Many ancient people appeared to have a god for every occasion. Often more than one. It seems as if there was a deity for everything important in human life – birth, death, love, family, harvest, war, intelligence, culture, industry, joy, rage, grief, and so on. It is difficult to name anything important to human beings that has not had a deity, in some place, at some time.
The ancient Greeks also held that when the gods punished humans, usually for challenging them, the gods were adroit at shaping the punishment to the crime. Something else which always engaged the wrath of the gods were humans who revealed their secrets.
When we add to this the known tactic of aristocrats to hide their crimes in plain view, to bury their crimes with greater crimes, the punishment of Sisyphus becomes interesting.
How Sisyphus engaged the wrath of the gods is not made specific. He tried the gods patience. He challenged them once too often, for which his punishment was to roll a large boulder to the top of a hill and when it rolled to the bottom, roll it to the top again, forever. The very definition of wasted effort, futility, a life, in his case eternal, of being in a human hamster wheel, working forever at a pointless task, without pleasure, without reward. No aspiration, no achievement, hopes dashed forever.
So what had Sisyphus done, that the gods designed this punishment for him as most suitable?
Years ago I read a poem called “Futility”. It was written by the First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, in which he describes the body of a young soldier lying in the mud of the trenches . I took the poet’s point, but the title “Futility” made me think of women’s lot in life, grinding poverty, unending menial work, the total loss of the opportunity to reach their full human potential for no other reason than the shape of their reproductive organs. At least most men, most of the time have some chances and some joys in life. Futility seemed to me to describe women’s lives completely. I had a similar thought when I first read about the punishment of Sisyphus. Wasn’t it a description of women’s lives? Never having your own time, or opportunities to develop your talents, just a life of having your time wasted by other people. And if there is reincarnation, over and over again, without end.
I am old now and my parents are dead, so it gives me a perspective on their lives. My Dad was born in 1905, my mother a bit younger. My father when he went to sea as a sparks sent most of his income home to help support his mother’s family. He travelled the world, but apart from the ocean saw little of it as he could not afford to go ashore. My mother was Australian. A very intelligent woman from a line of intelligent women, but in those days unless you were quite high social class, women did not have careers, and respectable women often didn’t work as the pay for females was derisory. My mother’s antecedents were from Surrey, in England and she was an Anglophile. When the Second World War ended she arrived in England and telegrammed my father asking what she should do next.
They married and went back to Northern Ireland my fathers home, to live.
Ireland is not England and the North Irish are not English. My mother had hoped to escape her cultural backwater to a country rich in culture and history. Instead she found herself in another cultural backwater, in a tiny inconvenient cottage, under rain and overcast skies, a dismal diet lacking in fresh fruit, small minded neighbours and poverty.
And she had children, which is what married people did then, to make them even more poor, their lives even more squalid, my sister and myself.
As we grew up she took GCE O Levels and A Levels and at the same time my sister was at teacher training college, my mother was studying for her librarianship exams at Queens University. She later became Head Librarian at Ballymena Library, where she enjoyed her work and was well respected. After she retired she made several visits to her relatives in South Australia and I remember her annoyance when she told me they had only enquired after her family and had been dismissive of her library career. You see my Mum did not wear family blinkers. Her family were nothing to be proud of. Her achievement was her work.
Years later when I thought over my parents lives it was clear to me they would both have been happier if they had not had children. Or perhaps they should have settled in England instead. You see there are some parts of the world which are dead-end places to live if you are dependent on work, if you are working class and especially if you are a woman. And having been born and raised in Northern Ireland, I would have to say Northern Ireland is one of them. The critical factor is not religion as has been made out, but social class. You have a tiny middle class and a huge, well educated working class. If you are working class the only jobs you are likely to get are menial with subsistence pay.
I lived in Australia for a short time and understand why my mother was so desperate to leave. Australia has many good things, but respect for intellectuals was never one of them, especially a female intellectual. In England, as I have found since living here, my Mum could have exercised her mind to her hearts’s content among like-minded people, and found friendship and respect.
And what has this to do with Sisyphus? The thought struck me that according to the ancients all important parts of human experience had a god. I have read a lot of mythology and religion and wondered who the god of futility, wasted effort, destroyed hopes was. This is such a staple of human experience, a fact often alluded to in David’s Psalms, logically there should be one, as there is a god for everything else . I could not think of one and so I searched and came up with – nothing. This nearly ubiquitous experience of futility, wasted lives and hopes had no named deity.
And then I thought of Sisyphus and his punishment, the very definition of futility and wasted lives and wondered about Sisyphus’ offence against the gods. And how powers, earthly and unearthly employ the same tactics of concealment of their methods.
Did Sisyphus point to the empty pedestal at the centre of the pantheon and ask – who does that belong to?
Did Sisyphus discover that human life is futile? That human failure is not just something that happens but something which is caused to happen, by the powers that be, whoever they are. And Sisyphus’ punishment, a horrific example of futility was designed to make people turn away and NOT think about the issue.
Which explains the missing “god” as, if this common life experience of failure and frustrated aspirations is being manipulated , those manipulating it would make sure it wasn’t drawn to anyone’s attention.
Or perhaps the gods punished Sisyphus for wasting their time, by wasting his.