A son of Zeus by Pluto, or according to others1 a son of Tmolus.2 His wife is called by some Euryanassa,3 by others Taygete or Dione,4 and by others Clytia or Eupryto5 He was the father of Pelops, Broteas, and Niobe.6 All traditions agree in stating that he was a wealthy king, but while some call him king of Lydia, of Sipylus in Phrygia or Paphlagonia, others describe him as king of Argos or Corinth.7

Tantalus is particularly celebrated in ancient story for the severe punishment inflicted upon him after his death in the lower world, the causes of which are differently stated by the ancient authors. The common account is that Zeus invited him to his table and communicated his divine counsels to him. Tantalus divulged the secrets intrusted to him, and the gods punished him by placing him in the nether world in the midst of a lake, but rendering it impossible for him to drink when he was thirsty, the water always withdrawing when he stooped. Branches laden with fruit, moreover, hung over his head, but when he stretched out his hand to reach the fruit, the branches withdrew.8 Over his head there was suspended a huge rock ever threatening to crush him.

Another tradition relates that he, wanting to try the gods, cut his son Pelops in pieces, boiled them and set them before the gods at a repast.9 A third account states that Tantalus stole nectar and ambrosia from the table of the gods and gave them to his friends;10 and a fourth lastly relates the following story: Rhea caused the infant Zeus and his nurse to be guarded in Crete by a golden dog, whom subsequently Zeus appointed guardian of his temple in Crete. Pandareus stole this dog, and, carrying him to Mount Sipylus in Lydia, gave him to Tantalus to take care of. But afterwards, when Pandareus demanded the dog back, Tantalus took an oath that he had never received him. Zeus thereupon changed Pandareus into a stone, and threw Tantalus down from Mount Sipylus.11 Others again relate that Hermes demanded the dog of Tantalus, and that the perjury was committed before Hermes.12 Zeus buried Tantalus under Mount Sipylus as a punishment.13 There his tomb was shown in later times.14

The punishment of Tantalus was proverbial in ancient times, and from it the English language has borrowed the verb "to tantalize," that is, to hold out hopes or prospects which cannot be realized. Tzetzes15 mentions that Tantalus was in love with Ganymede, and engaged with Ilus in a contest for the possession of the charming youth.


In the Lesche of Delphi Tantalus was represented by Polygnotus in the situation described in the common tradition: he was standing in water, with a fruit-tree over his head, and threatened by an overhanging rock.16. Tantalus is also depicted on Greek vases, among which an Apulian krater at Munich where is he dressed in theater clothes and holding a scepter in his hand. The punishment of Tantalus was a popular subject during the baroque period.




  • Cicero. de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum i, 18; Tusculanae Disputationes iv, 16.
  • Diodorus Siculus. Historical Library v, 74.
  • Euripides. Orestes, 5 ff.
  • Horace. Satires i, 1. 68.
  • Hyginus. Fabulae, 82.
  • Ovid. Metamorphoses iv, 457; Ars Amatoria ii, 605.
  • Philostratus. Life of Apollonius of Tyana iii, 25.
  • Pindar. Olympian Odes i, 90 ff.; Isthmian Odes viii, 21.
  • Seneca. Hercules Furens, 752.
  • Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
  • Tibullus, i, 3. 77.

This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.