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Seneca


The Torments of Tantalus


Tantalus’ misery is described exquisitely by Seneca (Thyestes, 152–175):

Tantalus stands wearied, with empty throat. Over his guilty head hangs plentiful food, quicker to escape than the birds of Phineus (the Harpies). On each side of him close by grows a tree, with laden leaves; bent with fruit, it mocks his open mouth as it trembles. Deceived so many times, Tantalus, although hungry and impatient of delay, gives up trying to touch the tree; he turns his gaze away, and, tightly closing his mouth, restrains his hunger by pressing his teeth together. But then the whole wood lets its riches hang down closer to him; ripe apples dance on the still leaves above him and inflame his hunger, which bids him move his hands in vain. When he stretches them out and decides to be disappointed, all the fruits of autumn are snatched away on high with the moving branches. Then thirst, no less grievous than hunger, presses upon him. When it has made his blood hot and burning with fiery torches  he stands, unhappy man, trying to drink the water around him. The stream runs from him and turns the water from him, leaving a dry bed as he tries to pursue. He drinks deep draughts of dust from the rushing stream.

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