Tantalus

In my first year of law school I learned that overthinking otherwise-intuitive concepts represents a major pitfall for many aspiring lawyers.  Today I talked w/ a friend about just such an endeavor to work very hard for something seemingly out of my grasp.  He cautioned that the more I reach, the more I may learn the painful allure of Tantalus’s fruit.

I adore mythology but had never heard the Tantalus story (below).  How evocative: standing in a pool of water, which recedes when he kneels to drink; positioned under a fruit tree, whose branches rise to evade his grasp when he reaches to eat.  From Wikipedia:

Tantalus is known for having been welcomed to Zeus’ table in Olympus, like Ixion. There he too misbehaved, stole ambrosia and nectar, brought it back to his people, and revealed the secrets of the gods. Tantalus offered up his son, Pelops, as a sacrifice to the gods. He cut Pelops up, boiled him, and served him up as food for the gods. The gods were said to be aware of his plan for their feast, so they didn’t touch the offering; only Demeter, distraught by the loss of her daughter, Persephone, did not realize what it was and ate part of the boy’s shoulder. Clotho, one of the three Fates, ordered by Zeus, brought the boy to life again (she collected the parts of the body and boiled them in a sacred cauldron), rebuilding his shoulder with one wrought of ivory made by Hephaestus and presented by Demeter.

The revived Pelops was kidnapped by Poseidon and taken to Olympus. Later, Zeus threw Pelops out of Olympus due to his anger at Tantalus. The Greeks of classical times claimed to be horrified by Tantalus’s doings; cannibalism, human sacrifice and parricide were atrocities and taboo. Tantalus was the founder of the cursed House of Atreus in which variations on these atrocities continued. Misfortunes also occurred as a result of these acts, making the house the subject of many Greek Tragedies. Tantalus’s grave-sanctuary stood on Sipylus. But his’s honours were paid him at Argos, where local tradition claimed to possess his bones. On Lesbos, there was another hero-shrine in the little settlement of Polion and a mountain named for Tantalos.

Tantalus’s punishment, now proverbial for temptation without satisfaction (the source of the English word “tantalise” – US “tantalize“), was to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised his intended meal from his grasp. Whenever he bent down to get a drink, the water receded before he could get any. Over his head towers a threatening stone, like that of Sisyphus.

In a different story, Tantalus was blamed for indirectly having stolen the dog made of gold created by Hephaestus (god of metals and smithing) for Rhea to watch over infant Zeus. Tantalus’s friend Pandareus stole the dog and gave it to Tantalus for safekeeping. When asked later by Pandareus to return the dog, Tantalus denied that he had the dog, saying he “had neither seen nor heard of a golden dog.” According to Robert Graves, this incident is why an enormous stone hangs over Tantalus’s head. Others state that it was Tantalus who stole the dog, and gave it to Pandareus for safekeeping.  (Hyperlinks preserved; internal citations omitted)

Looking back at my 1L year writing assignments, it’s completely obvious that I was making myself crazy.  I wrote and re-wrote each paragraph, intimidated by that Pressure to Perform.

In hindsight I find that stilted language hilarious, but frankly I’m glad I experienced such a steep learning curve.  A steep curve not only for Law, the understanding of which is primarily simply the art of organized thinking. I learned a more critical lesson my first year: How to trust my thoughts and understanding while resisting the urge to second-guess.  I learned to work diligently while waiting for the fruit to fall in due time, rather than drive Tantalus’s bounty ever-further away.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Tantalus

  1. Libby

    (I’m obviously playing catch-up on my google reader today, hehehe.)

    I get exactly what you mean. For me, it’s tempting to want to get to The Real Truth, to know that what I’m doing or saying or thinking is unambiguously right/correct and not mistaken. Usually this gets me questioning, recasting, and second-guessing almost every conclusion I come to, and actually eats a lot of time out of my day. I think this is why I like social drinking so much – it shuts off the over-analyzing part of my brain and allows me to relax.

    Hell, I even have trouble composing a two-paragraph blog post that no one will read without rewriting and reshaping every other sentence. Grrr….

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