In ancient Greece, woe betide anyone who got on the wrong side of the Gods. Those who did tended to pay a hefty price for their foolhardiness, but few paid as deeply as Tantalus.
The son of Zeus, Tantalus was the extremely wealthy king of Sipylus, or Phrygia, or Paphlagonia, depending on which account you read. What is generally agreed on, though, is that his kingdom was somewhere in Asia Minor. Old Zeus could be the nepotistic sort when it favoured him, and allowed Tantalus to dine with the Gods. Sadly for Tantalus, his mortal fallibility got the better of him.
In some accounts, Tantalus' started bringing about his demise when he started blabbing to his fellow mortals about the secrets of the Gods. He even had the cheek to try to share their food with the other mortals. Naturally, word of this displeased Zeus, who until then had great faith in Tantalus. But if this wasn't bad enough...
The more commonly cited tale of Tantalus' fall is this: In order to test the Gods' powers of foresight, he killed his own son, Pelops, mutilated the body, cooked and served it to the Gods. Unsurprisingly, Tantalus (mortal, foolish) was rumbled by the Gods (immortal, pretty clued up), although not before Demeter, who was apparently distracted by thoughts of her daughter Persephone's abduction by Hades, had taken a bite out of what turned out to be Pelops' shoulder. When the Gods put Pelops back together again, and brought him back to life, Demeter replaced the missing part with one made from ivory. (Incidentally, according to the seer Helenus, one of the requirements for the taking of Troy was that this bone be present.)
Zeus was understandably pretty mad at all this, and ordered Tantalus' punishment. He was to spend eternity in Tartarus, home of the vanquished Titans, where he joined Sisyphus and Ixion. So at least he had someone to talk to every now and then, although to be fair Sisyphus was probably too work-centric to be much of a conversationist, and as for Ixion, well, imagine how much you'd feel like small-talk if you'd been sentenced to an eternity chained to a fiery revolving wheel).
Tantalus, meanwhile, stood up to his neck in purest water, while fruit trees surrounded him. Sadly for Tantalus, he was condemned to eternal hunger and thirst: the water receded if ever he stooped to drink, while a wind would blow the fruit out of his reach should he try to take fruit from the branches around his head.
In The Odyssey, Homer describes the scene:
"I saw likewise stand,
Up to the chin, amidst a liquid lake,
Tormented Tantalus, yet could not slake
His burning thirst. Oft as his scornful cup
Th' old man would taste, so oft 'twas swallow'd up,
And all the black earth to his feet descried,
Divine power (plaguing him) the lake still dried.
About his head, on high trees, clust'ring, hung
Pears, apples, granates, olives ever young,
Delicious figs, and many fruit trees more
Of other burden; whose alluring store
When th' old soul strived to pluck, the winds from sight,
In gloomy vapours, made them vanish quite."¹
The Sins of the father
At least his imprisonment would have spared Tantalus some of the facts of his future family history:
- Niobe, Tantalus' daughter was turned to stone, but not before her children had been slaughtered, as accounted in the Illiad:
"Apollo killed the sons with arrows from his silver bow, to punish Niobe, and Diana slew the daughters, because Niobe had vaunted herself against Leto; she said Leto had borne two children only, whereas she had herself borne many- whereon the two killed the many."²
- Pelops, his son, was killed and cooked, as we already know, but having been resurrected, later found himself pursued by the army of Ilus, the founder of Troy.
- Atreus and Thyestes, his grandsons, didn't get on tremendously well. The low-point of a stormy relationship came when Atreus, following the family tradition, killed some of Thyestes' children, and served them to him à la Tantalus.
- Agamemnon, a great-grandson, was murdered by another great-grandson, Aegisthus, who was in turn killed by a great-great-grandson, Orestes.
Tantalus, by James Hunter: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/t/tantalus.html
Genealogical guide to Greek mythology, by Carlos Parada: http://homepage.mac.com/cparada/GML/GGGM.html
1. Chapman, George, trans. (1559?–1634). The Odysseys of Homer, vol. 1. 1857, 11.794-806
2. Butler, Samuel, trans. The Iliad, by Homer, 24.499-505