One story accounting for the severe punishment administered to Tantalus was that he had stolen nectar and ambrosia from the table of the gods to give to his friends.
Another was that, receiving a golden dog, stolen by someone else from the temple to Zeus, he later denied that he had received the dog.
And another was that, seeking to test the wisdom of the gods, he had cut his own son Pelops into pieces, boiled them, and served them to the gods with their meal.
The crime was discovered, however, and Pelops was restored to life. But the most popular account was that Tantalus, a great favorite of the gods, betrayed some confidences which Zeus had entrusted to him.
Whatever the crime he was punished by being placed in the lower world in the midst of a lake with clusters of fruit hanging over his head. Whenever he stooped to drink of the lake, however, the waters receded, and whenever he stretched up his hand for the fruit, the branches drew away.
Thus, though water and fruit were apparently plentiful to relieve thirst and hunger, he was forever in torment by the withdrawal of that which he desired.
The word tantalize, formed from his name, commemorates the nature of his punishment.