Disobeying a god or going against divine power in classical Greece entailed severe punishment and penalties. In this context, the punishment imposed on Sisyphus is remarkable: he had to eternally carry a huge stone to the top of a mountain, which would roll down to the starting point whenever he approached the top, forcing him to repeat the effort uninterruptedly.
The torment of Tantalus, punished for holding an anthropophagic feast of his own son and offering it to the gods, is exemplary. He is deprived of drinking and eating, even though he is surrounded by an abundant table and all kinds of food: meats, fruits, and other delicious delicacies. Whenever he tries to quench his thirst, the water drains; when he tries to grab something to eat, the food moves out of reach.
Also punished, Ixion suffers terrible punishment for his insistence on his disrespect to the gods. When he first fell in love he promised to give his future father-in-law several horses in exchange for marrying his daughter. He married and refused to hand over the horses, to which his father-in-law reacted by taking the horses by force. Ixion, in revenge, threw him into an incendiary chamber to kill him. Hearing his father-in-law’s screams while being incinerated, he regretted it and tried to save him. By failing, he went mad when he saw him charred. It was at this moment that Zeus, out of pity, saved Ixion from madness, restored his sanity, and invited him to a feast. At this feast, Ixion defied the god by insisting on seducing his wife. To test his daring, Zeus metamorphosed a cloud into his own wife, who was thus impregnated by Ixion (the children were the centaurs, except Chiron). The god then blasted him with a bolt of lightning and threw him into Tartarus (hell), condemning him to rotate eternally tied to a wheel.
According to Albert Camus’ interpretation, when Sisyphus accepts his punishment, he frees himself because he understands that the punishment does not end when he completes the journey; everything restarts, the fallen stone has to be taken up again, this is the punishment. This insight, the exact dimension of boundaries, is liberating - there is no longer a shift to hope and, hence, to anxiety.
If Tantalus realized that his death by starvation - by lack of food and water - was a punishment for the fact that he turned a human being (who was also his son) into food, it would imply realizing that his cruelty and arrogance in deceiving the gods by using his peer annihilated him, prevented him from living. He would realize that it was not a punishment, but a consequence of his actions, he would realize that he himself made his life impossible. Likewise, Ixion would discover his finitude when he was turned into a piece of gear, when he saw himself as an object - the dehumanized that he always was - a box that only held hatred and desires.
Feeling guilt, fear, remorse, and despair are also attempts to neutralize responsibility, destructive desires, the conflicting envy, and the justifying omissions. The nonacceptance of mistakes and failures, as well as the extrapolation of limits given by society (or by the other), create omnipotent attitudes to destroy and kill. Accepting punishments, sanctions, and changes caused by such behaviors is a way to humanize oneself. In turn, complaining and/or feeling guilty maintains impotence and make-believe, which lead to blame and lies.
The judgments of the law, as well as the transformations caused to the executioners by their victims when they abandon them, express justice and punishment. These are necessary reactions to question the harm caused, to make individuals accept the consequences of their actions, realizing that certain systems can be suppressed and transformed, while in the case of others, the only way to overcome is the peace and tranquility caused by admission of punishment. This experience humanizes and creates new perspectives for society and for the individual. Accepting responsibility for one’s own actions is restorative, it creates harmony and peace.
Guilt, fear, irresponsibility, and aggressiveness diminish and stop punishing individuals when limits are accepted. This experience is prophylactic as well as therapeutic and curative. It is a way of seeing connection, continuity in the processes of being in the world with others, a way of containing one’s displacements of anger, of envy, of the search for one’s own unlimited pleasure.