Once upon a time, there was a blank page in the book of Greek mythology, so a story was written to fill it. This is that story.
As you probably guessed, it’s not a happy story because it’s Greek mythology and we have all that pathos to deal with. Also, the Greeks didn’t see a lot of benefit in telling happily-ever-after stories.
And the Greeks were human, so they messed up.
Most of them messed up on a human scale and we don’t know anything about them. Occasionally, someone would mess up on a colossal scale, and BAM! myth.
Here’s one of those stories.
Tantalus was a King. His dad was Zeus, and which made him half-deity, but it turns out that when you’re a twit being half a god is insufficient. (Remember, Zeus had about half a gazillion half-mortal children.)
The gods liked Tantalus (no clue why, except possibly because he could hold his liquor) so he was frequently invited up to Olympus for dinner.
If you had been invited into the Olympus kitchens, and if you’d happened to look in the pantry, you’d know that pretty much all the god ate and drank was ambrosia and nectar. Repetitive, yes, but on the plus side, it’s the food of the gods and therefore pretty dang yummy. Not available at your local McDonald’s.
Being something of an idiot, Tantalus stole some ambrosia so that he could impress his mortal friends.
The gods did not like that, but they didn’t really punish Tantalus. Instead, Zeus had A Serious Talk with his son who promised to behave himself.
Adding to his rap sheet, Tantalus branched out from theft and told some Very Important Secrets that Zeus had confided in him.
Think that’s OK? Er, no.
Within a short amount of time, Tantalus had proven that he wasn’t really the Best of All Possible Personages. The gods (for reasons no one can fathom) continued not punishing him thinking he’d learn and start acting his age.
Apparently stealing ambrosia is a gateway crime because then Tantalus went overboard. And when he went overboard, he went big time.
Tantalus invited all the god of Olympus over to his palace for dinner. Either he ran out of food (unlikely—he was King) or he decided to test his guests.
He killed his youngest son, Pelops, roasted him, and served him. Ewww.
Demeter (you remember her) wasn’t paying attention and nibbled some shoulder. The rest of the gods didn’t eat. And when you combine hungry with disgusted with divine anger, you go way beyond hangry.
Zeus immediately went from “Awww, kids will be kids” to ranging fury. He restored Pelops’ life (Demeter made him a nice arm of ivory since she’d eaten his original appendage).
Then Zeus decided to punish Tantalus. First he crushed Tantalus and his kingdom (presumably not Pelops, but I’m not sure). Then he got serious about punishing.
Zeus took Tantalus to the lowest level of Hades and put him in a lake. A lovely lake full of sweet water with a fruit tree branching over the lake right to where Tantalus was imprisoned. Then Zeus cursed Tantalus with hunger and thirst. Yet whenever Tantalus bent to drink from the lake, the water moved away from him. And when he reached for some of the fruit, the tree moved the branch just out of his reach.
Tantalizing story, no?