The Greek Myth of Alcestis and Admetus
In his tragedy, Alcestis, the fifth century Athenian tragedian Euripides used the minor myth of Admetus and Alcestis to explore what it means to give up your life for another and more to the point, what it could mean to be the recipient of such a sacrifice, raising some uncomfortable questions in the process.
The Death of Asclepius and the Servitude of Apollo
The God Apollo had a son Asclepius by a nymph called Coronis. Brought up by Chiron the wise Centaur, Asclepius became famed as a great healer. Eventually, however, Asclepius overreached himself, going so far as to bring the dead back to life. This angered and alarmed Zeus; such power of life and death did not belong to mortals. To restore the natural balance, Zeus struck Asclepius down with a bolt of lightening. After death, Asclepius was transformed into the revered God of Healing.
Apollo was disconsolate and above all furious at this murder of his son by his father. Seeking vengeance, he killed a Cyclopes, one of the craftsmen that fashioned and tended Zeus' armory of thunderbolts and lightening.
As punishment for this, Zeus sentenced Apollo to serve a mortal on earth for the space of a year. He became the herdsman of Admetus, king of the small city of Pherae, in Thessaly in Northern Greece.
Alcestis, Daughter of Pelias
King Admetus proved a kindly master to the disguised god, and Apollo repaid him by acting as his guardian, causing his riches and land to increase and also aiding him in winning his bride.
Admetus had set his heart on Alcestis, one of the daughters of Pelias, King of Iolcus and a woman called Anaxibia. Pelias had decreed that anyone who hoped to win his daughter's hand must perform the feat of driving a chariot with two disparate wild beasts yoked together. With Apollo's help, Admetus drove a chariot drawn by a wild boar and a lion and thus claimed Alcestis as his bride.
A Bargain with the Fates
Apollo offered his mortal favourite one final gift: after getting the Fates drunk, he got them to agree that Admetus could always evade death - providing he could find a willing substitute to take his place.
In Greek tragedy as in Homeric epic, the Olympian Gods are often portrayed as being so remote from the realities of human mortality and suffering that they can seem entirely callous and lacking in empathy for the mortals they have dealings with. This might explain why Apollo, as portrayed in Euripides' play Alcestis, has no idea that this qualified gift of life might, in fact, be the cause of much anguish and trouble.
Admetus accepted the God's gift and, first of all, asked his elderly parents if one of them would agree to be his substitute when the time came. After all, they had already lived long lives and why would they want to carry on living after the death of their only son? Both his parents refused; they did not feel they owed their son their lives. Instead, it was his beautiful young bride Alcestis who agreed to die in his place.
Their marriage continued for several years, with Alcestis bearing two children, a boy and a girl, all the while the knowledge hanging over both of them that one day she would be required to give her life in exchange for her husband's.
The Death of Alcestis
Eventually, the fated time came to pass and Alcestis knew that on that day she must die. In his play, the Greek dramatist Euripides gives us a vivid picture of how Alcestis spent her remaining hours.
Rising early, Alcestis prayed for the last time before the altar of Hestia, Goddess of the hearth, commending her household to her care. She then went round to all the altars in the palace making offerings and paying her respects.
She spoke kindly to each of her slaves, even the lowliest, and then wept upon her marriage bed for the life she was giving up in fulfilling what she saw as her duty as a wife.
When she was on her deathbed, Admetus wept and wailed, begging his wife not to die and leave him bereft. She asked him to promise before witnesses that he would never marry again. A new wife and new legitimate heirs would mean that her own children would potentially suffer significant disadvantage. Having gained his promise, Alcestis died, leaving the whole household in a state of profound mourning.
The bitter mourning of the entire household is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a visitor. Admetus' old friend Heracles (they took part together on the quest for the Golden Fleece) was passing through the area on the way to achieving one of his labours, the taming of the savage man-eating horses of Diomedes and called in, hoping to be received as a guest for the night.
When he sees that the household is in mourning, Heracles apologises for intruding and says he will find somewhere else to stay the night. Admetus, however, prides himself very much on his hospitality and despite his grief is determined not to refuse his house to his old friend, especially when he is on the way to face man-eating horses. He tells Heracles that no close family member has died but they are mourning for a woman from another household who is dear to them. He persuades Heracles that it is fine for him to stay and orders the servants to give their guest everything he asks for and on no account to let him know that it is actually Admetus' own wife who is being mourned.
An Awkward Funeral: Pheres Speaks his Mind
As Admetus, his household and citizens of Pherae prepare to lay Alcestis to rest, Pheres, Admetus' father turns up with a fine robe and other gifts as offerings for Alcestis' tomb.
Admetus, however, turns furiously on his father; it is his fault that Alcestis is dead as he was too cowardly to give up his few remaining years for his son, forcing his young wife to make the sacrifice instead.
Pheres however defends himself and in so doing asks the crucial question; why does Admetus think anyone should die for him? Life is sweet to the old as well as the young and his parents already gave him life. He has his one life to live, just as their lives belong to them and Alcestis' life belonged to her. What kind of strong young man hides from death by making a woman face it for him?
Though Admetus insists that his father is in the wrong, his level of despair when he comes back to his marital home seems to lend some weight to Pheres' words. Ironically, Admetus' life now seems entirely pointless without the woman who died to give it to him and he perversely expresses the wish that he had been able to throw himself in the grave alongside her.
Heracles, meanwhile, taking Admetus at his word, is enjoying his hospitality, drinking and feasting with a garland round his head, most inappropriately in a house of mourning.
Eventually, however, the downcast looks and veiled hostility of the slave serving him penetrates his drunken cheer. He demands that the slave have a drink and cheer up. There's no point getting so upset about the death of some woman from outside the household. The servant is provoked into blurting out the truth and Heracles is mortified that he has been behaving in such a way in a house where the mistress has just died. He is also deeply touched that Admetus covered up the death of his wife and his own grief in order not to deny his friend hospitality.
Determined to repay the debt, Heracles hurries to Alcestis' tomb and wrestles Death himself for her soul, restoring her to life.
Alcestis is Restored to Admetus
Having saved Admetus' wife from Death himself, Heracles decides he can afford to play a bit of a practical joke on him. He knocks once again at Admetus' door, this time accompanied by a woman who is heavily veiled and stands in silence.
He knows now that Alcestis is dead, he tells Admetus, but he still wants to ask him one more big favour; he's won this young woman as a prize in a wrestling match and he wonders if Admetus could keep her for him till he comes back from taming the man-eating horses of Diomedes?
Admetus confesses that he would feel deeply uncomfortable receiving a nubile young woman into his house just after his wife had died; how would it look, for a start? When Heracles presses him, however, Admetus is finally unable to refuse his friend's requests, however outrageous. He agrees to receive the girl and even lets Heracles bully him into taking her by the hand. Alcestis is then revealed as Admetus' wife with much rejoicing.
The consequences of Admetus' choice to let his wife die in his place are thus negated by his hospitality towards his friend Heracles who was able to defeat Death through sheer force.