The Love Of Alcestis by
Asclepius, the son of
Apollo, being a mighty physician, raised men from the
dead. But Zeus was wroth that a man should have such
power, and so make of no effect the ordinance of the
Gods. Wherefore he smote Asclepius with a thunderbolt
and slew him. And when Apollo knew this, he slew the
Cyclopés that had made the thunderbolts for his father
Zeus, for men say that they make them on their forges
that are in the mountain of Etna. But Zeus suffered not
this deed to go unpunished, but passed this sentence on
his son Apollo, that he should serve a mortal man for
the space of a whole year. Wherefore, for all that he
was a god, he kept the sheep of Admetus, who was the
Prince of Pheræ in Thessaly. And Admetus knew not that
he was a god; but, nevertheless, being a just man, dealt
truly with him. And it came to pass after this that
Admetus was sick unto death. But Apollo gained this
grace for him of the Fates (which order of life and
death for men), that he should live, if only he could
find some one who should be willing to die in his stead.
And he went to all his kinsmen and friends and asked
this thing of them, but found no one that was willing so
to die; only Alcestis his wife was willing.
And when the day was come
on the which it was appointed for her to die, Death came
that he might fetch her. And when he was come, he found
Apollo walking to and fro before the palace of King
Admetus, having his bow in his hand. And when Death saw
him, he said—
"What doest thou here,
Apollo? Is it not enough for thee to have kept Admetus
from his doom? Dost thou keep watch and ward over this
woman with thine arrows and thy bow?"
"Fear not," the god made
answer, "I have justice on my side."
"If thou hast justice,
what need of thy bow?"
"'Tis my wont to carry
"Ay, and it is thy wont to
help this house beyond all right and law."
"Nay, but I was troubled
at the sorrows of one that I loved, and helped him."
"I know thy cunning speech
and fair ways; but this woman thou shalt not take from
"But consider; thou canst
but have one life. Wilt thou not take another in her
"Her and no other will I
have, for my honour is the greater when I take the
"I know thy temper, hated
both of Gods and of men. But there cometh a guest to
this house, whom Eurystheus sendeth to the snowy plains
of Thrace, to fetch the horses of Lycurgus. Haply he
shall persuade thee against thy will."
"Say what thou wilt; it
shall avail nothing. And now I go to cut off a lock of
her hair, for I take these firstfruits of them that
In the meantime, within
the palace, Alcestis prepared herself for death. And
first she washed her body with pure water from the
river, and then she took from her coffer of cedar her
fairest apparel, and adorned herself therewith. Then,
being so arranged, she stood before the hearth and
prayed, saying, "O Queen Heré, behold! I depart this
day. Do thou therefore keep my children, giving to this
one a noble husband and to that a loving wife." And all
the altars that were in the house she visited in like
manner, crowning them with myrtle leaves and praying at
them. Nor did she weep at all, or groan, or grow pale.
But at the last, when she came to her chamber, she cast
herself upon the bed and kissed it, crying, "I hate thee
not, though I die for thee, giving myself for my
husband. And thee another wife shall possess, not more
true than I am, but, maybe, more fortunate!" And after
she had left the chamber, she turned to it again and
again with many tears. And all the while her children
clung to her garments, and she took them up in her arms,
the one first and then the other, and kissed them. And
all the servants that were in the house bewailed their
mistress, nor did she fail to reach her hand to each of
them, greeting him. There was not one of them so vile
but she spake to him and was spoken to again.
After this, when the hour
was now come when she must die, she cried to her husband
(for he held her in his arms, as if he would have stayed
her that she should not depart), "I see the boat of the
dead, and Charon standing with his hand upon the pole,
who calleth me, saying, 'Hasten; thou delayest us;' and
then again, 'A winged messenger of the dead looketh at
me from under his dark eyebrows, and would lead me away.
Dost thou not see him?'" Then after this she seemed now
ready to die, yet again she gathered strength, and said
to the King, "Listen, and I will tell thee before I die
what I would have thee do. Thou knowest how I have given
my life for thy life. For when I might have lived, and
had for my husband any prince of Thessaly that I
would—and dwelt here in wealth and royal state, yet
could I not endure to be widowed of thee and that thy
children should be fatherless. There, fore I spared not
myself, though thy father and she that bare thee
betrayed thee. But the Gods have ordered all this after
their own pleasure. So be it. Do thou therefore make
this recompense, which indeed thou owest to me, for what
will not a man give for his life? Thou lovest these
children even as I love them. Suffer them then to be
rulers in this house, and bring not a step-mother over
them who shall hate them and deal with them unkindly. A
son, indeed, hath a tower of strength in his father.
But, O my daughter, how shall it fare with thee, for thy
mother will not give thee in marriage, nor be with thee,
comforting thee in thy travail of children, when a
mother most showeth kindness and love. And now farewell,
for I die this day. And thou, too, farewell, my husband.
Thou losest a true wife, and ye, too, my children, a
Then Admetus made answer,
"Fear not, it shall be as thou wilt. I could not find
other wife fair and well born and true as thou. Never
more shall I gather revellers in my palace, or crown my
head with garlands, or hearken to the voice of music.
Never shall I touch the harp or sing to the Libyan
flute. And some cunning craftsman shall make an image
fashioned like unto thee, and this I will hold in my
arms and think of thee. Cold comfort indeed, yet that
shall ease somewhat of the burden of my soul. But oh!
that I had the voice and melody of Orpheus, for then had
I gone down to Hell and persuaded the Queen thereof or
her husband with my song to let thee go; nor would the
watch-dog of Pluto, nor Charon that ferrieth the dead,
have hindered me but that I had brought thee to the
light. But do thou wait for me there, for there will I
dwell with thee; and when I die they shall lay me by thy
side, for never was wife so true as thou."
Then said Alcestis, "Take
these children as a gift from me, and be as a mother to
"O me!" he cried, "what
shall I do, being bereaved of thee?"
And she said, "Time will
comfort thee; the dead are as nothing."
But he said, "Nay, but let
me depart with thee."
But the Queen made answer,
"'Tis enough that I die in thy stead."
And when she had thus
spoken she gave up the ghost.
Then the King said to the
old men that were gathered together to comfort him, "I
will see to this burial. And do ye sing a hymn as is
meet to the god of the dead. And to all my people I make
this decree: that they mourn for this woman, and clothe
themselves in black, and shave their heads, and that
such as have horses cut off their manes, and that there
be not heard in the city the voice of the flute or the
sound of the harp for the space of twelve months."
Then the old men sang the
hymn as they had been bidden. And when they had
finished, it befell that Hercules, who was on a journey,
came to the palace and asked whether King Admetus was
And the old men answered,
"'Tis even so, Hercules. But what, I pray thee, bringeth
thee to this land?"
"I am bound on an errand
for King Eurystheus; even to bring back to him horses of
"How wilt thou do this?
Dost thou not know this Diomed?"
"I know nought of him, nor
of his land."
"Thou wilt not master him
or his horses without blows."
"Even so, yet I may not
refuse the tasks that are set to me."
"Thou art resolved then to
do this thing or to die?"
"Ay; and this is not the
first race that I have run."
"Thou wilt not easily
bridle these horses."
"Why not? They breathe not
fire from their nostrils."
"No, but they devour the
flesh of men."
"What sayest thou? This is
the food of wild beasts, not of horses."
"Yet 'tis true. Thou wilt
see their mangers foul with blood."
"And the master of these
steeds, whose son is he?"
"He is son of Ares, lord
of the land of Thrace."
"Now this is a strange
fate and a hard that maketh me fight ever with the sons
of Ares, with Lycaon first, and with Cycnus next, and
now with this King Diomed. But none shall ever see the
son of Alcmena trembling before an enemy."
And now King Admetus came
forth from the palace. And when the two had greeted one
another, Hercules would fain know why the King had
shaven his hair as one that mourned for the dead. And
the King answered that he was about to bury that day one
that was dear to him.
And when Hercules inquired
yet further who this might be, the King said that his
children were well, and his father also, and his mother.
But of his wife he answered so that Hercules understood
not that he spake of her. For he said that she was a
stranger by blood, yet near in friendship, and that she
had dwelt in his house, having been left an orphan of
her father. Nevertheless Hercules would have departed
and found entertainment elsewhere, for he would not be
troublesome to his host. But the King suffered him not.
And to the servant that stood by he said, "Take thou
this guest to the guest-chamber; and see that they that
have charge of these matters set abundance of food
before him. And take care that ye shut the doors between
the chambers and the palace; for it is not meet that the
guest at his meal should hear the cry of them that
And when the old men would
know why the King, having so great a trouble upon him,
yet entertained a guest, he made answer.
"Would ye have commended
me the more if I had caused him to depart from this
house and this city? For my sorrow had not been one whit
the less, and I had lost the praise of hospitality. And
a right worthy host is he to me if ever I chance to
visit the land of Argos."
And now they had finished
all things for the burying of Alcestis, when the old man
Pheres, the father of the King, approached, and servants
came with him bearing robes and crowns and other
adornments wherewith to do honour to the dead. And when
he was come over against the bier whereon they had laid
the dead woman, he spake to the King, saying, "I am come
to mourn with thee, my son, for thou hast lost a noble
wife. Only thou must endure, though this indeed is a
hard thing. But take these adornments, for it is meet
that she should he honoured who died for thee, and for
me also, that I should not go down to the grave
childless." And to the dead he said, "Fare thou well,
noble wife, that hast kept this house from falling. May
it be well with thee in the dwellings of the dead!"
But the King answered him
in great wrath, "I did not bid thee to this burial, nor
shall this dead woman be adorned with gifts of thine.
Who art thou that thou shouldest bewail her? Surely thou
art not father of mine. For being come to extreme old
age, yet thou wouldst not die for thy son, but
sufferedst this woman, being a stranger in blood, to die
for me. Her therefore I count father and mother also.
Yet this had been a noble deed for thee, seeing that the
span of life that was left to thee was short. And I too
had not been left to live out my days thus miserably,
being bereaved of her whom I loved. Hast thou not had
all happiness, thus having lived in kingly power from
youth to age? And thou wouldst have left a son to come
after thee, that thy house should not be spoiled by
thine enemies. Have I not always done due reverence to
thee and to my mother? And, lo! this is the recompense
that ye make me. Wherefore I say to thee, make haste and
raise other sons who may nourish thee in thy old age,
and pay thee due honour when thou art dead, for I will
not bury thee. To thee I am dead."
Then the old man spake,
"Thinkest thou that thou art driving some Lydian and
Phrygian slave that hath been bought with money, and
forgettest that I am a freeborn man of Thessaly, as my
father was freeborn before me? I reared thee to rule
this house after me; but to die for thee, that I owed
thee not. This is no custom among the Greeks that a
father should die for his son. To thyself thou livest or
diest. All that was thy due thou hast received of me;
the kingdom over many people, and, in due time, broad
lands which I also received of my father. How have I
wronged thee? Of what have I defrauded thee? I ask thee
not to die for me; and I die not for thee. Thou lovest
to behold this light. Thinkest thou that thy father
loveth it not? For the years of the dead are very long;
but the days of the living are short yet sweet withal.
But I say to thee that thou hast fled from thy fate in
shameless fashion, and hast slain this woman. Yea, a
woman hath vanquished thee, and yet thou chargest
cowardice against me. In truth, 'tis a wise device of
thine that thou mayest live for ever, if marrying many
times, thou canst still persuade thy wife to die for
thee. Be silent then, for shame's sake; and if thou
lovest life, remember that others love it also."
So King Admetus and his
father reproached each other with many unseemly words.
And when the old man had departed, they carried forth
Alcestis to her burial.
But when they that bare
the body had departed, there came in the old man that
had the charge of the guest-chambers, and spake, saying,
"I have seen many guests that have come from all the
lands under the sun to this palace of Admetus, but never
have I given entertainment to such evil guest as this.
For first, knowing that my lord was in sore trouble and
sorrow, he forebore not to enter these gates. And then
he took his entertainment in most unseemly fashion; for
if he lacked aught he would call loudly for it; and
then, taking a great cup wreathed with leaves of ivy in
his hands, he drank great draughts of red wine
untempered with water. And when the fire of the wine had
warmed him, he crowned his head with myrtle boughs, and
sang in the vilest fashion. Then might one hear two
melodies, this fellow's songs, which he sang without
thought for the troubles of my lord and the lamentation
wherewith we servants lamented our mistress. But we
suffered not this stranger to see our tears, for so my
lord had commanded. Surely this is a grievous thing that
I must entertain this stranger, who surely is some thief
or robber. And meanwhile they have taken my mistress to
her grave, and I followed not after her, nor reached my
hand to her, that was as a mother to all that dwell in
When the man had so
spoken, Hercules came forth from the guest-chamber,
crowned with myrtle, having his face flushed with wine.
And he cried to the servant, saying, "Ho, there! why
lookest thou so solemn and full of care? Thou shouldst
not scowl on thy guest after this fashion, being full of
some sorrow that concerns thee not nearly. Come hither,
and I will teach thee to be wiser. Knowest thou what
manner of thing the life of a man is? I trow not.
Hearken therefore. There is not a man who knoweth what a
day may bring forth. Therefore I say to thee: Make glad
thy heart; eat, drink, count the day that now is to be
thine own, but all else to be doubtful. As for all other
things, let them be, and hearken to my words. Put away
this great grief that lieth upon thee, and enter into
this chamber, and drink with me. Right soon shall the
tinkling of the wine as it falleth into the cup ease
thee of these gloomy thoughts. As thou art a man, be
wise after the fashion of a man; for to them that are of
a gloomy countenance, life, if only I judge rightly, is
not life but trouble only."
Then the servant answered,
"All this I know; but we have fared so ill in this house
that mirth and laughter ill beseem us."
"But they tell me that
this dead woman was a stranger. Why shouldst thou be so
troubled, seeing that they who rule this house yet
"How sayest thou that they
live? Thou knowest not what trouble we endure."
"I know it, unless thy
lord strangely deceived me."
"My lord is given to
"And should it hinder him
that there is some stranger dead in the house?"
"A stranger, sayest thou?
'Tis passing strange to call her thus."
"Hath thy lord then
suffered some sorrow that he told me not?"
"Even so, or I had not
loathed to see thee at thy revels. Thou seest this
shaven hair and these black robes."
"What then? who is dead?
One of thy lord's children, or the old man his father?"
"Stranger, 'tis the wife
of Admetus that is dead."
"What sayest thou? And yet
he gave me entertainment?"
"Yea, for he would not,
for shame, turn thee from his house."
"O miserable man, what a
helpmeet thou hast lost!"
"Ay, and we are all lost
"Well I knew it; for I saw
the tears in his eyes, and his head shaven, and his
sorrowful regard; but he deceived me, saying that the
dead woman was a stranger. Therefore did I enter the
doors and make merry, and crown myself with garlands,
not knowing what had befallen my host. But come, tell
me; where doth he bury her? Where shall I find her?"
"Follow straight along the
road that leadeth to Larissa, and thou wilt see her tomb
in the outskirts of the city."
Then said Hercules to
himself, "O my heart, thou hast dared many great deeds
before this day; and now most of all must I show myself
a true son of Zeus. Now will I save this dead woman
Alcestis, and give her back to her husband, and make due
recompense to Admetus. I will go, therefore, and watch
for this black-robed king, even Death. Methinks I shall
find him nigh unto the tomb, drinking the blood of the
sacrifices. There will I lie in wait for him and run
upon him, and throw my arms about him, nor shall any one
deliver him out of my hands, till he have given up to me
this woman. But if it chance that I find him not there,
and he come not to the feast of blood, I will go down to
the Queen of Hell, to the land where the sun shineth
not, and beg her of the Queen; and doubtless she will
give her to me, that I may give her to her husband. For
right nobly did he entertain me, and drave me not from
his house, for all that he had been stricken by such
sorrow. Is there a man in Thessaly, nay in the whole
land of Greece, that is such a lover of hospitality? I
trow not. Noble is he, and he shall know that he is no
ill friend to whom he hath done this thing."
So he went his way. And
when he was gone, Admetus came back from the burying of
his wife, a great company following him, of whom the
elders sought to comfort him in his sorrow. And when he
was come to the gates of his palace he cried, "How shall
I enter thee? how shall I dwell in thee? Once I came
within thy gates with many pine-torches from Pelion, and
the merry noise of the marriage song, holding in my hand
the hand of her that is dead; and after us followed a
troop that magnified her and me, so noble a pair we
were. And now with wailing instead of marriage songs,
and garments of black for white wedding robes, I go to
my desolate couch."
But while he yet lingered
before the palace Hercules came back, leading with him a
woman that was covered with a veil. And when he saw the
King he said, "I hold it well to speak freely to one
that is a friend, and that a man should not hide a
grudge in his heart. Hear me, therefore. Though I was
worthy to be counted thy friend, yet thou saidst not
that thy wife lay dead in thy house, but suffered me to
feast and make merry. For this, therefore, I blame thee.
And now I will tell thee why I am returned. I pray thee,
keep this woman against the day when I shall come back
from the land of Thrace, bringing the horses of King
Diomed. And if it should fare ill with me, let her abide
here and serve thee. Not without toil came she into my
hands. I found as I went upon my way that certain men
had ordered contests for wrestlers and runners, and the
like. Now for them that had the pre-eminence in lesser
things there were horses for prizes; and for the
greater, as wrestling and boxing, a reward of oxen, to
which was added this woman. And now I would have thee
keep her, for which thing, haply, thou wilt one day
To this the King answered,
"I thought no slight when I hid this truth from thee.
Only it would have been for me sorrow upon sorrow if
thou hadst gone to the house of another. But as for this
woman, I would have thee ask this thing of some prince
of Thessaly that hath not suffered such grief as I. In
Pheræ here thou hast many friends; but I could not look
upon her without tears. Add not then this new trouble.
And also how could she, being young, abide in my house,
for young I judge her to be? And of a truth, lady, thou
art very like in shape and stature to my Alcestis that
is dead. I pray you, take her from my sight, for she
troubleth my heart, and my tears run over with beholding
Then said Hercules, "Would
I had such strength that I could bring back thy wife
from the dwellings of the dead, and put her in thy
"I know thy good will, but
what profiteth it? No man may bring back the dead."
"Well, time will soften
thy grief, which yet is new."
"Yea, if by time thou
"But a new wife will
"Hold thy peace; such a
thing cometh not into my thoughts."
"What? wilt thou always
keep this widowed state?"
"Never shall woman more be
wife of mine."
"What will this profit her
that is dead?"
"I know not, yet had I
sooner die than be false to her."
"Yet I would have thee
take this woman into thy house."
"Ask it not of me, I
entreat thee, by thy father Zeus."
"Thou wilt lose much if
thou wilt not do it."
"And if I do it I shall
break my heart."
"Haply some day thou wilt
thank me; only be persuaded."
"Be it so: they shall take
the woman into the house."
"I would not have thee
entrust her to thy servants."
"If thou so thinkest, lead
her in thyself."
"Nay, but I would give her
into thy hands."
"I touch her not, but my
house she may enter."
"'Tis only to thy hand I
"O King, thou compellest
me to this against my will."
"Stretch forth thy hand
and touch her."
"I touch her as I would
touch the Gorgon's head."
"Hast thou hold of her?"
"I have hold."
"Then keep her safe, and
say that the son of Zeus is a noble friend. See if she
be like thy wife; and change thy sorrow for joy."
And when the King looked,
lo! the veiled woman was Alcestis his wife.