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The Greek Myth Behind the Word ‘Tantalize’

tantalus greek myth tantalize
The English word “tantalize” comes from the Greek myth of Tantalus. Painting by Giovan Battista Langetti. Credit: Public Domain

The English word “tantalize,” which means to torment someone by showing them something they desire but cannot have, comes from the Greek myth of Tantalus.

According to Greek myth, Tantalus was the ruler of the ancient city of Sipylus in Phrygia, which is located in Anatolia. He was the father of Niobe and Pelops and was the founding member of the famous House of Atreus, from which Menelaus and Agamemnon descend.

Tantalus, much like many other prominent figures in Greek mythology, was born of one of Zeus’s many affairs. His parents were Zeus, the king of the Olympian Gods, and Pluto, a nymph.

While the various myths about Tantalus vary, most sources indicate that he was a very close friend of the gods and was even invited to dine and party with them.

This special access to the gods and Olympus may have caused his downfall, as one source states that he faced the wrath of the gods after revealing secrets he had learned in the heavenly realm to mortals.

Another, much more grisly tale, claims that he killed his own son Pelops and attempted to feed him to the Gods to see if they would notice.

The Ancient Greek Poet Pindar writes in one of his odes that Tantalus faced divine punishment after stealing nectar and ambrosia, the traditional food and drink of the gods, and bringing it back to mortals.

Tantalus suffered a brutal punishment for his crime against the gods in Greek myth

According to one myth, which included all three crimes, Tantalus decided to bring back ambrosia and nectar from a divine feast to his own people so that they might become immortal and learn the secrets of the gods. However, when this didn’t work, he decided to sacrifice Pelops, his own son, to the Olympians.

After killing his son, he cut him into pieces and tried to serve him to the gods. All of the gods, apart from Demeter, who has distraught at the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by Hades, immediately realized that it was human flesh on the plates before them.

Demeter, distracted by her grief, was the only one who took a bite of the food, which happened to be Pelops’ shoulder.

Zeus was disturbed by Tantalus’ horrifying act, and appealed to Clotho, one of the Fates, to revive the king’s son. After he came back to life, his shoulder, which Demeter had bitten, was patched up with a piece of ivory.

Although his crime varied, his brutal punishment was always the same—Tantalus was doomed to stand up to his neck in water but could never reach it to take a sip, and could never take a bite from the luscious fruits that surrounded him in the underworld.

Eternally thirsty and hungry but just inches away from food and water, Tantalus has since become one of the most iconic figures of Greek mythology.

This suffering of yearning deeply for something just out of reach gives us the word “tantalize” in English.

Even the ancient Greeks developed a phrase based on the iconic myth. In antiquity, Greeks used the phrase “Tantalean punishment,” or “Ταντάλειοι τιμωρίαι” in Ancient Greek, to refer to people who had an abundance of luxuries but could never fully appreciate or use them.

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