TANTALUS, in Greek legend, son of Zeus (or Tmolus) and Pluto (Wealth), daughter of Himantes, the father of Pelops and Niobe. He was the traditional king of Sipylus in Lydia (or of Phrygia), and was the intimate friend of Zeus and the other gods, to whose table he was admitted. But he abused the divine favour by revealing to mankind the secrets he had learned in heaven (Diod. Sic. iv. 74), or by killing his son Pelops (g.v.) and serving him up to the gods at table, in order to test their powers of observation (Ovid, Metam. vi. 401). Another story was that he stole nectar and ambrosia from heaven and gave them to men (Pindar, Ol. i. 60). According to others, Pandareus stole a golden dog which guarded the temple of Zeus in Crete, and gave it to Tantalus to take care of. But, when Pandareus demanded the dog back, Tantalus denied that he had received it. Therefore Zeus turned Pandareus into a stone, and flung down Tantalus with Mount Sipylus on the top of him (Antoninus Liberalis, 36). The punishment of Tantalus in the lower world was famous. He stood up to his neck in water, which flowed from him when he tried to drink of it; and over his head hung fruits which the wind wafted away whenever he tried to grasp them (Odyssey, xi. 582). This myth is the origin of the English word " tantalize," and also of the common name tantalus " for a set of spirit decanters kept under lock and key. Another story is that a rock hung over his head ready to fall and crush him (Euripides, Orestes, 5). The sins of Tantalus were visited upon his descendants, the Pelopidae. Ancient historical reminiscences and natural phenomena, especially volcanic catastrophes, are at the bottom of the legend. The tomb of Tantalus on Mount Sipylus was pointed out in antiquity, and has been in modern times identified by C. F. Texier with the great cairn beneath Old Magnesia; but Sir W. M. Ramsay inclines to a remarkable rock-cut tomb beside Magnesia.
The story of Tantalus is an echo of a semi-Greek kingdom, which had its seat at Sipylus, the oldest and holiest city of Lydia, the remains of which are still visible. There was a tradition in antiquity that the city of Tantalus had been swallowed up in a lake on the mountain; but the legend may, as Ramsay thinks, have been suggested by the vast ravine which yawns beneath the acropolis. According to S. Reinach (Revue archeologique, 1903), Tantalus was represented in a picture standing in a lake and clinging to the branches of a tree, which gave rise to the idea that he was endeavouring to pluck its fruit. The punishment of the overhanging rock refers to the dangerous position of the town of Tantalis below the summit of Mount Sipylus.
See PELOPS, PHRYGIA; Sir W. M. Ramsay in Journal of Hellenic Studies, iii.; Frazer's Pausanias, iii. p. 555, v., p. 392; J. Hylen, De Tantalo (Upsala, 1896), who considers the story of the thirst of Tantalus in the underworld to be due to the Orphic interpolator in the Nkuia of the Odyssey, and the Pandareus story to be an innovation of the Alexandrine poets. The essay contains a copious list of authorities and a history of the legend. According to V. Henry (Revue des iLtudes grecques, 1892), Tantalus is the Sun: the fruits which elude his grasp are the stars suspended on the tree of heaven, which disappear at the rising of the Sun; the water into which the Sun descends without drinking, is the sea. Tantalus's betrayal of the secrets of the gods refers to the Sun unveiling the secrets of heaven; the slaying of Pelops denotes the going-down of the Sun, Pelops meaning the " gray one," an epithet of the gloomy sky in which the last rays of the Sun are extinguished.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)