[Editor’s note: Archaeologists have recently uncovered a new account of this Greek myth, written from a different perspective. As it turns out, the Greeks may have been a little less worshipful of their gods than we had thought. Here’s my translation.]
Once upon a time in ancient Greece there was a clever philosopher named Rocrates, who just happened to be a large boulder. Rocrates lived under a tree in the forest. A family of foxes lived in a burrow underneath him, and their kits played on top of him, and their activities kept him clean. Rocrates laid there for years, happily doing nothing except for thinking up Rocratic dialogues that made the citizens of Athens look dumb.
But nothing lasts forever. The weather changed, and conditions became rainy and moist, and it stayed that way for a long time. The foxes moved out in search of a drier home, and Rocrates noticed that he was getting covered with moss. He felt lonely and wet and itchy, and he didn’t like it one bit. But Rocrates was also very lazy and didn’t feel like cleaning himself.
Rocrates pondered: “Sure, I could flop around until I’ve scrubbed this moss off of me. But I hate doing things for myself. What if I could get somebody else to do it for me?”
Then Rocrates saw a king walking by, looking unhappy. Rocrates thought back to his education and the great Greek stories he had been taught, and he remembered the main lesson: Greek gods and kings are stupid and vain and incredibly easy to manipulate. So Rocrates called out to the king: “Good morning, your almightiness, why are you looking so depressed?”
“It’s those gods,” said the king. “They’re such an irritation, the way they keep telling me what to do. I’m a king! I should get to do what I want! I yelled at them and tried to fight with fate, but they don’t even notice. They’re too busy sitting around Mt Olympus having their ambrosia and plotting against each other and turning mortals into animals and trees.”
“Everyone knows the gods are childish fools,” Rocrates replied. “You’re way better than them and you should put them in their place. You know what would show them they aren’t the boss of you? You should seduce your brother’s daughter and get her to bear you some children, then try to use those kids in a plot to kill your brother! Then when she finds out what you’re up to, she’ll kill the children she bore you. That’ll really piss off those gods!”
“Wow, that’s dark,” said the king.
Rocrates gave the king a look of withering contempt, and asked him: “Is this ancient Greece or isn’t it?”
“You’re right,” the king said. “It’s like I forgot who I am. Thanks, talking rock!” And the king went and did as Rocrates suggested.
Then the king returned to Rocrates. “How did it go?” Rocrates asked him.
“You have to help me!” said the king. “Having sex with my niece was fantastic and it made me feel SO fulfilled as an ancient Greek, but now Zeus is really pissed off! He’s having Hades chain me up in the underworld!”
“I’m shocked!” exclaimed Rocrates. “Who could have foreseen that hubris would have such painful consequences?”
“Certainly not me!” said the king. “I’m as Greek as they come! Please, o talking rock who surely doesn’t have an ulterior motive, tell me what to do!”
“Don’t worry,” said Rocrates. “I planned for this. Here’s what you do next. When Hades gets you down to the underworld, you compliment him for the amazing strength of his chains, and ask him to show you how they work. Then when he demonstrates by chaining himself, you give him the finger and run away, leaving him in his chains.”
“Surely even a Greek god wouldn’t be that stupid,” said the king.
“Trust me,” said Rocrates. “They’re all morons.”
So the king did as he was told, and sure enough, Hades ended up chained in the underworld. And the king was happy, and went back to his happy royal life of scheming and plotting and pursuing inappropriate sex.
But the natural order of things was upset, because once Hades wasn’t around to take the dead souls into the underworld, all the mortals stopped dying. Ares, the god of war, became upset. Rocrates called out to him and asked what was the matter. “Nobody is dying!” Ares whined. “Where’s the fun in starting wars if there isn’t gonna be tragedy and slaughter?”
“My goodness,” said Rocrates. “It sounds like somebody has made the gods look imbecilic yet again. Who would do such a thing?”
“I don’t know, talking rock, but sometimes being a deity just plain sucks!” Ares moaned.
“I know just what to do,” said Rocrates to Ares. “You need to go and find Hades. I bet some jerk fooled him into getting chained up in his own underworld. Go set him free and ask him what devious genius did that to him. I bet it was some hubristic king; they’re always up to no good. Find him, then punish him for thinking he’s smarter than the gods!”
“Well okay … but I can’t think of a good punishment!” Ares scratched his head and wrinkled his brow, with the kind of stupid look on his face that only the immortals know how to make. “What should we do to him?”
“Easy,” said Rocrates. “Condemn him to push a big heavy boulder up a hill for the rest of eternity. I’d be a great boulder to use. Get Zeus to enchant me so that I always roll back down the hill as soon as he pushes me near the top. It’ll drive him crazy!”
“I’m not quite sure how the punishment fits the crime,” said Ares.
“Trust me. Zeus will love it,” said Rocrates.
And just as Rocrates promised, Zeus did what Ares suggested. King Sisyphus spent the rest of eternity pushing Rocrates up a hill and then watching him roll back down. That’s how Rocrates solved his itchy moss problem, and all it took was a lot of treachery and incest and murder and eternal suffering.