean’ being applied to any repetitive, interminable or unachievable job or task.

So, where the hell am I going with this?  I’ll tell you.  I’m sure we all have things in our lives that seem sisyphean, at least at times.  In our jobs and personal lives, to some greater or lesser extent, we can all feel like Sisyphus lugging that rock.  In my own life the RAF provides many opportunities for apparently sisyphean labour.  That’s the nature of Service life sometimes.  You can be faced with tasks that have no obvious purpose or end.  You just have to trust that they will have both and in my experience they always do.

In my personal life I feel most like Sisyphus when cutting the grass.  You work like crazy to chop down thousands upon thousands of small plants in the certain knowledge that you’ll just have to do it all again before very long.  It is a task that stretches ahead and behind, unchanging and without end.

There are people who would argue that a life, like mine, without reference to a God is sisyphean.  A daily round of toil without purpose or useful end.  These people believe that the purpose of life is to get the rock (their actions and experiences) to the top of the hill (life) in the ‘right’ way in order to please some invisible overseer who will then reward them.  I prefer to believe that if there is any purpose to life it does not actually involve getting that rock to the top of that hill at all.  It’s all about what you do with the rock while you’re on the hill.

To understand what I mean, picture Sisyphus trudging up the hill through eternity pushing his rock.  Or carrying the rock.  Or rolling the rock.  Pushing it with his arms, pushing it with his back.  Rolling it with both hands together or using alternate hands.  One can imagine a huge number of different ways of trying to get that rock to the top of the hill.  It would take quite a while to exhaust the possibilities.  The punishment that Sisyphus faces is that in relation to eternity the amount of time for which this variation will relieve the crushing boredom and pointlessness is vanishingly small.

For us though, life is not eternal.  Constant variation and new experience can sustain us for much longer than we are capable of living.  The possibilities of how to deal with the rock(s) of life are even more diverse than Sisyphus’ options with his rock and we have infinitely less time to fill.  That is the point of life, if there is one.  To explore all the different ways to move the rock and to face up to our rock rolling back to the bottom of the hill with equanimity.

As an individual we will never get the rock to the top of the hill and there is nobody to reward us for doing it anyway.  As a species though, each person’s struggles with their own rock can be added together so that the rocks go higher each time, exposing new summits to strive for.

So, life is not sisyphean either with or without God.  With God the focus is on the end, the reward for ‘correct’ handling of the rock.  Without God the focus is on the rock and our interaction with it and the hill.  Just think then how a life with God constrains us in life and prevents us from understanding our life and that of the others around us.  Far from being altruistic, religion becomes a very rigid, selfish mindset.  The person who lives like this universe is all there is will be far more likely to appreciate this world and the other people in it and so treat them with the wonder and respect they deserve.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011 19:37

    Religion is the ultimate expression of materialism. Not happy with the life you have, if you are religious you strive every day to be given a new life, one that is not only promised to be better than this one but also longer and not just any old longer, but forever- don’t want much do they?

  2. Zephanie Thompson permalink
    March 30, 2011 20:34

    Profound. I will have a little think about this when I am pushing my rock tomorrow! :o)

    • March 30, 2011 20:37

      I know you Excel at what you do though Zephanie 🙂

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