Admetus and Alcestis - A Lesser known tale from Greek Mythology
I always end up having more guest posts in my fiction series than in my non fiction series. So here is the third guest post in this series - from Suresh Chandrashekaran. For those of you who are following my blog, he needs no introduction as this is his third guest post here - almost a regular out here. For those new to the blog, do head to his blog to find out more about him and check out his writings. One thing I would like to add about him in addition to what I have said earlier is his in depth knowledge of the mythologies of various lands. Here he combines his knowledge of obscure myths with his fiction writing skills to weave togther an wonderful tale where he uses his creativity to make the tale interesting while at the same time staying true to the most widely accepted elements of the original myth.
The chilling presence of the Lord of the Underworld subdued the customary vivacity of the gods. Hades’ barely concealed wrath dimmed the glorious brightness of Olympus and spread unease and distress. Even Zeus, the King of the Gods, was not immune to the impact of Hades.
“What brings my noble brother to Olympus?”
“Is it not enough, brother, that I am effectively banished from the glory of Olympus to rule over the dark realms? Should I also suffer the indignity of having my own realm invaded with impunity by mortals and demigods?”
Apollo quirked an interrogative eyebrow at his twin, Artemis. The moon-goddess imperceptibly shook her head to indicate ignorance of the issue.
“Who has dared that transgression, Hades? Whoever he is deserves death for this impertinence.”
“The semi-mortal son of an immortal god. Else, Hades is quite capable of avenging himself. It is that whelp torn from the womb of a dead mother who, with his herbal magic, restores shades from my realm to their mortal bodies, and revives the dead.”
Apollo was aghast.
“My son, Asclepius?” the words were ripped from his throat. “He is but a healer.”
“Yes, Lord of the Sun. Your son Asclepius, who seems to think that he can take away my subjects with impunity in the name of healing.”
Apollo turned to Zeus, “Father! If Asclepius indeed did this, it is in ignorance. I shall ensure that it does not happen again.”
Hades exploded, “Yes, Great Zeus! Pardon your son’s son – that would be justice indeed. If anyone but overlooks one of your shrines by mistake, THAT is a crime worthy of setting the Furies on him. But, taking away my subjects without my leave is merely a…a…pardonable error. Olympus is inviolable; the Underworld is fair game? We shall see in what regard the Thunderer holds his brothers. I came here for Justice. Now, I will see what Justice means to Olympus!”
The very walls of Olympus trembled at its Lord’s wrath. Thunderclouds obscured his brow and his eyes blazed with divine anger. Even the deathless gods quailed as his body blazed with unbearable radiance.
“JUSTICE SHALL BE DONE”
Zeus raised his hand. The thunderbolt, made for Zeus by the Cyclopes to help vanquish the Titans, sizzled in his palm.
But, there was a clap of thunder and the irresistible weapon of the Lord of the gods had sped. The death-scream of a demi-god echoed through all the realms.
“The Caduceus-bearer is dead. This is the Justice of Olympus, Hades.”
Apollo left the Hall of the gods, mad with grief and rage.
* * * * * *
The chariot was unyoked and the horses placidly cropped grass in the meadow. The brook gurgled pleasantly as it flowed over the stones. Birds chirped melodiously and even the distant baaing of sheep was not discordant. The tiny flowers carpeting the meadow nodded in the mild breeze that cooled the hot brow of the man sitting pensively by the side of the brook.
All was peaceful except the roiling heart of Admetus, King of Pherae. His eyes gazed, unseeing, at the pastoral beauty while his mind wandered back to his lodestar – Alcestis. Admetus had known many women but none like Alcestis. Like a delicate perfume, which steals almost unnoticed into your lungs and suffuses your being with ineffable pleasure, Alcestis had stolen into him and entwined herself in his very being.
The word was a song of love and a sigh of longing - a longing to cup that lovely face and lose himself in the bottomless depths of her blue eyes; a longing to feel the unmarred velvet of her cheeks; a longing to kiss those smiling lips, so full of the promise of sweetness; a longing…
“Ah! Eros! You are a cruel god. Your shafts pierce my heart and set my veins afire”
The sweet notes of a flute wafted through the air. The music soothed the turmoil in Admetus’ breast, blunted the bite of his inchoate longing and converted his bitterness to sweet melancholy. As the musician approached, the melody grew louder and, then, stopped.
“Greetings, Lord Admetus”
Admetus turned to see a ragged shepherd, flute in hand. The face seemed familiar.
“Phoebus? Are you being treated well?”
“With so hospitable and kind a lord as Admetus, how can anyone lack for happiness?”
“A courtier’s tongue?” Admetus said with a smile.
“Nay, my Lord. Just the truth. Though, it seems that the Lord himself is unhappy.”
Admetus was silent. He was, yet, unable to speak of his love for Alcestis and the reason why she had become unattainable without giving way to unseemly emotion.
“You sought my service for a year and a day, Phoebus! Is your period at an end and would you wish to continue?”
“Three days remain, my Lord. Kind though you have been, my path lies elsewhere after that.”
Phoebus took up the flute again and started playing. Admetus lost himself in the music. The refrain led his mind through the first flush of love, upon meeting Alcestis, to the morning of this day, when Pelias, her father and the King of Iolcus, had set such an impossible condition for having his proposal accepted that she had become as distant as a star to him. Admetus groaned.
“My Lord! Would you care to share your problem with me? Maybe a solution will emerge”
“My problem – Alcestis! The solution – Alcestis!”
The shepherd smiled. “It is love that ails you, then? But what is the obstacle, my lord? You are young, handsome and a king – a fit suitor for the princess of Iolcus”
“As are the many others, Phoebus! Pelias, vexed with so many suitors, has declared that only he, who comes in a chariot drawn by a lion and a boar, shall have the hand of his daughter. It is this that has made Alcestis inaccessible to me.”
“Do not give up hope, my lord. If you will come at dawn tomorrow, I shall make the impossible possible for you. My music shall soothe the breasts of the savage beasts and yoke them to your chariot.”
Admetus stared at Phoebus in disbelief.
“Is such a thing possible?”
“Doubt me not, King Admetus! Come on the morrow, prepared to win your bride.”
When no reason for hope exists, man will cling to the frailest reed. It was thus, with a heart filled with doubt and tremulous expectation, that Admetus came to the meadow. Phoebus was playing his flute. A lion and a giant boar were yoked to a golden chariot awaiting Admetus.
“How can I thank you for this miracle, Phoebus?”
“Nay, my lord! It is but a small recompense for the kindness you have shown me these many months.”
The citizens of Iolcus looked on in wonder and awe as Admetus drove the chariot, drawn by a fierce lion and a fearsome boar, to the palace of Pelias. Pelias gave his stunned consent to the wedding of Admetus and fair Alcestis.
* * * * * *
“Brother! Rein in your anger. Else you shall do something that all the gods of Olympus may have cause to regret.”
“Easy for you to say, Artemis! Hades and Zeus have done you no injury.”
“What would you do then, Apollo? Do something insane and who shall protect you from the wrath of the Thunderer and Hades? The Lord of the waters, Poseidon, shall side his brothers. Hera, the Queen, never did like us for being the offspring of her rival, Leto. Athena, the Wise, is her Father’s daughter. As for Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty is too captivated by her own loveliness to help anyone else. Ares is too much of a coward for all that he is the God of war. Hephaestus still limps from the last time he crossed Zeus and Hermes is but a messenger. Will you stand against all the arrayed powers of Olympus?”
“What know you of the grief of a stricken father? You, like Athena, are pledged to be virgin.”
That is so”, said Artemis equably. “Which is why I am immune to the madness that afflicts you and counsel prudence. Pay heed, brother, or you will do something that all of us may regret.”
Artemis departed, leaving Apollo seething in impotent rage. Biting his lips and glaring in unrequited wrath, the Sun-god espied the Cyclopes exiting Olympus.
“I may not be able to avenge myself on the destroyer of my son. I will have my revenge on those who wrought the weapon which killed Asclepius.”
So saying, the enraged Immortal raised his divine bow, shot his unerring arrows. The shades of the Cyclopes went wailing to the Underworld.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, APOLLO! Were you not my son, I would blast you with my thunder for this killing of the innocent. Immortal god though you be, you shall not escape punishment. You are banished from Olympus. You shall serve a mortal, Admetus, as a slave for a year and a day ere you return to Olympus.”
The irresistible power of Zeus flung Apollo down to the land of the mortals.
A ragged beggar waited at the doors of Admetus’ palace seeking entrance. As was the practise at the hospitable king’s court, he was invited inside for the dinner banquet. After the banquet, the beggar sought audience with Admetus. The king received him kindly and sought him to reveal his need.
“Take me as a slave for a year and a day, King Admetus!”
“What need to serve me as a slave, my good man? If all you need is a place to stay and food to eat, you can have both as my guest.”
“I shall serve you as your shepherd, my lord. That is my need.”
“So be it. What shall I call you?”
* * * * * *
Iolcus was festive and celebrating the wedding of their lovely princess. The handsome and kind Admetus was feted as a fitting husband for the incomparable Alcestis. His miraculous entrance into the town, in a chariot pulled by a Lion and a Boar, was the talk of the town.
Admetus and Alcestis were radiant with joy as they received the congratulations of various dignitaries. The bridal couple were showered with gifts as the beaming Pelias looked on with pride.
A bearded shepherd entered the hall. Even as the soldiers were trying to stop him, Admetus, recognising Phoebus, waved him in.
“Your service was done and you disappeared, Phoebus! I thought I would never see you again.”
“My lord! I went but to give you a fitting wedding gift”
“This wedding IS your gift, Phoebus! What other gift do I need of you?’
“Would you refuse a gift from Apollo, Admetus?”
Where the beggar had stood, there was a sphere of blinding light. The sphere disappeared and glorious Apollo stood in front of the couple.
Admetus and Alcestis knelt before the Sun-god.
“My Lord! I knew you not when I took you on as a slave. Forgive my transgression.”
“No, Admetus! It was I who needed to serve for a year and a day. The world is full of people who bow to Apollo but only noble Admetus could be so kind to a lowly beggar.”
“No wonder the Lion and the Boar were captivated by your flute, Lord. When the God of Music plays, how can man or beast fail to be enraptured? I wish it had been your lyre that I heard, then”
“A lyre would have suited Apollo better than the flute, Admetus, but not the shepherd Phoebus.”
“ Alcestis and I are indeed fortunate that you are here to bless our union, mighty son of Zeus!”
“I do bless you and bring you a gift wrested from the Fates. No-one can grant you immortality, Admetus, but If you can find a person to take on your death, when you are close to dying, your life shall be restored to you”
“Thank you, my lord”
“Admetus! Before you enter your bridal chamber, pay homage at the shrine of my sister Artemis. Your neglect of her shrine has enraged her. She, in her wrath, has filled your bridal chamber with snakes. Propitiate her, lest injury befall you.”
“A grievous error, my lord, and one that I shall hasten to redress”
“Know that you have an immortal for a friend and may call on him when you need help, Admetus!”
So saying, the slayer of Python shimmered and disappeared.
* * * * * *
As Apollo entered the Hall at Olympus, Artemis accosted him.
“Welcome back, Brother! Zeus has been awaiting this day.”
“And why would that be, Artemis?”
“He wants Hades to release the shades of the Cyclopes and bring them back to life. Hades promises to do so if you, their slayer, agree.”
Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who had just come in, intervened in the conversation. As they walked in and took their places, she said, “Hades never did like releasing his subjects. I think that offer is but a ploy by him. He hopes that you will refuse, Apollo! That way, he gets to retain the shades of the Cyclopes without earning Zeus’ dislike by refusing him. I hope you are wiser than to fall into Hades’ trap.”
Before Apollo could reply, there was a surge of darkness in the Hall as Hades entered. Zeus, too, appeared on his throne with Hera beside him.
“Apollo! Welcome back to Olympus! I hope you have repented your error over the past year. It is time to redress that error and revive the Cyclopes. I assume we have your consent to that”, said Zeus.
“If the Lord of the Underworld will as willingly allow the revival of my son, Asclepius!”
Hades frowned. “Apollo! That was my illustrious brother’s judgment. To revive Asclepius is to admit that the judgment was wrong. If Zeus, the Just, is willing to do that, I shall permit Asclepius’ revival.”
Zeus exploded, “My judgment is…”
The cool passionless voice of Athena cut across her father’s words.
“The Dark Lord was ever niggardly in releasing his subjects. Before we set upon each other, let us be sure that Lord Hades is serious and not merely setting us at each other’s throats, to avoid releasing the shades. My Lord Hades! Are you prepared to swear on Styx that you will release the shades of the Cyclopes and allow their revival, if Apollo assents to it? To swear that you will release Asclepius’ shade, if the King permits it?”
Hades hesitated. Seeing Athena’s smile of derision, his face darkened in wrath.
“So be it! I so swear on the River Styx, knowing that no oath taken on Styx can be broken by an Immortal.”
Athena turned to Apollo. “Will you permit the revival of the Cyclopes, Apollo?”
“If Asclepius is also revived.”
“Father…”, started Athena, when Zeus interrupted her.
“Never! Apollo killed the innocent, and it is right that he redress his error. I judged Asclepius fairly and my judgment stands.”
“My apologies, Father! If Asclepius is not revived, I shall not consent to the revival of the Cyclopes.”
Hades smiled in triumph.
* * * * * *
The palace of Admetus wore a mournful air. An unknown sickness had struck Admetus a month ago, and his body had started wasting away. When the healers of Pherae had been unable to find a remedy, Alcestis had dispatched riders to other lands to seek help from the greatest healers of Greece. The ailment proved beyond all their skill and, today, the healers had to tell the worried Alcestis that Admetus was unlikely to live past dusk.
The wail of grief from Alcestis pierced the hearts of all the gathered friends of Admetus. With tears streaming down her fair face, Alcestis gazed at the wasted face of Admetus with a look of loss and hopeless longing. The joy, pleasure and delight that he had given her in the short time that they had lived as man and wife turned to ashes in her mouth.
Even in the midst of woe, her mind still beat around like a caged bird to wring some vestige of hope from the gloom that had descended on her life. If men could not cure her beloved, maybe a god could. Inevitably, her thoughts turned to Apollo.
“Apollo, Lord of healing! Please heed my prayer”, she murmured faintly.
The room was filled with blinding light for a moment. The brightness shrunk into the glowing form of Apollo.
With her throat choked with sorrow, Alcestis gestured at the dying Admetus. Her eyes pleaded with Apollo for a miracle.
“I am sorry, Alcestis! Admetus’ days are done. He is beyond healing.”
A bitter sob escaped Alcestis’ throat.
“However, there is still one hope. Remember the wedding gift I gave you? The only thing that may revive him is the boon of the Fates. Find someone to take his place and he shall live.”
Faint hope dawned on the ravaged, hopeless face of Alcestis.
“How did I forgot your boon, Lord Apollo? Admetus has so many beloved friends – so many who owe him favours. One of them may help us in this time of distress.”
“The exchange cannot be coerced, Alcestis! I shall accompany you as a page, lest the presence of a god extract an unwilling assent.”
With Apollo in the guise of a page, Alcestis went out into the hall. With tears streaming down her eyes, sorrow warring with hope on her fair face and voice choked with emotion, Alcestis pleaded for someone to take Admetus’ place and restore her husband to her and the king to the kingdom.
There was an uneasy silence among the throng of friends and courtiers of Admetus. Then, one of them spoke up, “I would gladly risk my life for the King. But to embrace certain death…” Another demurred saying, “To die in battle would be to live on in the Elysian fields. To die of sickness and risk Tartarus…” One by one, all of them muttered denials without raising their eyes to see hope slowly dying in Alcestis’ face, leaving behind a hopeless, heart-rending, bitter sorrow.
“Is there no-one who would save Admetus?” wailed Alcestis.
“Why not ask his parents, Lady! They are old and do not have long to live.”
It was painful to see the tentative rebirth of a tremulous hope on that grief-stricken face. Alcestis approached Admetus’ parents and haltingly phrased her request.
“Old we may be but who wants to hasten the day when we leave the sunshine and go forth to the realm of the Dark Lord?”, said the parents of Admetus.
The page, Apollo’s face twisted in pity as the forlorn figure of Alcestis preceded him with dragging feet to the bedchamber of Admetus.
“You are lost to me, Admetus! Alcestis is bereft of all the savor of living now”, she said in a dead voice to the comatose form of her husband. She flung herself on Admetus’ unfeeling body and shook with sobs.
After a while, she pulled herself together with a new determination on her face.
“Dear though Admetus was to all these people, he was dearer by far to me.” Said generous Alcestis, unwilling to blame friends and family even in these dire straits. “How then did I go to them for a sacrifice that I should make myself?”
“No, Alcestis! That is not a sacrifice…”
“Yes, Lord Apollo! That is the only way out.”
“Think, Alcestis! You are young and you have a long life….”
“Admetus IS my life, Lord Apollo! If he be gone, what is the use of this body inhabiting the land of the mortals?” Alcestis voice rang with determination. “I choose to take Admetus’ place.”
As the words rang out, the room shivered with a strange power and then stilled. Colour fled from the face of Alcestis and she crumpled in a faint. Admetus heaved a great sigh and opened his eyes. His eyes fell on Alcestis and the death-like pallor of her face.
“Alcestis! My love! I feel well! Wake up and rejoice.”
Apollo said, with sympathy, “She will not wake again, Admetus. She gave her life to save yours. Now, she shall not live beyond dusk.”
Admetus roared with grief.
“NO! If, on my death-bed, I wished for life, it was to be with Alcestis. What do I want with life, with my Alcestis dead? The death she embraced is far better than the life I now have.”
There was a knock on the door.
“My Lady…Lord, you are well?” The soldier’s eyes fell on the supine queen. “The queen…”
“I am well, thanks to the queen. She lies dying, thanks to me.” Admetus’ voice was bitter with self-reproach. “What news brings you here?”
“Heracles is without, seeking your hospitality.”
“Show the son of Zeus to the guest quarters. After he is refreshed, bring him to my table. And…not a word about the sorrows here. Let not our grief mar the joy of our guest.”
Admetus, accompanied by Apollo who was still in the guise of a page, greeted Heracles kindly, when the latter arrived for the banquet. Heracles was on the way to his quest to get the mares of Diomedes. Upon Admetus’ request, Heracles recounted the details of his various quests, with the courtiers plying him with eager questions.
Despite his efforts to appear normal to his guest, Admetus could not help thinking of his beloved Alcestis and the fact that she would leave him forever soon. A sorrowful sigh escaped him and Heracles was quick to notice his pain.
“Something ails you, Lord Admetus?”
“No, mighty son of Zeus! Nothing that can be attended to, now.”
“I see you are abstracted! You are renowned for your hospitality, Admetus. If something causes to be inattentive to a guest, it has to be serious. If you have no objection, tell me of it and I shall do everything in my power to help you.”
The page – Apollo - intervened, “Even the mighty son of Zeus may find some problems beyond his ability to resolve.”
Stung by the note of derision in the page’s voice, Heracles said, “I vow to solve this problem or die in the attempt, my lord Apollo!”
Surprised, Apollo said, “You can see me for who I am even in this guise? Truly, the blood of Zeus runs strong in your veins, Heracles!”
With a sigh of pain and sorrow, Admetus told the tale of Alcestis’ sacrifice in broken words. The sun was setting in the west by the time he completed the tale. As the world darkened, the god of death, Thanatos, entered the hall and moved towards the chamber where Alcestis lay awaiting her death. Invisible though the god was to moral eyes, Heracles saw him with no difficulty.
“Death has entered the palace, Admetus, but do not fear. It shall not leave without my permission and I shall not permit Thanatos to take the shade of Alcestis with him.”
The indomitable Heracles rose and barred the door with his immovable form. Thanatos, with the shade of Alcestis, came out of the bedchamber of the king and found his way blocked.
“Would you dare bar the way of a god, Heracles?” said Thanatos.
“The god may pass”, said Heracles stolidly, “but not with the shade of the lady.”
“Has Hubris so overwhelmed you that you will do battle with a god?”
“If you be so certain of your victory, wrestle with me, Thanatos. If I win, Alcestis lives. If you win, you may take the lady’s shade with you”
“So be it”, said Thanatos. The form of Thanatos became visible to all as he sprang at Heracles.
The skinny frame of the god of death held surprising strength as Heracles soon discovered. His mighty arms swelled with effort as he strove with the god. Mighty though Thanatos was, he found that Heracles was mightier by far. Slowly but inexorably, the giant strength of Heracles outfought Thanatos, till the god was held helpless in his vice-like grip.
“Do you yield me the shade of Alcestis?”
“I do”, gritted the god of death.
Heracles released the furious Thanatos, who departed seeting with rage. Even as the stunned audience was applauding this astounding defeat of a god mortal Heracles, a weak voice was heard from inside.
“Admetus! Are you well? Did the boon fail, since I am still alive.”
Admetus rushed in. Apollo went into the chamber to see Admetus embracing his beloved Alcestis, uttering incoherent endearments between kisses. He came out and barred Heracles’ way.
“Let them rejoice in private, Heracles! They will be out soon enough, to thank you.”
Heracles was embarrassed. “I’d rather fight Thanatos again” he muttered.
Apollo laughed and disappeared.
* * * * * *
As Apollo entered the chamber of Zeus, the latter looked up in anger.
“What brings you here, my son? Have you reconsidered your opposition to reviving the Cyclopes?”
“I come to warn you, Father, that I shall seek the justice of Olympus for the impiety of Heracles, when we meet in the Hall.”
“What is this impiety that you prate of?’
“Heracles has defied the god of death, battled and defeated him and denied Hades the shade of Alcestis. The penalty for such a grave offense is death, according to your own law, Great Zeus!”
“You speak of my son, Apollo” Zeus roared.
Apollo was unfazed. “I spoke of mine once, Father! And you declared your justice then.”
“Heracles did what he did to help your friend, Admetus. Would you now reward him with death?”
“Since when have the motives of mortals for their deeds weighed with the gods, Father?” said Apollo implacably. “I did not hear you seek to know whether Asclepius revived the dead to spite the Lord of the underworld or to succour the relatives of the dead, before you pronounced judgment on him”
“Asclepius! Asclepius! Will you never let go of this silly feud with me on the matter of your mortal son?”
“If you mete out the same justice to YOUR mortal son, I shall accept your justice against mine, Father”
Zeus was defeated. “What would you have me do, Apollo?”
“Revive Asclepius, Father! Make him an immortal and the god of healing. I shall consent to the revival of the Cyclopes. Nor shall I seek justice against Heracles.”
“Provided your son promises to revive no more of the dead, unless with my permission, Apollo!”
“Then, so be it”
The radiant smile of the Sun-god lit up the firmament.
Disclaimer: There are multiple versions to some aspects of this myth. I have picked on what suited me best. Since the how, when and why of incidents is not laid out in the myth, I have used creative license in writing them in.
Do watch this space next Tuesday for the start of a new series.
The accompanying picture is a free to use or share one picked up from Wikimedia.