What is a Sisyphean Task?

Sisyphean by Titian

You have seen him in fine art paintings, or in cartoons. He, Sisyphus, is as strong as Atlas who holds the globe on his shoulders. But Sisyphus is not carrying the globe on his shoulders but a huge boulder. He is a character in Homer’s Iliad, and it is said he was the reputed founder of the Isthmian Games, a festival of athletic and musical competitions in honour of the sea god Poseidon.

We are talking about an exceptionally strong man fit to complete a physical demanding chore. See, Sisyphus tricked death, he outsmarted death, and was therefore everlastingly punished by Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld (the Greek god of Death). Sisyphus is ordered to roll a great boulder uphill. Approaching the summit, the stone drops and rolls down. This happens over and over, repeat after repeat. A Sisyphean task therefore is characterized by that it is a demanding as well as a completely fruitless challenge.

What is your Sisyphean task? Read on….

Titian at work, a wonderful illustration in Collins Children’s Encyclopedia of The Arts of the World.

Tiziano Vecellio (c 1488-1576) a.k.a. Titian was one of the most famous artists of the Venetian School. He is categorized in the art-movement known as the Late Renaissance or Mannerism. Mannerism would later be replaced by the Baroque. Titan shows Sisyphus in his youthful strength. His arms, legs, torso and back are muscular. Titan achieves a rich effect of light using deep contrasting colours. We, viewers, are encouraged to emotionally interact with this painting. We are invited to feel empathy for Sisyphus’s endurance, strength, and suffering. We are invited to feel what he feels and thus enrich ourselves with deep understanding what a Sisyphean task is.

What is Your Sisyphean Task?

Are you taking care of children during lockdown? Are you in quarantine with energetic, young children that need to burn off their wild energies in playgrounds but are not allowed outdoors and are having meltdowns at home? You are trying to stay calm but at the end of the day you feel drained and discouraged?

Do you have shielding friends who are in cancer treatment or remission and you are therefore not able to meet them face to face due to their vulnerability? You try to be a good friend but Covid restrictions make your efforts fruitless?

Are you taking care of an ill or elderly person and whilst their brain is undergoing alterations due to medication, illness or old age, you are -fruitlessly- trying to take away their confusion and anxieties? Are you fruitlessly trying to improve living conditions but you only see the quality of life becoming less and less?

When a Sisyphean task affects your life, it can make you feel hollowed out. When life throws a Sisyphean task to you, all you can do is to accept that life never comes without hardship. We are not Sisyphus, luckily, we are mortals and all suffering will end because, unlike Sisyphus, we haven’t tricked death. We may try to carry a boulder uphill for a year, ten years perhaps, but eventually we will stop, sit down, and do some deep thinking. That sets us, mortals, apart from the everlasting, suffering Sisyphus.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

Test you Knowledge, Questions & Lesson Ideas

What is the difference between a Sisyphean and a Herculean task?

Is Sisyphus preforming a Herculean task?

Compare and contrast Sisyphus, Atlas and Herculean using pictures of statues and painted artworks.

Which beetle reminds you of Sisyphus? And why is this beetle not preforming a Sisyphean task but a Herculean task?

Explore the mythologies telling you why Sisyphus was punished to carry a boulder uphill for eternity, and why Atlas is condemned to hold up the heavens and sky for eternity. Explore the multifaceted character and adventures of Hercules.

Hercules in Utrecht City Centre, graphite drawing by Paula Kuitenbrouwer, Statute by Ton Mooij. You feel tricked? This is not Atlas. Hercules steps in for Atlas by taking over the globe because Atlas needs a moment to rest his back. See this blog post for more.

As from now you will remember Sisyphus and Titian’s painting. And perhaps you will see that art is able to comfort us. One feels understood by artwork or musical pieces that resonate with our predicament. That alone is comforting: art inspires and heals us.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

Commission Artist at Utrecht

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