TILL DEATH DO US PART:
The Epic of Alcestis
It seems our time together draws to a close, just as Alcestis’ time on earth did. Indeed, after I write to you of her story, my correspondence with you will end. Let me tell you this final tale before I return to my other duties, heavenly and otherwise.
I must say that I played almost no role in Alcestis’ story, for her stay in the Underworld was brief. But her death was a reflection of her life: selfless, brave, better than most.
Alcestis was a great beauty, peaceful and kind, a daughter of King Pelias with a radiant face and gentle eyes. She was such a great beauty, in fact, that all the men of Greece desired her for their wife and asked her father for her hand. King Pelias became so quickly disenchanted with replying to all her suitors that he issued them a challenge: the first man to hitch a wild bear to a chariot could wed his beloved Alcestis.
This is, of course, a near-impossible challenge for most mortals, but the deities were at play here. Apollo, the great sun god, having been banished from Olympus for murder, was in the service of one King Admetus for a year. While the handsome Admetus longed for Alcestis’ hand, he knew he had no chance at success with her father’s challenge. So Admetus employed Apollo’s might and powers to complete the task at hand, and presented the bear lashed to the chariot before King Pelias. As dumbfounded as he was, Pelias granted his daughter to Admetus, who went willingly to her new husband as the two were wed in an elaborate and beautiful ceremony.
But as with many men, Admetus had a streak of foolery that proved deadly to his new bride. The king neglected to make a sacrifice to our lady Artemis on the day of his wedding, and that night, the calculating goddess sent myriad venomous serpents to the newlyweds’ bed. The fanged reptiles struck the king again and again, eventually pushing him close to death. He called Apollo to his chambers, his horrified bride watching the whole scene.
Here, clever Apollo devised a solution, calling on the mercy of the Fates to spare Admetus’ life if only someone could be found who would sacrifice their life in Admetus’ place. Admetus begrudgingly accepted Apollo’s compromise, assuming one of his elderly, fading parents would take his place in the Underworld. But his own father and mother, aged as they were, refused to go in his place, crushing the hopes of their son, who resigned himself to his dark fate.
But Alcestis, the fair and good, the wise and the sacrificial, raised her gentle eyes, filled with tears, and volunteered her own life for that of her husband’s, allowing me to lead her down to this fateful realm as she left her earthly existence so her king might live.
Here I might usually begin to wrap up my tale of woe, to tell you that this was the end for Alcestis and Admetus until death reunited them. Fortunately, this story has a sweeter ending than most I convey.
For a great hero of our people, one whose name I am certain you will know, happened through Admetus’ kingdom soon after Alcestis’ sad fate. Hercules was traveling toward one of his famed missions and, in need of a place to stay, took advantage of Admetus’ hospitality. Hercules found the king so accommodating that he knew he had to repay him.
So Hercules, hearing of Admetus’ deep grief, went to Alcestis’ tomb and there wrestled for her life with a worthy opponent: Thanatos, the personification of death. Hercules won the match through a long fight, drawing the waning spirit of Alcestis up from the Underworld and fully back to life.
Truly, this final obituary I leave you with is not an obituary. Alcestis lives on today, having borne Admetus a beautiful son and a daughter. The two rule peacefully together, and while I cannot say Admetus truly deserves Alcestis and her pure heart, I have no doubt they will one day take on a new realm and embrace the Underworld together.
It is on this happy thought that I take my leave, off to oversee my dozens of other less noble duties. May these stories of the dead, and of those who encountered death, spur you on to find those lush Elysian Fields for yourself.
Until we meet again,
God of herds, travelers and hospitality, roads and trade, thievery, cunning, diplomacy, language and writing
Special Messenger to Zeus
Author’s note: The real tale of Alcestis and Admetus is a bit more disjointed than this. In Hermes’ retelling, he really adds on all the details about Alcestis’ personality and motivations — those parts of the story aren’t clear in the original.
In the original, Alcestis and King Admetus were married after Admetus met the challenge of hitching a bear to a chariot. The challenge was from Alcestis’ father, King Pelias, who was so overwhelmed by dealing with his daughter’s myriad suitors that he gave them what he thought was an impossible mission. But the god Apollo owed Admetus a debt, and completed the difficult task of joining the chariot to the bear for him, thus winning Alcestis’ hand for Admetus.
Original stories make it unclear exactly when Admetus was bitten by snakes — it was certainly after the couple was married, but the timeline is unclear, so I decided to have the incident take place directly after their wedding. Stories are also unclear as to whether the snake incident is what led to Admetus’ death, or if the king was facing a natural death when Apollo intervened with the Fates. At any rate, some time after the two were married, the goddess Artemis became angry that Admetus had neglected to offer her a sacrifice, and sent several serpents to strike him down. Some versions of the story have the serpents killing Admetus; some note that Apollo helped call the serpents off by telling Admetus to simply offer the goddess a sacrifice. I decided to tie together the serpent incident and Admetus’ death for continuity’s sake, and to make it clear that the serpents’ poison worked. All versions of the story, including mine, make it clear that at some point when Admetus faced death, Apollo, still in the service of the king, was able to strike a deal with the Fates to offer another life in exchange for Admetus’. Alcestis did accept Admetus’ sentence and die in his place. But it happened that shortly after her death, the hero Hercules was traveling through Admetus’ kingdom, and, charmed by his hospitality, repaid him by fighting the personification of death at Alcestis’ grave and winning her back from the Underworld. Thus, I’ve stuck mostly to the facts, tying together some of the events to create one full tale out of Alcestis and Admetus’ love story.
Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton, England (c. 1869-1871). Source: Wikipedia.
“Admetus.” Wikipedia, web source.
“Alcestis.” Wikipedia, web source.