Dumbledore and The Tantalizing Tantalus Clue

by Silver Ink Pot

In Chapter 26 of The Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore and Harry descend to the “Underworld” of a sea cave where Lord Voldemort has supposedly hidden a horcrux containing part of his soul.

Tom Riddle had visited that same cave as a child during a summer trip to the seashore with some other orphans. It is interesting to speculate about whether JKR meant the cave to be connected to an actual place. There are mysterious caverns on the rocky coast of Cornwall, near Tintagel, a place connected with the legend of King Arthur. One is known as “Merlin’s cave.” The tradition was that where the land met the sea, it was possible to enter the “Underworld.”

However, this editorial is to discuss another vision of the Underworld: that of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, as portrayed by Homer and Virgil. I hope to show the connection between what happens in Chapter 26 and the mythical character of Tantalus, a man tormented by the gods with insatiable thirst that cannot be quenched.

The first part of Harry’s journey with Dumbledore is quite familiar: they must cross water in order to enter the Underworld. The motif of “crossing the water” is nearly universal, comparable to crossing the River Styx into Hades. And the Inferi in the water are similar to the bodies of the angry dead seen by Dante in the Inferno:

Beneath the water people are who sigh
And make this water bubble at the surface,
As the eye tells thee wheresoe’er it turns.
(Canto VI)

In order to find the horcrux at the bottom of the grail-like basin, Dumbledore must drink every drop of the potion. Harry’s “job” is to make Dumbledore finish it, no matter what effect it has on him. Quite soon, the Headmaster is filled with great distress. He screams out phrases such as, “I know I did wrong, oh please make it stop!” and “I’ll never, never again…” His speech is like that of someone being tortured and crying out for mercy, and the reader wonders if he is actually re-living the experiences and memories of others, which might have been placed in the Pensieve-like bowl.

Afterwards, Dumbledore seems to be dead, but Harry revives him with “Rennervate.” When he wakens, he asks Harry for water, yet when Harry fills a goblet and puts it near Dumbledore’s lips, the water disappears. This happens again and again, and the man cannot drink. Dumbledore begins to die and in desperation Harry takes some water from the lake and pours it over the Headmaster’s face. That is a probably a bad omen considering Dumbledore warned Harry not to touch the water on the way across the lake. Perhaps the water is tainted by the bodies of the Inferi. Certainly Dumbledore’s death follows very soon after he is touched by the waters.

Dumbledore is “tantalized” by water, water, everywhere, yet none to quench his thirst. This is exactly the “punishment” given to the mythical figure of Tantalus in Roman mythology.

Tantalus was a son of Zeus, beloved of the gods, and allowed to dine with them. For some unknown reason, though, he chose to repay the kindness of the gods by committing sins against them. There are various reasons he was punished, ranging from stealing the ambrosia of the gods, to the worse sin of killing and cooking his own son! Tantalus was also the ill-fated ancestor of the House of Atreus, whose cursed family members figure prominently in Greek Tragedies and the stories of the Trojan War.

The gods were shocked by the actions of Tantalus, especially when he served his own son, Pelops, as a luncheon. The gods revived Pelops, and rebuilt his body, except for the shoulder, which was eaten by the goddess Demeter, much to her horror. Pelops was given a new shoulder made of ivory to replace his old one, and Tantalus was sent to the Underworld to suffer torment forever.

The name Tantalus means “The Sufferer” or “The Bearer.” His punishment in the afterlife was to stand in a pool up to his chin, yet be unable to drink. Each time he sought to drink the water, it would recede from him. Branches full of fruit hung over his head, but he was not allowed to eat. The branches would sway away from his reach.

Homer writes about the hero Odysseus going through the Underworld and seeing Tantalus:

I also saw the awful agonies that Tantalus has to bear. The old man was standing in a pool of water which nearly reached his chin, and his thirst drove him to unceasing efforts; but he could never get a drop to drink. For whenever he stooped in his eagerness to lap the water, it disappeared. The pool was swallowed up, and all he saw at his feet was the dark earth, which some mysterious power had parched. Trees spread their foliage high over the pool and dangle fruits above his head—pear-trees and pomegranates, apple-trees with their glossy burden, sweet figs and luxuriant olives. But whenever the old man tried to grasp them in his hands, the wind would toss them up towards the shadowy clouds.
(Odysseus. Homer, Odyssey 11.584)

Of course, we have no canon to show that Dumbledore deserved the same punishment as Tantalus. He is probably not a cannibal who ate his own son, yet we have read about children in his care becoming victims of Voldemort and his evil minions, from the time of Moaning Myrtle to the present.

Or perhaps Dumbledore’s suffering is simply to show the intensity of anguish served up by monstrous Lord Voldemort to anyone who dared search for his hidden horcrux.

There is another meaning of “tantalus,” too. A tantalus can also mean a wooden case for holding bottles of drink which are visible but locked up. In olden days, these bottles were made of crystal, and resemble those that Dumbledore shows Harry during their lessons together, filled with the memories of people who knew the story of Tom Riddle. These memories have “tantalized” Dumbledore, and he pushes Harry to get the last one from Professor Slughorn, who taught Tom Riddle the theory of the Horcruxes. Harry is now tantalized, himself, by the search for these bits of Tom Riddle’s soul – a search which will continue into Book 7.

So why did Dumbledore have to suffer the same fate as “Tantalus”? Was the scene in the cave to show that Dumbledore feels responsible for those who have died at the hand of Tom Riddle? We know that Dumbledore made the decision to allow the future Lord Voldemort into Hogwarts school in spite of his obvious bent toward evil at an early age.

Maybe when Dumbledore drinks the horrible green potion, he is “drinking death,” or becoming a “Death Eater” who takes in the suffering of others. Or, when Dumbledore shouts, throws himself onto the ground, and pleads for relief, he may be viewing his own “sins” throughout his life, or choices he made which led to the deaths of others.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, the character of Aeneas is accompanied by the prophetess, Sybill, as they travel through Tartarus, or the Underworld. He also sees Tantalus and many other dead souls being tormented there. He learns the purpose of all the suffering and how death cleanses the souls of everyone in time:

Some plung’d in waters, others purg’d in fires,
Till all the dregs are drain’d, and all the rust expires.
…Compell’d to drink the deep Lethaean flood,
In large forgetful draughts to steep the cares
Of their past labors, and their irksome years,
That, unrememb’ring of its former pain,
The soul may suffer mortal flesh again.

Virgil’s description is certainly reminiscent of Dumbledore’s thirst for the truth and literal thirst for water, and Harry “compelling” him to drink the potion before being “washed” by the water from the pool of the dead.

We may never know everything Dumbledore saw and experienced in the cave, but the classical allusion to poor Tantalus is as clear as water in a crystal goblet.


“Aeneid VI: Hades Realm.” Quotation: Virgil, The Aeneid, 735-751.http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa082200b.htm

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” Online Text.http://www.everypoet.com/archive/poetry/dante/

“Tantalize.” Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=tantalize&searchmode=none

“Tantalos 1: Greek Mythology Link.” Quotation: Homer, The Odyssey, 11.584. http://www.maicar.com/GML/Tantalus1.html

“Tantalus.” http://www.allwords.com/word-! tantaluses.html

“Tintagel” http://www.angelfire.com/ak3/dailyword/travelfive.html