Greek and Roman Mythology > Admetus and Alcestis

Admetus and Alcestis

Aesculapius, the son of Apollo, was endowed by his father with
such skill in the healing art that he even restored the dead to
life. At this Pluto took alarm, and prevailed on Jupiter to
launch a thunderbolt at Aesculapius. Apollo was indignant at the
destruction of his son, and wreaked his vengeance on the innocent
workmen who had made the thunderbolt. These were the Cyclopes,
who have their workshop under Mount Aetna, from which the smoke
and flames of their furnaces are constantly issuing. Apollo shot
his arrows at the Cyclopes, which so incensed Jupiter that he
condemned him as a punishment to become he servant of a mortal
for the space of one year. Accordingly Apollo went into the
service of Admetus, king of Thessaly, and pastured his flocks for
him on the verdant banks of the river Amphrysus.

Admetus was a suitor, with others, for the hand of Alcestis, the
daughter of Pelias, who promised her to him who should come for
her in a chariot drawn by lions and boars. This task Admetus
performed by the assistance of his divine herdsman, and was made
happy in the possession of Alcestis. But Admetus fell ill, and
being near to death, Apollo prevailed on the Fates to spare him
on condition that some one would consent to die in his stead.
Admetus, in his joy at this reprieve, thought little of the
ransom, and perhaps remembering the declarations of attachment
which he had often heard from his courtiers and dependents,
fancied that it would be easy to find a substitute. But it was
not so. Brave warriors, who would willingly have perilled their
lives for their prince, shrunk from the thought of dying for him
on the bed of sickness; and old servants who had experienced his
bounty and that of his house from their childhood up, were not
willing to lay down the scanty remnant of their days to show
their gratitude. Men asked, "Why does not one of his parents
do it? They cannot in the course of nature live much longer, and
who can feel like them the call to rescue the life they gave from
an untimely end?" But the parents, distressed though they were
at the thought of losing him, shrunk from the call. Then
Alcestis, with a generous self-devotion, proffered herself as the
substitute. Admetus, fond as he was of life, would not have
submitted to receive it at such a cost; but there was no remedy.
The condition imposed by the Fates had been met, and the decree
was irrevocable. Alcestis sickened as Admetus revived, and she
was rapidly sinking to the grave.

Just at this time Hercules arrived at the palace of Admetus, and
found all the inmates in great distress for the impending loss of
the devoted wife and beloved mistress. Hercules, to whom no
labor was too arduous, resolved to attempt her rescue. He went
and lay in wait at the door of the chamber of the dying queen,
and when Death came for his prey, he seized him and forced him to
resign his victim. Alcestis recovered, and was restored to her

Milton alludes to the story of Alcestis in his Sonnet on his
deceased wife.

"Methought I saw my late espoused saint,
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Jove's great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescued from death by force, though pale and faint."

James Russell Lowell has chosen the "Shepherd of King Admetus"
for the subject of a short poem. He makes that event the first
introduction of poetry to men.

"Men called him but a shiftless youth,
In whom no good they saw,
And yet unwittingly, in truth,
They made his careless words their law.
And day by day more holy grew
Each spot where he had trod,
Till after poets only knew
Their first-born brother was a god."

In The Love of Alcestis, one of the poems in The Earthly
Paradise, Mr. Morris thus tells the story of the taming of the

"----- Rising up no more delay he made,
But took the staff and gained the palace-door
Where stood the beasts, whose mingled whine and roar
Had wrought his dream; there two and two they stood,
Thinking, it might be, of the tangled wood,
And all the joys of the food-hiding trees.
But harmless as their painted images
'Neath some dread spell; then, leaping up, he took
The reins in hand and the bossed leather shook,
And no delay the conquered beasts durst make,
But drew, not silent; and folk just awake,
When he went by as though a god they saw,
Fell on their knees, and maidens come to draw
Fresh water from the fount, sank trembling down,
And silence held the babbling, wakened town."

Myth Collection

Achelous and HerculesAcis and GalateaAdmetus and Alcestis
Agamemnon, Orestes, and ElectraAmphionAmphitrite
AntigoneApollo and DaphneApollo and Hyacinthus
Aurora and TithonusBacchusBaucis and Philemon
CadmusCastor and PolluxCephalus and Procris
Ceyx and HalcyoneClytieCupid and Psyche
DaedalusDiana and ActaeonDryope
Echo and NarcissusEndymionErisichthon
Glaucus and ScyllaHebe and GanymedeHercules
IbycusIo and CallistoLeucothea dnd Palaemon
LinusMarsyasMedea and Aeson
MelampusMenelaus and HelenMidas
Minerva and ArachneMonstersMusaeus
NeptuneNereus and DorisNiobe
Nisus and ScyllaOrionOrpheus and Eurydice
Pegasus and the ChimaeraPenelopePerseus and Medusa
PhaetonPluto and ProsperinePrometheus and Pandora
PygmalionPyramus and ThisbePython
ThamyrisThe Calydonian HuntThe Camenae
The CentaursThe Golden FleeceThe Graeae and Gorgons
The Griffin, or GryphonThe IliadThe Myrmidons
The PygmiesThe Rural DeitiesThe Sphinx
The Trojan WarThe Water DeitiesThe Winds
TheseusThetisVenus and Adonis
Vertumnus and Pomona

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