We have all had that tantalizing moment, seeing something that makes us think, ‘oh, yes, that looks lovely’, but which for some reason we cannot reach. A trivial example of mine was when I once failed to have my morning coffee racing for a train and then enviously watched a waiting passenger at another station sip a steaming cup. Grrrr!
This word finds its origins in a somewhat infamous figure from Greek myth and a somewhat more ghastly situation than the above nugget.
Plato interpreted the name as the ‘one who endures much’. Tantalus stole the nectar and ambrosia of the gods for his people when dining at Zeus’ table, a major violation of the Greek value of hospitality and the reciprocal respect it demanded of both guest and host (xenia). Stealing from the gods always met with a sticky fate as the unfortunate Prometheus found when he stole their fire for mortals. He never LIVER-ed it down. Bad taste, sorry! However, food theft was hardly the worst of Tantalus’ sacrilegious misdeeds. Hubristically desiring to make trial of their omniscience, he served the Olympian deities his own son, Pelops (after whom the Peloponnese is named according to myth), up as part of a feast for their banquet. The most famous version of the myth tells that the gods all realised the dastardly content of the meal, except for Demeter, whose omniscience wavered through her grief over daughter Persephone’s abduction by Hades. She unwittingly ate part of the shoulder. Oops!
Pelops’s shoulder was refashioned out of ivory by Hephaestus and the boy was reassembled. That’s one gruesome jigsaw!
As for his father, Tantalus, he was condemned to grim Tartarus, the nastiest, deepest, and vilest area of the Underworld reserved for the very worst offenders (read Virgil, Aeneid VI for a vivid and unsettling description – it’s marvellous!). Tantalus was condemned to stand for all eternity in a stream that parted and flowed away from his reach when he sought to quench his thirst with a tree of apples above him that evaded his grasp every time he sought to relieve his hunger. The inability to satisfy these needs was his torment, tantalized by what he could see, but could not get.
Moral of the tale? No nasties in a feast for the immortals (thank goodness for labelling laws). And…don’t forget morning coffee.
Over and out!