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 sepulcher of him "by no means obscure", in the same region.
Tantalus is sometimes referred to 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, but there is no doubt that he was Greek.
The geographer Strabo states that the wealth of Tantalus was derived from the mines of Phrygia and Mount Sipylus. Near Mount Sipylus are 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.
Based on a similarity between the names Tantalus and Hantili, it has been suggested that the name Tantalus may have derived from that of these two Hittite kings.
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 Pluto ("riches", as in gold and other mineral wealth), one of the Oceanids and grandmother, Chthonia ("earth").
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 gods in order to test their omniscience. 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, was ordered by Zeus to bring 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 and filicide 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 (mentioned in Pindar's 8th Isthmian ode, lines 10–12) 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 in The Greek Myths, 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.
^George Perrot (2007). History of Art in Phrygia, Lydia, Caria And Lycia (in French and English). Marton Press. p. 62. ISBN 978-1-4067-0883-7.
^This refers to Mount Sipylus, at the foot of which his city was located and whose ruins were reported to be still visible in the beginning of the Common Era, although few traces remain today. See Sir James Frazer, Pausanias, and other Greek sketches (later retitled Pausanias's Description of Greece).
^Thomas Bulfinch (June 2004). Bulfinch's Mythology. Kessinger Publishing Company. pp. 1855–2004. ISBN 1-4191-1109-4.
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