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Tantalus (Ancient Greek: Τάνταλος, Tántalos) was a Greek mythological figure, most famous for his eternal punishment in Tartarus. He was made to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink. He was the father of Pelops, Niobe and Broteas, and was a son of Zeus and the nymph Plouto. Thus, like other heroes in Greek mythology such as Theseus and the Dioskouroi, Tantalus had both a hidden, divine parent and a mortal one.
There may have been a historical Tantalus – possibly the ruler of an Anatolian city named "Tantalís", "the city of Tantalus", or of a city named "Sipylus" Pausanias reports that there was a port under his name and a sepulchre of him "by no means obscure", in the same region.
Tantalus is referred to as "Phrygian" and sometimes even as "King of Phrygia", although his city was located in the western extremity of Anatolia where Lydia was to emerge as a state before the beginning of the first millennium BC, and not in the traditional heartland of Phrygia, situated more inland. References to his son as "Pelops the Lydian" led some scholars to the conclusion that there would be good grounds for believing that he belonged to a primordial house of Lydia.
Other versions name his father as Tmolus, the name of a king of Lydia and, like Sipylus, of another mountain in ancient Lydia. The location of Tantalus' mortal mountain-fathers generally placed him in Lydia; and more seldom in Phrygia or Paphlagonia, all in Asia Minor.
The identity of his wife is variously given: generally as Dione, but whose name may simply mean "The Goddess," or perhaps as the Pleiad with that name; or as Eurythemista, a daughter of the river-god Xanthus; or Euryanassa, daughter of Pactolus, another river-god, both of them in Anatolia; or Clytia, the child of Amphidamantes. Tantalus, through Pelops, was the founder of the House of Atreus which was named after his grandson. Tantalus was also the Great-grandfather of Agamemnon
The geographer Strabo, quoting earlier sources, states that the wealth of Tantalus was derived from the mines of Phrygia and Mount Sipylus. Near Mount Sipylus archaeological features that have been associated with Tantalus and his house since Antiquity. Near Mount Yamanlar in İzmir (ancient Smyrna), where the Lake Karagöl (Lake Tantalus) associated with the accounts surrounding him is found, is a monument mentioned by Pausanias: the tholos "tomb of Tantalus" (later Christianized as "Saint Charalambos' tomb") and another one in Mount Sipylus, and where a "throne of Pelops", an altar or bench carved in rock and conjecturally associated with his son is found. A more famous momument, a full-faced statue carved in rock mentioned by Pausanias is a statue of Cybele, said by Pausianias to have been carved by Broteas is in fact Hittite.
In mythology, Tantalus became one of the inhabitants of Tartarus, the deepest portion of the Underworld, reserved for the punishment of evildoers; there Odysseus saw him. The association of Tantalus with the underworld is underscored by the names of his mother Plouto ("riches", as in gold and other mineral wealth), and grandmother, Chthonia ("earth").
Tantalus was initially known for having been welcomed to Zeus' table in Olympus, like Ixion. There he is said to have misbehaved and stolen ambrosia and nectar to bring it back to his people, and revealed the secrets of the gods.
Most famously, Tantalus offered up his son, Pelops, as a sacrifice. He cut Pelops up, boiled him, and served him up in a banquet for the gods. The gods became aware of the gruesome nature of the menu, so they did not touch the offering; only Demeter, distraught by the loss of her daughter, Persephone, absentmindedly ate part of the boy's shoulder. Clotho, one of the three Fates, ordered by Zeus, brought the boy to life again (she collected the parts of the body and boiled them in a sacred cauldron), rebuilding his shoulder with one wrought of ivory made by Hephaestus and presented by Demeter. The revived Pelops grew to be an extraordinarily handsome youth. The god Poseidon took him to Mount Olympus to teach him to use chariots. Later, Zeus threw Pelops out of Olympus due to his anger at Tantalus. The Greeks of classical times claimed to be horrified by Tantalus's doings; cannibalism, human sacrifice and infanticide were atrocities and taboo.
Tantalus's punishment for his act, now a proverbial term for temptation without satisfaction (the source of the English word tantalise), was to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised his intended meal from his grasp. Whenever he bent down to get a drink, the water receded before he could get any. Over his head towers a threatening stone like the one that Sisyphus is punished to roll up a hill. This fate has cursed him with eternal deprivation of nourishment.
In a different story, Tantalus was blamed for indirectly having stolen the dog made of gold created by Hephaestus (god of metals and smithing) for Rhea to watch over infant Zeus. Tantalus's friend Pandareus stole the dog and gave it to Tantalus for safekeeping. When asked later by Pandareus to return the dog, Tantalus denied that he had it, saying he "had neither seen nor heard of a golden dog." According to Robert Graves, this incident is why an enormous stone hangs over Tantalus's head. Others state that it was Tantalus who stole the dog, and gave it to Pandareus for safekeeping.
Tantalus was also the founder of the cursed House of Atreus in which variations on these atrocities continued. Misfortunes also occurred as a result of these acts, making the house the subject of many Greek tragedies. Tantalus's grave-sanctuary stood on Sipylus but honours were paid him at Argos, where local tradition claimed to possess his bones. In Lesbos, there was another hero-shrine in the small settlement of Polion and a mountain named after Tantalos.
The ancient tale of Tantalus reaffirms that human sacrifice and infanticide are taboo in Ancient and Classical Greek culture. Yet it seems to suggest that human sacrifice had once been offered in archaic times, especially to Demeter. Alternatively, Tantalus can be seen as a Promethean figure who divulges divine secrets to mortals. He presides over sacred initiations consisting of mystic death and transfiguration. His dismemberment of Pelops and Pelops' resurrection can be seen as an archetypal shamanic initiation.
There are two other characters named Tantalus in Greek mythology, both minor figures and both descendants of the above Tantalus. Broteas is said to have had a son named Tantalus, who ruled over the city of Pisa in the Peloponnesus. This Tantalus was the first husband of Clytemnestra. He was slain by Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, who made Clytemnestra his wife. The third Tantalus was a son of Thyestes, who was murdered by his uncle Atreus, and fed to his unsuspecting father.
The name "Tantalus" is the origin of the English verb "to tantalize". The underlying idea is that when someone is tantalized, that person goes through the same experience as Tantalus: something desirable is always just out of that person's reach.
A Tantalus, by an obvious analogy, is also the term for a type of drinks decanter stand in which the bottle stoppers are firmly clamped down by a locked metal bar, as a means of preventing servants from stealing the master's liquor. The decanters themselves, however, remain clearly visible. The chemical element tantalum (symbol Ta, atomic number 73) is named after the mythological Tantalus; its lack of reactivity, and the resulting difficulty in isolating the pure metal from ore, gave the element its name, by analogy; the pure metal tantalized chemists.
In naval history, an early 20th century British Merchant Navy freight ship SS Tantalus and a United States Navy landing craft repair ship of the World War II (USS Tantalus (ARL-27)) were named after Tantalus.
In serial television fiction, the episode "Mirror, Mirror" of Star Trek: The Original Series, a mirror universe device that allows users to monitor, transport to or eliminate a person from a location within its range was termed a "Tantalus device".
Emily Dickinson's poem "'Heaven'—is what I cannot reach!" makes allusions to Tantalus in lines in the first stanza, especially lines two through four: "'Heaven'—is what I cannot reach!/The Apple on the Tree—/Provided it do hopeless—hang—/That—'Heaven' is—to Me!"
In Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, reference is made to Tantalus: "This wine is one of the vintages of Hell – but do not allow yourself to be dissuaded from tasting it upon that account! I dare say you have heard of Tantalus? The wicked king who baked his little son in a pie and ate him? He has been condemned to stand up to his chin in a pool of water he cannot drink, beneath a vine laden with grapes he cannot eat. This wine is made from those grapes. And, since the vine was planted there for the sole purpose of tormenting Tantalus, you may be sure the grapes have an excellent flavour and aroma – and so does the wine."
An episode of Stargate SG-1 is named after the story, The Torment of Tantalus.
In the science fiction video-game series Mass Effect, the SSV Normandy is equipped with a "Tantalus drive core."
In the PS1 game Final Fantasy IX, the lead protagonist, Zidane, starts off travelling with a group of thieves called Tantalus.
German thrash metal band Protector has a song titled "Tantalus" on the album A Shedding of Skin
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