top of page

The Myth of Tantalus

The myth of Tantalus, a figure from Greek mythology, has captured the imagination with its vivid imagery and deep symbolism. Tantalus represents the human struggle with desire, temptation and the consequences of moral transgressions.

The myth of Tantalus is a touching tale, offering numerous suggestions. Tantalus, a mortal king, is forever condemned to suffer in the afterlife as a consequence of his arrogance and relentless pursuit to satisfy forbidden desires.

Tantalus was the son of Zeus and a nymph. He was known for his extraordinary intelligence and was invited to dine with the gods on Mount Olympus. However, driven by arrogance and a desire to test the omniscience of the gods, he committed a terrible act. He served them his son, Pelops, as a meal, believing that the gods would not notice. This act of impiety and cannibalism enraged the gods, leading Tantalus to eternal punishment.

Tantalus' punishment in the underworld is the most famous aspect of the myth. Tantalus is placed in a pool of water up to his neck and a tree laden with ripe fruit hangs above him. However, every time he tries to eat the fruit, the branches of the tree move out of his reach. This endless cycle of desire and frustration is the essence of his torment.

The story of Tantalus serves as a powerful metaphor for the human condition. Tantalus' unfulfilled desires and eternal frustration reflect the experience of the relationship with desire and the ever elusive search for satisfaction. The tempting proximity of water and fruit represents the alluring allure of desires that can lead to suffering.

The myth of Tantalus resonates deeply with the human psyche, drawing on universal themes of desire, temptation and punishment. Carl Gustav Jung's concept of archetypes suggests that Tantalus embodies a primordial image that evokes a shared emotional and psychological response in individuals across cultures and time periods. Tantalus would represent the inner conflict between desires and the moral constraints that govern human actions.

The story of Tantalus can be seen as a representation of the conflict between the id (the unconscious, drive-oriented, satisfaction-seeking part of the psyche) and the superego (the moral and ethical, punishing and censorious part). Tantalus' eternal frustration can be compared to the tension between our drive desires and the social norms and personal ethics that limit their realisation.

The myth of Tantalus continues to fascinate and resonate due to its timeless themes and deep symbolism. Tantalus symbolises humanity's struggle against desire, temptation and the consequences of moral transgressions.

As an archetype, it serves as a mirror for our inner conflicts and provides valuable insights into the human condition. The enduring significance of Tantalus in literature, psychology and popular culture attests to the ability of ancient myths to illuminate the complexities of human nature.

The full article, with Jacques Lacan's reading of the Tantalus myth, is available at.

For further reading:

-Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id;

-Carl Gustav Jung, The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious;

-Jacques Lacan, The Seminar, Book V, The Formations of the Unconscious.


Tantalus by Gioacchino Assereto, (1640 circa)

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page