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Stargate | Explaining the Greek Myth Behind 'The Torment of Tantalus'

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My interest in mythology – and folklore – was kindled in a large part by Stargate SG-1’s use of different Earth mythologies in their storylines. One of the first episodes which drew me in was ‘The Torment of Tantalus’ (S1, Ep11).

Quite oblivious of the myth when first watching it, re-watching it later with a lot more knowledge of Classical mythology, I was struck by how well the myth of Tantalus was incorporated into the episode. Why not follow me down the rabbit hole…

The ‘The Torment of Tantalus’ Episode

In this episode, which follows ‘Thor’s Hammer’ (S1, Ep10), we find out that Stargate experiments were done in the 1940s. In 1945, the scientists – who included Professor Langford (Duncan Fraser) and the young Ernest Littlefield (future Stargate Atlantis favorite Paul McGillion) – got the Stargate to work. 

Ernest Littlefield goes through the Stargate, but when the gate disconnects, he is stuck on an unknown planet. Professor Langford tells his daughter, Catherine Langford (Nancy Hillis) – who is Ernest’s fiancée – that Ernest died during an accident. 

Some 50 years later, Daniel Jackson (Michael Sanks) is watching the now declassified footage that shows the Stargate experiments and Ernest going through the gate – and he realizes that Ernest (Keene Curtis) may still be alive. Daniel manages to copy the symbols that were dialed, and take the information to Catherine Langford (Elizabeth Hoffman). 

Catherine joins the SG-1 team and they go to the planet which Ernest visited. There they find him in a crumbling fortress; alive but alone. Ernest shows them a room that seemed to have been used by four alien races (whom we later learn are the Ancients, the Asgard, the Nox, and the elusive Furlings) as a meeting place. 

Catherine Langford (Elizabeth Hoffman) prepares to embark with SG-1. | MGM, 1998.

This “United Nations of the Stars” contains information encoded in a “true universal language”. However, the fortress is crumbling into the sea and SG-1 has to return to Earth with only Ernest’s notes on the library and the knowledge that the Asgard was one of the four races. 

The episode ends with Ernest and Catherine reunited, but with the repository of alien knowledge seemingly lost forever. 

See also: Stargate | Furlings, Financial Crisis, and the Fall of Stargate Worlds by Graeme Mason

Tantalus in Greek Mythology 

Tantalus, in Greek mythology, was the son of Zeus who became the king of Lydia, an ancient kingdom in what is now Western Turkey. He is described by Stephen L. Harris and Gloria Platzner in Classical Mythology: Images & Insights (2003) as one of the “Notorious Sinners” who is incarcerated in Tartarus to be “afflicted with intolerable hunger and thirst.”

The description of Tantalus’ torment is given in Book XI of Homer’s epic, The Odyssey:

“Aye, and I saw Tantalus in violent torment, standing in a pool, and the water came nigh unto his chin. He seemed as one athirst, but could not take and drink; for as often as that old man stooped down, eager to drink, so often would the water be swallowed up and vanish away, and at his feet the black earth would appear, for some god made all dry. And trees, high and leafy, let stream their fruits above his head, pears, and pomegranates, and apple trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs, and luxuriant olives. But as often as that old man would reach out toward these, to clutch them with his hands, the wind would toss them to the shadowy clouds.”

Homer, The Odyssey (circa 8-7th Century BCE)

Tantalus’ crimes that got him banished to Tartarus differ in some of the retellings, with one of his crimes being stealing nectar and ambrosia from the gods and giving it to mortals.

Tantalus reaches in vain for the fruits above his head in this oil painting by Gioacchino Assereto (circa 1640s) | Public Domain.

The use of the myth in ‘The Torment of Tantalus’ to inform the story is varied. The first and most obvious is the character of Ernest Littlefield, who takes on the persona of Tantalus in the episode. 

See also: Stargate | Bill McCay, Hathor, and the Complex Canon of Stargate Novels by Michael Simpson

Ernest Littlefield as Tantalus

A nod to the Tantalus myth is when Ernest hands Daniel a fruit and tells him to eat it. Not only is this a reminder of Tantalus’ punishment of not being able to eat or drink, but it is also Ernest’s way of making sure that the SG-1 team isn’t a figment of his imagination or a hallucination. 

The parallels between Ernest and Daniel come to the fore in their passion for their work that can put their lives at risk at times. Daniel also seems to understand Ernest better than the rest of SG-1 and even Catherine, and their immediate friendship is built on their curiosity for and love of knowledge. At the end of the episode, Daniel risks turning into a new Tantalus when he refuses to leave the repository. 

The 1945 Stargate experiment. | MGM, 1998.

Ernest’s love of his work is made clear at the beginning of the episode, as is his unconventional view of the Stargate. He sees the Stargate for the technology that it is and discerns the significance of the. chevrons, even though he only has limited information to go on at the time:

Ernest: “There must be over a 100 million possible combinations. If it’s merely a combination lock used to turn it on, why 39? Why not six?”
Professor Langford: “What are you saying?”
Ernest: “They are not combinations, they’re destinations, and we just found one.”
Professor Langford: “Doorway to Heaven could mean any number of different things. It could simply mean that anyone who passes through there will die.”

‘The Torment of Tantalus’ – S1, Ep11.

Ernest makes the choice to go through the Stargate even though it means risking his life and losing Catherine. The physical and mental torment he undergoes on the planet is seen by Ernest as a punishment he undergoes for his foolishness in taking this risk. 

However, Ernest imagines (hallucinates?) that Catherine is with him and that they spend their lives together in a kind of bliss. He also imagines that she had forgiven him for the risk that he’d taken, helping him to find some kind of peace with himself. 

Ernest also refers to himself as Tantalus when talking to Catherine later in the episode:

Ernest: “The torment of Tantalus.”
Catherine: “What?”
Ernest: “Tantalus was a king in Greek Mythology, banished to Hades, forced to stand in water that receded when he tried to drink.”
Catherine: “Everlasting, unending temptation.”
Ernest: “He was reaching for something that was, um, out of reach.”
Catherine: “That sounds familiar. Some might say that, that’s what makes a man great. If we all accepted what was within our grasp…”
Ernest: “Sometimes what we have is of more value. It takes a great man to recognize that. I didn’t. I was a fool.”
Catherine: “Ernest, you have suffered enough. No sense wasting time in the past, right?”

‘The Torment of Tantalus’ – S1, Ep11.

Catherine ends up setting Ernest free from the torment he’s undergone – not only his physical torment but also the mental torment of being alone all that time and being parted from her. It’s not a stretch to see the planet that Ernest is stuck on as a kind of Tartarus, where punishment is meted out to those who step beyond certain boundaries. For Ernest, this boundary is the Stargate – and stepping through it. 

Unlike the mythological Tantalus, however, Ernest gets a happy ending after the torturous years he spent on the planet. 

The elderly Ernest Littlefield (Keene Curtis). | MGM, 1998

The Crumbling Fortress in ‘The Torment of Tantalus’ as Tartarus 

In the myth, Tantalus is thrown into Tartarus – the lowest part of the Underworld – where he must undergo torment for some 50 years (much like Ernest’s own half-century of suffering). This deserted planet where Ernest ends up can be seen as Tartarus and the fortress as the heavy stone that is suspended above him, ready to crash down at any moment.

In his Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (1992), Pierre Grimal notes that: “In Hesiod’s Theogony, Tartarus is the deepest region of the world, placed beneath the Underworld itself. There was the same distance between Hades (the Underworld) and Tartarus as between Heaven and Earth”. 

The distance between the world of the living to the “underworld” – in the case of Ernest – is traveled in mere moments thanks to the wormhole and we are told in the episode by Catherine that the planet on which he was stranded is lightyears away from Earth. 

In the episode, the fortress where the Stargate and knowledge repository is located is on the edge of a cliff and is slowly crumbling into the ocean. Throughout the episode pieces of the fortress come crashing down, endangering the team’s lives and giving them little time to get back home. 

“It was in Tartarus that successive generations of the gods locked away their enemies” Grimal notes. However, unlike the Greek Tartarus, the fortress in this episode contains a vast store of information about the universe. 

See also: Stargate | What Daniel Taught Me About Autism and ADHD by Kristina Albert

The Abandoned Fortress as (a Lost) Heliopolis

The fortress is described as “Heliopolis” (City of the Sun) by Ernest:

Daniel: “Have you figured out who built this place or who used to live here?”
Ernest: “Heliopolis.”
Daniel: “Heliopolis?”
Ernest: “Repository – philosophy, astronomy.”
Daniel: “I assume you mean the ancient Egyptian city? People would come from everywhere to gather; scholars, community leaders. It was also the central place of worship for Ra.”

‘The Torment of Tantalus’ – S1, Ep11.

“Heliopolis was all but forgotten until archaeologists returned to save it from disappearing forever,” Archaeology Magazine notes in its 2019 article Egypt’s Eternal City. As the first Western explorations of the Heliopolis site took place in the early 1900s, Ernest would definitely have known about the finds at this important site of learning and religion. 

In the same Archaeology Magazine article, Andrew Curry writes:

“Heliopolis was known far and wide in antiquity. Called On in Hebrew, the city is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament. It also served as a reference point for other Egyptian sacred sites. […] Even in its final centuries, Heliopolis was a popular destination supposedly visited by the Greek philosopher Plato, according to an account written four centuries later by the geographer and historian Strabo. Strabo also includes a first-person account of his own visit to the site’s nearly deserted ruins in his book Geographica.”

Andrew Curry, Archaeology Magazine (2019)

In the Wikipedia article on Heliopolis, it’s stated that the city’s schools of philosophy and astronomy were also frequented by Orpheus, Homer, Pythagoras, Solon, other Greek philosophers, Ichonuphys, and Eudoxus. It also notes that “Ptolemy II had Manetho, the chief priest of Heliopolis, collect his history of the ancient kings of Egypt from its archives.” 

Part of a statue of Sethos II recently found during a Egyptian-German excavation of Heliopolis. | Simon Connor for the Ägyptisches Museum / Ägyptologisches Institut, 2021.

Realizing the link between the Egyptian god Ra and the Goa’uld, Daniel goes on to ask Ernest about any Egyptian hieroglyphs or symbols that indicate Ra, noting that it could be very important, hoping that it might shine some light on the fortress’ builders and the alien races who gathered there. (There are, however, unlike the historical Heliopolis no hieroglyphs – showing the absence of the Goa’uld.)

At this, Ernest reveals the four different writing systems that appear on the walls. The camera focuses first on the Futhark runes on the wall. This writing system was used by, amongst others, the Scandinavian people of the first millenium and showed the presence of the Asgard in this “United Nations of the Stars”. This is stated outright by having the rune for “o” – called the Othala rune – be at the end of the runic message, almost like a signature: 

“Othala, the Norse rune thought to represent the […] knowledge from past generations.”

Daniel Jackson, ‘The Torment of Tantalus’ – S1, Ep11.

Ernest also reveals a store of knowledge that can be accessed by touching the device in the centre of the room. The “writing” that appears in the air above them seem galaxy-like at first, leaving the characters to wonder at its meaning:

Jack: Daniel, does this mean anything?
Daniel: If this was a Mecca of sorts, an alien United Nations, this has to mean something.
Jack: I know this.
Catherine: Of course! High school chemistry.
Daniel: One proton, one electron – hydrogen! 
… 
Daniel: Jack, this is a true universal language.

‘The Torment of Tantalus’ – S1, Ep11.

They marvel at the complexity of the language and what information it may contain, the answers to their questions about the Stargate system, and the Ancients tantalizingly close (see what I did there?).

Conclusion

At the end of the episode, we find that Ernest’s notebook was saved by Daniel and that he chose not to stay behind in the Library of the Four Races. He, therefore, doesn’t suffer the same (or worse) fate than Ernest. 

Just like the Tantalus myth serves as a cautionary tale, Ernest’s “tale” teaches Daniel to look around him at what he has and not to let anything get in the way of that. Daniel learns from Ernest’s mistakes, choosing to rather stay with the SG-1 team than stay behind in the crumbling ruins. 


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Carin Marais is a freelance writer by day and a genre fiction writer by night. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching her favourite shows – like Stargate – or reading the next book on her giant TBR pile. She only makes the odd trip back to reality for tea, biscuits, and more yarn for her various crochet and knitting projects.  

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