22. A Vengeance That Gave Rise to the Word “Tantalize”
For his effrontery, Zeus first destroyed Tantalus, then personally took his soul to Hades, the underworld of Greek mythology. There, the chief god visited epic vengeance upon the wretch. Tantalus was placed in a pool of water, beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the wind wafted the branches away, and whenever he reached for water to take a drink it flowed away from him. Tantalus was thus tormented by everlasting hunger and thirst, despite food and water being so near at hand. It is from this punishment, of desperately wanting something that seems so close but that is just beyond reach, that we get the English word “tantalize”.
The divine vengeance visited upon Tantalus and other supernatural aspects of his story are, of course, mythical. However, there might have been a real life historical king named Tantalus, who ruled an Anatolian city named Tantalis. The geographer Strabo, who cited earlier sources, described the mines of Mount Sypilus as the base of Tantalus’ wealth. The geographer Pausanias reported in the second century AD that he had seen a sepulcher of Tantalus, and visited a port that bore his name. Archaeological evidence also attests to the existence of a king Tantalus in ancient times.