Admetos and Alcestis

Published February 12, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Y’know, it occurs to me that there’s still one more Hades-related myth I need to tell after this one:  the death of Orpheus.  So I guess that one’s up for next week, then I can get to the other stories I’ve touched on but not told yet.  It’s going to be tricky to figure out when to place that in relation to this one, though.  Admetos, like Orpheus, is an Argonaut (well, Admetos may not always be an Argonaut, but as he’s from Thessaly and a son-in-law of Pelias, it makes more sense for him to be an Argonaut than someone like, say, Telamon, who has no particular connection to Thessaly or Iolcos), but…hrmm.  Depending on how I handle the…uh…ack.  There’s a reason these myths are not usually coordinated in a strictly chronological manner.  Yeah, so I guess I’m just going to have to live with the fact that some of the stories overlap, chronologically.  Or rather, that stories like this one, with multiple parts, have other stories take place in the middle.


It all began with Asclepios.  He was the son of Apollo, and the most skilled of all mortal healers.  He was even so skilled that he once managed to bring a dead man back to life.

But that was the where the trouble started.  Zeus was enraged at the offense against the natural order, and he struck Asclepios dead with a thunderbolt.

A furious Apollo wanted to avenge his favorite son, but he could never turn against his own father.  Instead, Apollo began slaughtering the Cyclopes who had forged the thunderbolts.  This only made Zeus even more angry, since the Cyclopes were his uncles.  He grabbed Apollo and began dragging him down to Tartaros, swearing he would subject the rebellious god to everlasting torment.

Zeus found Hades awaiting him just outside the entrance to Tartaros, with several of the Hundred-Handed Giants.  Zeus remanded Apollo to the custody of the giants, and stepped aside to speak to his brother.

“Do you really think that this is a good idea?” Hades asked coldly.  “He’s already angry at you, and you want to place him in company with Titans who still want vengeance on us for ousting them from power?  Have you forgotten why you swallowed Metis?”

“Do you want to let him get away with what he’s done?” Zeus countered, still burning with anger.

“There are other ways to punish him,” Hades pointed out.  “Find one that can’t lead to us becoming the ones locked away in torment for eternity.  I have no desire to end up like our father.”

Zeus was still angry, but he knew his brother was right.  So he dragged Apollo back up to the surface, and forced him into a disguise so that he looked like an ordinary mortal man.  Then he took him to Pherae in Thessaly, and gave him to its king, Admetos, as a slave.

Apollo was horrified to end up as the slave of a mortal man, but Admetos was very kind to him, even though he had had no idea that his new slave was actually a god.  Apollo’s main task was to watch over the cattle as they grazed on the plains of Thessaly, and he played his lyre and sang the whole time he was at work, making the animals docile and cooperative.  In fact, the cows were so happy to listen to Apollo’s singing as they grazed that all of the heifers gave birth to twins that spring.  Realizing that his new cowherd had to be somehow responsible for the miracle, Admetos began to treat the disguised Apollo even more kindly, earning the god’s friendship and gratitude.

Soon afterwards, Admetos fell madly in love with the beautiful Alcestis, one of the daughters of Pelias, the King of Iolcos.  But Alcestis was Pelias’ favorite daughter, and he did not want her to get married, and so he declared that no man should have his daughter’s hand in marriage unless he arrived at Pelias’ palace in a chariot drawn by a lion and a boar.  Admetos despaired of ever winning his beloved’s hand, but Apollo assured him that it could be easily done, as even the most savage beasts could be tamed by music.  Then, without another word, Apollo walked off into the forest, and found a wild boar.  He sang to it and played his lyre, and it became as meek and gentle as a lamb, and followed him gladly back to the stable, where the chariot was waiting.  Apollo gently hitched the boar to the chariot, and then went into the forest in the other direction, where he found a savage lion.  After a song from radiant Apollo, the lion became as docile as a sleepy kitten, and followed the god back to the stable, batting playfully at the hem of his tattered slave robes.  Once the lion, too, was hitched the chariot, Apollo mounted the chariot as charioteer, and called to Admetos to ride behind him.

Admetos had seen many strange things in his time, so he was not afraid to ride in a chariot pulled by a lion and a boar, especially not with his uncanny slave handling the reins.  Pelias was dismayed to see Admetos arrive in such a manner, but he was essentially a man of his word, and he was afraid of what other miracles such a young man might be capable of, so he agreed to allow Admetos to marry Alcestis, and soon the boar and the lion were taking the young couple back to Pherae, where Apollo released the wild beasts back into the forests.

After Apollo had been a slave in Pherae for an entire year without misbehaving–or even seducing any mortal maidens–Zeus forgave his son, and allowed him to return to Mt. Olympos.  Apollo went to Admetos and shed his disguise, then promised Admetos that he would always watch over his house, and as an added gift of friendship, he told Admetos that he knew the king’s Fate.  Admetos was to live another ten years, at which time he would fall ill and die.  But, in gratitude for all of Admetos’ kindness, Apollo gave him a special gift.  Once Admetos fell ill, if he could find any other mortal who was willing to die in his place, then Admetos’ life would be spared, and he would live on…but it had to be voluntary:  if they didn’t want to die to save him, if they were doing it because they were ordered to, then it wouldn’t work.

Admetos thanked the god and promised to make lavish sacrifices in his honor every year for the rest of his life.  Satisfied, Apollo returned to his father’s palace on Mt. Olympos.

A few years after Apollo’s departure, soon after Alcestis became heavy with child, Admetos heard that Jason of Iolcos was preparing a voyage to far distant Colchis, in search of the Golden Fleece.  Knowing that he could not die for another eight years, Admetos eagerly signed on to join the expedition, promising his beloved wife that he would return safe and sound.

And indeed he did return, uninjured and bearing both gifts and many tales of heroism, both his own and that of his companions, who included not only local heroes like Peleus of Phthia but also more distant heroes like Castor and Polydeuces, and even the mighty Heracles himself, the most famous of all the mortal sons of Zeus.  But that’s another story.

Admetos and Alcestis and their new son, Eumelos, lived many years in happy peace in Pherae.

At first, when Admetos fell ill, he didn’t worry, because he was so used to knowing that it wasn’t yet his time to die.  But then he stopped and counted the years, and realized that it now was his time to die.  He struggled out of bed and went to see his aged parents, asking if one of them would sacrifice the few years they had left so that he could live on.

But they refused.

He went to see his soldiers, all the men who had sworn to fight and die for Pherae, and asked if one of them would sacrifice their lives that he might live.

But they refused.

He went to the slaves in the palace, whose lives were surely worse than death.  They, surely, would have no reason to want to keep living, Admetos thought.  He told them about Apollo’s promise to spare his life if someone would choose to die in his place.

But they refused.

Desperate to find someone who would die for him, Admetos had heralds make proclamations throughout his lands.  They said that if any man or woman chose to die to save their king, then their family would be richly rewarded.

But still no one came forward to give up their lives for him.

Giving up at last, Admetos returned to bed and felt his strength begin to wane away.  As he realized the end was near, he called for his son, and began to make his last farewells.  Once he had said goodbye to his weeping son, Admetos called for his dear wife, who had run off in tears on seeing Admetos embracing Eumelos for the last time.

But she did not answer.

As Admetos became more and more distraught that his wife would not show her face to him one last time, to let him see her again before his end came, he began to grow agitated.  He began to fear that Alcestis actually wanted him to hurry up and die so that she could take another husband.  He rose from the bed and began to pace his bedchamber in his worry.  He had been pacing for some time when his son spoke.

“Papa, aren’t you dying?” he asked.  “Shouldn’t you do that in bed?”

Admetos stopped and looked at his confused son.  Then he realized something chilling.  He was no longer ill.  He no longer felt the shadow of Thanatos hovering above him.

Terrified, he ran from his bedchamber, and hurried through the town, calling for his wife.

He found her, at last, collapsed before the altar in the massive temple that Admetos had built in honor of Apollo’s kindness.  No matter how Admetos cried and wept and called her name, she did not stir, for she had herself given her life to allow him to continue living, and no number of sacrifices to Apollo caused her to revive.

Alcestis was laid in state in the palace, to be wept and mourned, until a fitting tomb could be built outside the city.  The king ordered the whole city to go into mourning for its beautiful queen, and retreated into his chamber, unwilling to see anyone.

Early the next day, one of Admetos’ old comrades from the Argo arrived in Pherae.  Great Heracles, son of Zeus himself, arrived in Pherae, and found himself quite surprised to see everyone in mourning.  He called at the palace, and was shocked to find that Admetos was not in the throne room awaiting his guest.  Shouting and shouting until the servants were afraid that the palace itself might fall on their heads, Heracles wandered through the palace, looking for his old friend.

Eumelos was the one who approached Heracles, and began to explain the calamity of his mother’s death, weeping all the while, as he led the son of Zeus to see Admetos.  Admetos finished his son’s tale, leaving Heracles both mournful and enraged at once.  He was sad to hear of the lovely lady’s passing, but he was ourtraged that she had been forced to give up her life in such a manner.

After pondering it some while, Heracles declared that he would not stand for it, and that he would see to it that the situation was remedied at once!  He told Admetos to hold off from the funeral, and set off from Pherae, headed towards the nearest cavern that led down beneath the crust of the earth and into the depths below.

As Heracles arrived at the entrance to the underworld, the three-headed dog Cerberus at first began to bark and snarl, but then whined and slunk away, his tail between his legs.  Heracles laughed at the dog’s fear, and strode up to the cowering animal.

“Where’s your master, then?” he chortled.  “I have business with the old stiff!”

Cerberus whimpered, and backed away a moment longer, then turned and began to run through the swirling shades of the underworld.  Heracles ran after the hound until he found himself once more facing Hades, and for the first time also facing the cold yet beautiful Persephone.  Standing between Heracles and the rulers of the afterlife was the weeping shade of the very woman Heracles had come for.

“As if it weren’t noisy enough in here already,” Hades sighed, on sighting his nephew approaching.  He glanced over his shoulder at Cerberus, as the three-headed dog hid behind the god’s throne, then looked back at Heracles.  “Do make it quick.  I can’t face dealing with your raucous presence right now.  It’s bad enough that this woman won’t stop crying long enough to explain her untimely death…”

“I don’t see why Hermes ran off without explaining for her,” Persephone added, shaking her head.  “He’s usually so good about that, when he brings the souls down here.”

“He probably spotted some mortal maiden on his way down,” Hades grumbled, shaking his head.

“I’m here for her,” Heracles said, indicating Alcestis.  “My friend Admetos doesn’t want to lose his wife so soon.”

Alcestis stopped crying, and looked at the hero with wonder.  “You’ve spoken to my husband?” she asked.

“Do you really think you can come down here any time you please and return the dead to life?” Hades asked.  “Even if you were my brother’s favorite son, as you seem to imagine yourself to be, I cannot allow such chaos.”

“Just this one time, I promise,” Heracles said, and then explained how Alcestis had given up her life so her husband could live.

By the time he finished, Persephone was weeping, and her husband was frowning.  “That irritating little…if Apollo is going to make a deal like that, he should have the sense to tell me about it!” Hades exclaimed.  “No wonder Hermes didn’t want to stay to explain…”

“We’ll let her return to the surface, won’t we?” Persephone asked, her eyes pleading through their tears.

“Of course we well,” her husband assured her, “though a wretch who would ask his wife to die in his place doesn’t deserve such a fine woman by his side.”

“He never once asked that of me,” Alcestis assured the god.  “He asked everyone in the kingdom other than me or our son.  I chose to die because I couldn’t face life without him.”

Hades sighed deeply.  “Very well, then.  You may take her back up, Heracles, and I won’t even ask you to kill her husband in recompense.  But if you ever set foot in my domain again, you’re staying!”

Heracles laughed.  “We’ll see,” he replied, then began to lead Alcestis back out of the throne room.  But halfway across the room, he noticed the bench where Theseus and Pirithoos were sitting.  “Hey?  What are you doing here?”  He walked over to his old friends.  Theseus smiled wanly at him, but Pirithoos only looked blankly ahead, seeing nothing.

“The one is suffering his eternal punishment for attempting to steal my wife,” Hades answered coldly.  “The son of Aegeus is being punished for helping him, and being too stupid to give up on his shameless friend.”

Heracles turned back to Theseus, who nodded his head sadly, and explained that he didn’t want to leave Pirithoos behind to suffer alone.  “But I would gladly return the girl to Tyndareos with repayment for our transgression, if we were both allowed to return to the surface!” he added, trying to gain Heracles’ sympathy.

“Theseus…Helen’s brothers already rescued her,” Heracles told him.  “Years ago.”

“Years?  I thought I had only been here a few days…”

Heracles laughed.  “Good gods, man, open your eyes!  I was barely more than a boy last time I saw you!  Now I’m heralded across the world as the greatest hero ever born!”  Heracles ignored the scoffing noise his uncle made behind him.

“Then…what about my kingdom?  What about my family?”

“Well, Castor and Polydeuces conquered all of Attica to get Helen back.  Don’t hold it against them, okay?  They’re good friends of mine, too, you know.  They left Menestheus in charge of Athens.  He’s not a bad fellow, but your sons fled to Euboea, just in case.”  Heracles paused uncomfortably.  “I think your mother’s still with Helen…as her slave.”

“What?!  My mother enslaved, and my sons in hiding?!”  Theseus tried to rise, but was still stuck fast to the bench.  “Please, let me rescue them!”

“You are free to go at any time, so long as you understand that your friend will never leave this place,” Hades informed him.

Theseus was still hesitating, so Heracles made the decision for him.  Gripping the smaller man by his arms, he yanked him up off the sticky seat.  Theseus screamed in agony–part of his buttocks remained on the seat!–but he was free.  Leaning heavily on Heracles, Theseus accompanied his friend and Alcestis back to the surface, and to Pherae.

While Admetos and Alcestis were enjoying their tender reunion, Heracles asked Theseus what he was going to do about his kingdom.  “I’ll need an army to reclaim it,” Theseus said, frowning.  “Will you help me retake it?”

“If I do, Castor and Polydeuces might take offense,” Heracles replied, shaking his head.  “Besides, I’ve got a family of my own to get back to.  Deianeira starts to get antsy when I’m away too long.”

Theseus sighed sadly, but agreed that he could not ask his friend to do more than he had already done.  Instead, he set out for Scryos, an island near Euboea, in the hopes that its king, Lycomedes, would help him retake Athens from Menestheus.  Once his kingdom was restored to his hands, he could send for his sons to rejoin him, and send whatever gifts and treasures it would take to convince Tyndareos to return his mother.

Taking their leave of the reunited royal family of Pherae, the two heroes went their separate ways.


Okay, so technically I’m unaware of any story in which Hades talked Zeus out of throwing Apollo into Tartaros.  However, the whole bit with the death of Asclepios, Apollo killing the Cyclopes, and and Zeus punishing him for that act is all genuine.  Oh, and those Cyclopes really are the uncles of Zeus and the other first generation gods:  like the Titans, they’re the children of Gaia and Ouranos.

I need to make a running tally of all the men in these myths who don’t want to let their favorite daughters get married.  It always smacks of incestuous desire, you know?  (In fact, said desire is sometimes stated outright.)  Pelias makes creepy father number one.

For all those who have read the book The Neverending Story, I apologize for lifting the line “But that’s another story.”  Because that got used insanely often in the book.  It was only used the once in the movie, but in the book…hoo boy, was that everywhere!  It’s just that I needed some kind of “don’t expect that here; it’s elsewhere” line here, and…I couldn’t help myself.

It will be a very long time before I ever get back to Scyros in any of these stories–if I ever do–but in case you don’t know what happened, I’ll just say that it didn’t go well for Theseus…

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