Who Is Tantalus?

Tantalus and Sisyphus in Hades painting

August Theodor Kaselowsky / Public Domain

Favored by the gods, Tantalus was allowed to dine with them. Taking advantage of this position, he either made a meal for the gods of his son Pelops or he told other mortals the secrets of the gods which he had learned at their table. When Tantalus served Pelops to the gods, all except Demeter recognized the food for what it was and refused to eat, but Demeter, grieving for her lost daughter, was distracted and ate the shoulder. When the gods restored Pelops, he was given an ivory replacement.


Tantalus is known primarily for the punishment he endured. Tantalus is shown in Tartarus in the Underworld eternally trying to do the impossible. On earth, he was punished either by having a stone hang forever over his head or by being driven from his kingdom.


The punishment of Tantalus in Tartarus is to stand knee deep in water but be unable to slake his thirst because whenever he bends down, the water vanishes. Over his head hangs fruit, but whenever he reaches for it, it goes just beyond his reach. From this punishment, Tantalus is familiar to us in the word tantalize.

The Family of Origin

Zeus was the father of Tantalus and his mother was Pluto, daughter of Himas.

Marriage and Children

Tantalus was married to a daughter of Atlas, Dione. Their children were Niobe, Broteas, and Pelops.


Tantalus was king of Sipylos in Asia Minor. Others say he was king of Paphlagonia also in Asia Minor.


Ancient sources for Tantalus include Apollodorus, Diodorus Siculus, Euripides, Homer, Hyginus, Antoninus Liberalis, Nonnius, Ovid, Pausanias, Plato, and Plutarch.

Tantalus and the House of Atreus

After Tantalus betrayed the trust of the gods his family started to suffer. His daughter Niobe was turned to stone. His grandson was the first husband of Clytemnestra and was killed by Agamemnon. Another grandson, through ivory-shouldered Pelops, was Atreus, father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Atreus and Thyestes were brothers and rivals who wound up destroying each other. They had fallen under a curse uttered by Hermes' son Myrtilus against Pelops and all his family. Atreus further defied the gods by promising Artemis a golden lamb and then failing to deliver it. After a series of tricks and treacheries between the brothers, Atreus served up a dish to his brother of three of Thyestes' children.

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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Who Is Tantalus?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/tantalus-111914. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 28). Who Is Tantalus? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tantalus-111914 Gill, N.S. "Who Is Tantalus?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tantalus-111914 (accessed March 30, 2023).