Tantalus was the son of Zeus and was the king of Sipylos. He was uniquely favored among mortals since he was invited to share the food of the gods. However, he abused the guest-host relationship and was punished by being "tantalized" with hunger and thirst in Tartarus: he was immersed up to his neck in water, but when he bent to drink, it all drained away; luscious fruit hung on trees above him, but when he reached for it the winds blew the branches beyond his reach.
There are differing stories about what Tantalus' crime was. One account says that he tried to share the divine ambrosia with other mortals, and thus aroused the ire of the gods. A more famous account says that he invited the gods to a banquet and served them the dismembered body of his own son, Pelops; when the gods discovered the trick, they punished Tantalus and restored Pelops to life, replacing with ivory a part of the shoulder which had been eaten by Demeter.

Tantalus' family was an ill-fated one. His daughter, Niobe, lost all her children and was turned to stone. His son, Pelops, was murdered, cooked, and restored to life. His grandsons, Atreus and Thyestes, struggled for power, and Atreus committed a variation of Tantalus' cannabilistic trick with Thyestes' children. His great-grandson, Agamemnon, was murdered by another great-grandson, Aegisthus, who was in turn killed by a great-great-grandson, Orestes.