(Latin, Tantalus), according to fable, is punished in
the infernal regions by intolerable thirst. To make his punishment the
more severe, he is plunged up to his chin in a river, but whenever he
bends forward to slake his thirst the water flows from him.
So bends tormented Tantalus to drink,
While from his lips the refluent waters shrink,
Again the rising stream his bosom laves.
And thirst consumes him mid circumfluent waves.
Darwin: Loves of
the Plants, 11 419.
Emblematical of a covetous man, who the more he has the more he
craves. (See Covetous.) Tantalus. A parallel story exists
among the Chipouyans, who inhabit the deserts which divide Canada from
the United States. At death, they say, the soul is placed in a stone
ferry-boat, till judgment has been passed on it. If the judgment is
averse, the boat sinks in the stream, leaving the victim chin-deep in
water, where he suffers endless thirst, and makes fruitless attempts to
escape to the Islands of the Blessed. (Alexander Mackenzie Voyages
in the Interior of America.) (1789, 1792, 1793.)
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894