Sisyphus fragment

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The Sisyphus fragment is a 42-line excerpt in iambic trimeter from an ancient Greek satyr play written either by Euripides or Critias. (In Diels-Kranz, it is 88 B 25, attributed to Critias.) The words are spoken by Sisyphus, a character in the play. The play itself is no longer extant. But Sextus Empiricus preserved the excerpt in full for us by quoting it in his Against the Mathematicians 9.54; other ancient writers, apparently independently of Sextus, refer to and/or quote parts of the excerpt. It is the oldest known account of a naturalistic evolution of religion. It expresses an atheistic viewpoint by founding religion not in a valid belief in divinity, but in a man-made device for getting people to obey the law out of fear of divine punishment for transgressions.


Sextus attributes the lines to Critias, as do other ancient authors. Recently, modern scholars (e.g., Dihle 1977, Kahn 1997) have increasingly begun to question this identification, attributing the lines instead to Euripides, who is known to have written a play (now lost) titled Sisyphus, and who (more importantly) is identified by other ancient writers as the author of the fragment.


  • Dihle, Albrecht (1977). "Das Satyrspiel 'Sisyphos'". Hermes 105: 28–42. 
  • Kahn, Charles (1997). "Greek Religion and Philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment". Phronesis 42 (3): 247–262. doi:10.1163/15685289760518153. 

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