Sisyphus and Stone

Stones symbolize that which is ancient, eternal, impenetrable and unconscious. Unsurprisingly, the first chapter of human history was called the Stone Age. For the ancients stones were infused with the spirit of the gods and ancestors. Stone caves were places of initiation, the symbolic wombs where souls descended into embodiment or ascended into the ancestral realm or to higher spiritual realms. Before monuments to solar worship, such as Stonehenge, were erected, all over Europe people used to carve large-scale sculptures that were human-like in shape. This was 4000 BC while in the course of the 3rd millennium BC worship of the sun emerged and stone structures lost their anthropomorphic character. But back at the beginning, when religion was more closely bound to nature, Hermes was worshipped in the form of herms – stone pillars erected at roadsides, while the ancient goddess Artemis of Ephesus (Artemis at Perga) was venerated as a black meteoric stone. Later in monotheistic religions stones kept their sacred status; Jesus said to Peter (petrus – rock) that he is the rock that Jesus will built his church on; in Islam Ka’aba – the Black Stone – is venerated at Mecca. In our times, however, we often disregard the stone as lesser material and speak of a heart of stone or that you cannot get blood from a stone (English proverb). We also become petrified (=like a stone) due to fear or trauma.

Salvador Dali, “The Wailing Wall”

Yet, as Juan Eduardo Cirlot beautifully puts it in his Dictionary of Symbols, the stone is a symbol of creation per se, about which the alchemists knew very well:

“In volcanic eruptions, air turned to fire, fire became ‘water’ and ‘water’ changed to stone; hence stone constitutes the first solid form of the creative rhythm —the sculpture of essential movement, and the petrified music of creation.

As for the philosophers’ stone in alchemy, it represents the ‘conjunction’ of opposites, or the integration of the conscious self with the feminine or unconscious side (or in other words, the fixing of volatile elements); it is, then, a symbol of the All.”

In old Europe, young women used to visit special so-called sliding stones to sit on them or crawl over them in order to conceive a child.

Golden rock in a Buddhist temple in Kyaikto, Myanmar

It is true that when we moderns think of the meaning of the stone we do not immediately recall divinity but we certainly remember the myth of Sisyphus. In her book, Sisyphus: A Jungian Approach to Midlife Crisis, the Jungian analyst Verena Kast offers an in-depth analysis of the myth. She quotes from The Odyssey (the Fitzgerald translation), in which Odysseus sees the toiling Sisyphus in the underworld:

“Then Sísyphos in torment I beheld
being roustabout to a tremendous boulder.
Leaning with both arms braced and legs driving,
he heaved it toward a height, and almost over,
but then a Power spun him round and sent
the cruel boulder bounding again to the plain.
Whereon the man bent down again to toil,
dripping sweat, and the dust rose overhead.”

Titian, “Sisyphus”

For Verena Kast, the myth of Sisyphus means that our problems can never be eliminated and that the path we follow is the goal. The contrasting archetypal image to the myth of the task of Sisyphus is the myth of the holy child, which is associated with the ability to create and discover. We may speak of the torture of the ordinary, repetitive tasks, for which the holy child in us has low tolerance.

The stone demands the greatest effort and undivided attention from Sisyphus. But in the end the hero has no choice but to let go, as Kast explains:

“In considering this we are forced to confront our own fear that our efforts will fail in the end, that everything could prove useless, senseless, absurd, in vain.

Perhaps the myth of Sisyphus is also a symbol for the fact that in spite of all our efforts nothing can really be brought to an end in human life, nothing can ever be completed.”

What is heroic about Sisyphus, says Kast, is that he does not escape but he stays and takes responsibility. He cannot flee into the paradise of death or illusion, either.

Freud spoke of what he called “the repetition compulsion,” by which he meant our human preference for the familiar. The myth of Sisyphus also stands for our compulsion to repeat the same mistakes, which mark us for life. In the same context we may also speak of the difficulty of breaking the karmic cycle. Some life patterns are just set in stone.

But why was Sisyphus punished by the gods in such a cruel way? Verena Kast explores the myth and offers very valuable insights. The name Sisyphus apparently meant “the clever one” and he was indeed a trickster character. His most important feat was that he tricked Death itself:

“Death, change, setbacks and having to let go, these things hold no reality for him. When he is threatened by the principle of ‘death’ we see this attitude most clearly in his behavior – he chains up death and locks it away in a storage room. By this action our friend sets himself up as equal to Zeus, on the same level as the gods.”

Sisyphus was unable to accept that life is limited by death; he could not relinquish the idea that human existence, unlike that of the gods, is frail and limited. Therefore he was sentenced to spinning the vicious circle and pursuing his unglamorous task without the possibility of redemption or transformation. But is there hope in this seemingly hopeless myth? Albert Camus finished his famous essay dedicated to the myth of Sisyphus and his heroic struggle in the face of the absurdity of existence with these words:

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

There is dignity and divinity in ordinary daily struggle. “A face that toils so close to stones is
already stone itself!,” writes Camus. This must be “the human form divine” of which William Blake wrote.

Marc Chagall, “Sisyphus”
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13 Responses to Sisyphus and Stone

  1. Another lovely post, Monika.
    I’ve taken up stone carving, and I’m sending you a couple pictures of one of mine that I think you might find interesting. I usually do simple numbers and letters (house address numbers, etc.) but I did have one more symbolic idea. I call this, “Question Marks Chasing Their Own Dots,” and I like to think of it as a modern, typographical ouroboros. It’s a design I came up with years ago, on paper, but it works so much better in three dimensions in stone, where the questions can go round and go into the subconscious and then come out and probe into the sky . . . of sorts.

    Oops — it seems I can’t copy an image into a comment here. If you send me your email, I’ll send you a couple pictures of this stone.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. * previous comment from Chris Cotton in Ohio, USA
    cotton_c@shaker.org

    Like

  3. Jeff says:

    Hi Monika. Thanks for the post. Sisyphus is one of the great myths. True story: in my younger days (many many years ago), I was in a bar reading Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” when a young woman approached me and asked: “What are you reading, ‘The Myth of Syphilis?'” I figured it was a sign that I should be leaving. Anyway, hope you are well. Stay safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. may i suggest you visit my latest post on India’s classical music. taken much effort to put accross a difficult subject

    Like

  5. you dear Monika are so erudite and knowledgeable on symbols and philosophy, I appreciate your visiting my post on ragas but let me tell you that if you wish to go deeper and have an extraordinary experience try to read and more important HEAR the post offerings – i am sure that the structure of the Ragas and theiramazing mastery of sound effecting human emotion will move you to go deeper as so many in the Weat have.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Indrajit, I have now listened to all the samples you posted. I wanted to comment before but I think the option to comment on the post had been switched off.
      I think some “Hindustani classical music” is indeed sublime. Kaushiki Chakraborty really sounds divine. You said in your post you were not an expert but you laid so much detailed knowledge on the reader. I admit my knowledge of the subject is close to nothing so forgive me if the following question sounds naïve: what would be the place of kirtan in this whole panorama? I am asking because I often listen to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The forms of classical hindustani music lends itself also to devotional music which includes Kirtans. Devotional songs in priase of The Supreme soul, the avatars and their legendary lives or in worship are called bhajans. Kirtans are similar and usually involve someone leading with the mantra, verse, or simple sentences of the Kirtan and the audience or worshippers together following by repaeating the said verse together in chorus. It is very simple but has a magnetic effect and is hypnotic. Often it is sung in a simple melodic form based on a raga. It is repetetive for creating a devotional mood and it hails the avatars Rama and Krishna among others. The hare Krishna movement has a signiture Kirtan which is very popular. On Amazon I recently found a CD by great Indian vocalists with four amazing kirtans and some Bhajans. Its calledDivine chants of Rama -”Jai Siyaram” You may like to acquire it. You must be familiar with Krishna Das of long Island a jew who went to India under a guru who was the same one you once mentioned Neem Karoli Baba. On return he became a famous interpreter of Kirtan music in the west and became famous for his rendering of Kirtan music.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for this exhaustive explanation, Indrajit. I actually love Krishna Das’ music – hence my questions. He always puts tears in my eyes. I also know of the great Neem Karoli Baba.

        Liked by 1 person

      • following your query i have posted today on kirtans with the best kirtan that efected me – you can visit the post and listen to it

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Chained to here – The Introverted Tree

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