His wife could not bear to see him go. She stayed behind in the palace while Tantalos sailed along the river towards the sea. He had been called by the gods – instructed by Zeus himself to come to Mount Olympus and become a cup bearer. The role of cup bearer to the gods was such an honour that not even the ruler of a kingdom could refuse, and so Tantalos bid farewell to his three children and his beloved wife. She had tried to stop him. “This is madness, you are a grown man and a king. How could the gods desire you for this work, surely Zeus longs for a fair maid or a comely lad to do his bidding.”
But Tantalos was a pious man, and when the gods called, he responded. He had tried to placate his wife, “The gods are just and wise. They know what is best and so I must go to them.” This had earned him scorn from his beloved – “The gods are fickle and cruel and you will know this soon enough, begone, I am done with arguing. All I can do now is to weep for you.” So she wept salt tears and as she did the river flowed into the ocean taking Tantalos’ boat into the domain of Poseidon. The god of the oceans lifted the little boat and bore it to Mount Olympus where Tantalos was ushered in to meet the King of the gods. Trembling before the throne of Zeus, Tantalos humbly offered his services as cup bearer.
“And who exactly are you?” asked Zeus.
“I am Tantalos, King of Lydia who you desired to serve you.”
“Oh no, ” cried mighty Zeus, “I didn’t mean you, I meant that handsome youth who I spied a few weeks ago. What would I do with a man like you? Well, waste not, want not. Begone to the kitchens and let us never set eyes upon you again.”
And so Tantalos was taken from the table of the gods and set to work in the kitchens – cutting, peeling, soaking, boiling, roasting, carving, slicing. This once mighty king was reduced to servants labour and only his piety kept him sane. He repeated to himself over and over, “The gods are just and wise. They know what is best.” But being on Mount Olympus allowed Tantalos to see the actions of the gods and what he saw appalled him. The Olympians were no moral bastions, but cruel and wicked tyrants. Their moments of kindness were interspersed with terrible rage and petty revenge. The scales were gone from his eyes and Tantalos vowed to return home.
Moreover he had discovered the secret of the gods power. The nectar and ambrosia of the gods was really all that kept them apart from mortal men. But what if everyone could have access to these gifts, what if everyone could live forever like a god? Tantalos thought of his wife and children. They deserved better than old age and death and so one night when the gods were revelling, Tantalos sneaked out of Olympus. He carried with him more than enough ambrosia for all of Lydia. Alas for Tantalos, although it was dark, Panoptes the hundred eyed giant saw him attempt to flee. The giant quickly scooped up the fleeing king and brought him before the gods.
There was outrage at Tantalos’ crime. Stealing the secrets of immortality could not be dealt with lightly. Zeus pronounced his sentence – Tantalos would be taken to Hades and tortured for all eternity. But then nimble Hermes spoke up.
“Fellow gods, what Tantalos has done is surely the worst of crimes. If mortal man becomes like a god, then we become like mortal man! What status would we have if we did not deny mankind the riches of the world? Nothing that they planned would be too difficult for them. No, this is the worst of crimes and the punishment will be severe.”
Zeus replied, “I am already punishing him for all eternity, what more do you propose?”
Hermes smiled. “I think it will serve to punish his descendants. For his daughter Niobe I will make her fertile and grant her many children. Then we shall kill the children before her very eyes and afterwards turn her to stone. His son Broteas we will drive mad before burning him to death. As for Pelops… Ah, that shall be the best. Since Tantalos worked in our kitchen we will bring Pelops there and cook him for a feast.”
Zeus frowned. “I do not intend to eat a human. I would sooner eat a horse.”
Hermes chuckled, “Oh I have no intention of eating the child, we will just throw the parts to the birds. But then we shall spread the tale of how it was Tantalos himself who cooked his own son, and that is why we are punishing him.”
Tantalos was pale. “Please, punish me as you will but spare my children, I beg you.”
Hermes simply smiled. “I think I will enjoy telling the story of Tantalos and his son. And I think I will start by telling your poor sweet wife…Perhaps I will bring her something to eat while she mourns her son…”
The gods are just and wise. They know what is best.