Tantalus (TAN-ta-luss) was a Greek
king (and a son of
Zeus) who thought he could fool the gods.
When Zeus invited Tantalus to come up on Mount Olympos and eat dinner
with the gods, Tantalos would steal the gods’ special food (ambrosia
and nectar) to give to his friends back on earth!
And then he did something worse than that. He invited the gods over for dinner at HIS house, and tried to trick them into eating human flesh. Tantalos had his own son, Pelops, cut up into pieces and boiled in the stew. Most of the gods figured out what was happening and didn’t eat any, but Demeter was so worried about Persephone, who had been kidnapped, that she ate a little piece of Pelops’ shoulder.
This Italian vase from the 300s BC
shows a different version of the story
where a spirit holds Tantalus back
from a basket of bread and a jug of water
For this crime, Zeus himself killed Tantalus, and Tantalos had to spend his whole afterlife in the underworld, Hades. His torture was that he had to stand forever waist-deep in a pool of water, with a fruit tree dangling branches full of ripe fruit over his head. He got terribly hungry and thirsty, but whenever he bent down to drink the water, it would all magically drain away, and whenever he reached up to pick some fruit, the branches would lift up out of his reach. But no matter how hungry or thirsty he got, he was already dead, so he could never die. (That's where our word "tantalizing" comes from.)
Because of Tantalus' hubris - thinking he was smarter than the gods - Tantalus' children, Pelops and Niobe, and his grandchildren, Atreus and Thyestes, and his great-grandchildren, Agamemnon and Menelaus and Aegisthus, and their children Orestes, Electra, and Iphigeneia were all unlucky.
More about Tantalus? Check out these books from Amazon or from your library:
The Pride of Lions: The Story of the House of Atreus, by Norma Johnston (2002, unfortunately out of print right now, but maybe your library can find it). For middle schoolers.
D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, by Edgar and Ingri D'Aulaire.
The Odyssey, by Homer. Translated by Robert Fagles. The story of Tantalus is in Book 11.
The Oresteia, by Aeschylus, translated by Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics). The story of Tantalus' great-grandson Agamemnon. Fagles is a great translator! Includes a version for performance.