IN ancient days, when the life of men upon earth was simple, and when war and the chase were the occupation of the young, and the words of the aged were hearkened to like the oracles of the gods, there reigned in Iolchos a haughty king--Pelias, the son of Kretheus and Tyro--whose court became famous among the neighbour princes for his four fair daughters, Peisidike, Pelopeia, Hippothoe, and Alcestis. Of all the four by far the loveliest was f Alcestis, for she was not only beautiful in form and face like her sisters, but so sweet a soul dwelt in her that her natural beauty was made ten times greater by the light that streamed forth from within. The king, Pelias, loved all his daughters, but to Alcestis, the youngest, his heart clung with the tenderest affection, for she was the crown and comfort of his age, abundant in love and tender care for him; so that Pelias, unable to bear the thought of parting with her, declared that he would give her in marriage to no one who did not
come to claim her in a chariot drawn by boars and lions.
Lovely as Alcestis was, this haughty mandate had the effect of keeping many a gallant chief away, for who was so wise or so strong as to tame the lion and make him run obedient to the rein as a yoke fellow to the tusked boar? But there was one who had gazed upon Alcestis until the thought of her was present to him night and day, and to want her seemed as bad as to want the light and air of heaven, Admetus, the son of Pheres, King of Pherae, who had stood by Meleager when he smote the Kalydonian boar, and had sailed with Jason into the Black Euxine in search of the golden fleece; but now he cared no longer for the chase or travel, all he wished for was to rest in his father's house and rule his people, if only he could win Alcestis to be his wife. Day and night the thought of her troubled him, so that his sleep departed from him, and all the business and pleasure of his life seemed unprofitable and dull.
"O thou Far-darter," he prayed, stretching out his hands to the sun-god, when his first beams smote the earth, "thou who hast thyself sorrowed for thy lost Daphne, 3 thou who sendest hope and joy to men, be thou my helper, and teach me how to obey the mandate of the haughty king, or thyself take away this life which is bitter to me!"
Thus he prayed in his chamber when there was none but Phoebus to hearken; thus he prayed at midday
aloud in the temple, amid the savour of burnt sacrifices, and the son of Latona heard him as he sat in the groves of his beloved Cynthus--heard him and pitied him. And he taught him how to win the noble nature of the lion to accept the guidance of his hand, and gave him a subtle charm to tame the fierce anger of the boar, so that the two princes of the forest submitted to be yoked to the polished chariot, and bore the son of Pheres on his happy journey through the flowery Thessalian land, obedient to his word and hand as well trained horses.
King Pelias was much amazed to be informed that a suitor had come to seek the princess Alcestis, driving in his chariot a lion and a boar; but when he came forth and beheld the brave Admetus, a neighbour prince and an honoured friend, he was well content, and, dearly as he loved Alcestis, he gave her with a good grace to the wooer, who had proved his courage and his skill, and, what was better yet in the eyes of a loving father, whom the gods who live for ever honoured with their counsel and help.
The nuptials were celebrated with joy and feasting, and Pelias bade adieu to his beloved child whom he was never to behold again; for before a year was over the happiness of Admetus and Alcestis was broken by t the terrible news that Medeia, the dark-browed wife whom Jason had brought home from Kolchis, having by her magic restored youth to Aeson, the father of Jason, had been entreated by the daughters of Pelias
to bestow the same boon upon their father; but the cruel woman, having made the credulous girls slay their father, with a view to raising him again in all his youthful vigour, forsook them, and, mocking their agony, left them to weep in vain over the mangled corpse.
This bitter sorrow was for many years the only trouble that darkened the life of Alcestis; in all else she was blessed beyond the common lot of women. Admetus loved her as a husband, and he trusted her as a friend. Two happy, healthy children were the crown of their wedded lives, and in house and field all went well with them.
Now there came to Pherae a stranger, noble in face and bearing, but clad like a poor countryman, who begged of Admetus to give him shelter and employment among his flocks and herds for a season, during which a stern fate compelled him to live an exile from his home. Admetus was too noble to ask him any question, he knew that some calamity was the cause--some homicide, perhaps for in those stormy days, when weapons were for ever in the hands of men, it was no strange thing for the life of a hero to be darkened by the slaughter of a friend or kinsman in sudden anger or even by mischance, and he would fain have made much of the stranger, and kept him in his own palace and at his own table; but he chose rather to dwell in the fields among the quiet cattle, and to hide the sorrow that was darkening his life from
the eyes of men. Then all things prospered more than ever at Pherae, and such a splendid race of horses grew up in the royal pastures that men began to wonder at the strange shepherd, and to whisper to each other that never man nor hero had such creative power as to make out of common horses creatures so divine that, but for the lack of wings, they might have matched with Pegasus himself, and that the strains of music that came from the fields where the shepherd dwelt were sweeter and purer than any music which mortal bard could make.
The strange shepherd was in good sooth no other than the mighty Phoebus himself, banished from Olympus for seven long years because he had slain the Cyklops who had forged the thunderbolt with which Jove had slain his dear son, Aesculapius; but although he went in and out among men in the guise of a servant, he had not ceased to commune with the heavenly beings. His brother, Hermes, especially--perhaps not without the will of Jove--came to him often as he sat among the sheep in the Thessalian valleys, and through him it came to the knowledge of Phoebus that a calamity overhung the house of Admetus, which even he could not turn aside. The Moirae in their dark counsels had decreed the death of the King himself, the day, the very hour was appointed, and he must quit wife and house and lands for the sunless regions of the dead.
Then was Phoebus very sorrowful--as sorrowful
as the immortals who know the present, the past, and the future can be--and he sought the Moirae in their sanctuary at Thebes, and there, with all his divine eloquence, he plied them that he might wrest from them deliverance for Admetus--at least, as long as he himself should sojourn upon earth. But the Moirae were stern; what had once passed their lips could not be recalled. Only this much did the power of the sun-god wring from them: that if another head from the house of Admetus--a head as royal as his--were yielded to Thanatos 4 instead of his, the span of his life might be lengthened. With this favour Phoebus was fain at length to return, nor did the condition seem very hard to him, for in the house of Admetus still dwelt Pheres and Periklymene, father and mother of the king, old folk worn with age and weakness, who often seemed wearying for the Lethe stream, and who would surely vie with each other as to which should pass into the house of Hades for the sake of their son. But Phoebus, wise and all-seeing though he was, knew not yet how dull and timorous old age is, and the proposal, though made with all the god's wisdom, sounded harsh and cruel to the old folk. "I have yielded to my son the sceptre of my fathers, ever imperishable," said Pheres, impatiently tapping the earth with his staff; "I have endowed him in my lifetime with cities and treasures is it not enough? Does he grudge me the few days I have to live?"
"I risked my life for him once," cried Periklymene,
weeping; "nor did I grudge, as mothers often do who wear a queenly crown, to nourish him, a helpless infant, at my breast. Have I not loved him enough? How can he ask me, weak and ill as I am, to bear more pain for him? I must have a little peace before I die. Alas! who knows what he shall meet in the dusky house of Hades?"
And the old people, in their displeasure, failed not to murmur to the queen Alcestis at the strange shepherd and at his unreasonable talk. They wist not that it was Phoebus, the mighty sun-god, who was dwelling with them in a lowly disguise. When Alcestis at length understood, amid their complaints, that great and sudden evil was said to threaten her husband, her heart was consumed with anxiety. She hastened to seek the shepherd, and she found him under a laurel shade, crooning softly to himself a hymn to one beloved and dead. It was, indeed, to the spirit of his dear son, the hero Aesculapius, but this the queen knew not; only as she drew near, the tender grief of the singer, and the sweet, soft strains of the lyre caused her to stop and, full of trouble as she was, to hearken and to shed tears for a grief that was not her own. And so she stood silent and awe-struck, what was divine in her soul causing her to recognize the divinity in the poorly-clad shepherd, until Phoebus saw her, and, ceasing from his song, he rose up and stood humbly before her, as it becomes a shepherd to stand before an honoured queen.
"O wondrous stranger!" said Alcestis--"for I dare not call thee shepherd, though now thou dwellest for a while in the pastures of Admetus--what are these strange tidings that have troubled the minds of Pheres and Periklymene? Is it indeed divine truth that the life of the noble Admetus is in danger, and that he, young and gracious as he is, is threatened with destruction? Speak, friend, for I know that the days of thy prince are precious in thine eyes, and that thou wilt tell no idle tale to fright us."
"Alas! madam, it is true."
"And is there no escape, no possibility of delay?"
"None, for neither father nor mother will die for him."
"If Pheres or Periklymene would have entered the house of Hades in his stead, might Admetus have lived?"
"Ay, madam; so much did Phoebus, who cares for Admetus, obtain from the Moirae."
"Blessed be he of the silver bow!" exclaimed the queen. "Never shall his shrine want for garlands, or his altar for burnt sacrifice! But if the Moirae would have taken the life of the aged Pheres or the feeble Periklymene for that of the blameless Admetus, the evil cannot be past cure. I will die for him, and it cannot be but that Thanatos will receive my life instead of that of the poor old folk who are ready to drop like ripe grain into his hands."
At these words of the queen a divine beauty shone
like a halo from the face of the disguised god, but he controlled himself.
"Hast thou well considered what it is that thou proposest to thyself?" he said. "Thou art still young and fair, a mother of dear children; how wilt thou endure to pass from the warmth of life and love into the sunless tracts of those below?"
"This house would be cold and sunless to me if Admetus were away; besides, it is the bounden duty of the wife to suffer all things for her husband."
"But to leave thy dear children to the will of an unjust stepmother?"
A sadness passed across the brow of Alcestis at these words of the god tempting her; but it was like the shadow of a summer cloud thrown on a great corn-field, which passes swiftly, leaving the golden grain brighter than before.
"Admetus will care for the children," she said, "and if he give them a stepmother, the gods will put it into her heart to be gentle to them for the sake of my act; but be that as it may, but for Admetus, the children would never have lain in my bosom. It would be hard, indeed, if they should be a hindrance to his safety."
"Noble art thou among women!" exclaimed the approving god. "Do what is in thine heart, and be a blessed name among the nations, even to the islands of the furthest west."
When Admetus learnt, as he did from Phoebus
himself, how his wife had chosen to give her life for his, he would gladly have borne the fate appointed for him by the Moirae, and have died at the due time; but the will of the goddesses and the love of Alcestis overbore all opposition, and with tortured heart he awaited the fatal day.
At length it dawned, and Phoebus himself shrunk away into the glades of Pelion at the presence of the dusky Thanatos, who came duly to claim his prize. A mortal weakness seized the failing queen; her spirit, obedient to the summons, followed the irresistible king, and her sweet body lay silent and cold in the arms of her weeping women.
Hardly was the parting agony over, while the funeral rites were preparing, lo! there came to the palace gates a traveller in sore need of food and rest, and according to the pious custom of those ancient days the need of the wayfarer was attended to be-fore all else. Had he come at another time, how welcome would this traveller have been; for it was no other than the mighty Herakles on his way to Thrace, whither he had been sent by his tyrant Eurystheus to fetch the fire-breathing horses of Diomede. Even as it was, in such honour did Admetus hold the hero, that he bade his attendants suspend their lamentations, and conduct the preparations for the funeral in a part of the palace where no sounds of woe would reach the great hall where the feast for the guest would be spread, and himself, with feigned cheerfulness, went to
greet his friend. The kindly hero, however, was at once struck by the fact that Admetus had his hair clipped short in the fashion of a mourner, and he asked the reason.
Admetus replied that there was a funeral that day, which he would be obliged to attend.
"The gods forbid," cried Herakles, anxiously, "that any evil may have befallen either of thy children?"
"My children," returned Admetus, "both live and are well."
"If thou mournest for thy father," questioned Herakles again, "he must be now well on in years."
"My father and my mother are both alive, Herakles."
"It cannot be Alcestis, thy wife?" exclaimed the hero in dismay.
Then Admetus put great force upon himself; for he knew how Herakles honoured the noble Alcestis, and that if he knew what the sorrow was that brooded over his house, he would, weary as he was, trudge onward, with spent strength and sorrowing heart, rather than give any trouble in the house, bereaved of its mistress. So he said that the dead was indeed a woman--a foreign woman--one who had dwelt long under his roof, and very dear to them all. Then Herakles would have gone onward to seek hospitality elsewhere, but this Admetus would not hear of. He conducted him into the great hall, and charging his steward and his
principal attendants to supply him with all he could desire, himself withdrew for awhile to direct the funeral rites and give way to his natural sorrow.
Herakles had fasted long and travelled far, and sweet was the rest, and the bowl of warm water for his feet, and the tender hands of the careful old woman who chafed and dried them; but most sweet the steaming flesh of sheep and oxen, and the fine white bread, and the honey-sweet wine which crowned his bowl. Royally the lusty hero ate and drank, but there was one hindrance to his comfort, which pressed upon him more as his hunger and thirst began to be appeased. Though Admetus had charged his people on no account to let Herakles see that they were in trouble, they were not able to control altogether their grief, and, indeed, were not a little concerned at what seemed to them want of proper respect to their dear mistress, whose gracious kindness had made their lives pleasant to them, and many a time and oft had turned aside their master's wrath. Now Herakles feared not man nor beast. He could slay a hydra or face a fire-breathing horse, but he could not endure a clouded countenance or a dull, unsympathetic manner, and considering the steward's grief out of bounds for an event so common as death--the death of a slave, however faithful and however honoured--he bade him quaff a goblet of wine to rouse his dull spirits, and to crown his head with a chaplet of fresh leaves. "For," added he, cheerily, "wist thou not that we are all to
die? Is it not common sense, then, to accept death with a good courage? If a man indulges in gloom and melancholy, life is not life, but a calamity."
"I know that right well," replied the steward, the tears standing in his eyes; "but it is not in the power of all the laughter and jollity in the world to drown the memory of the grief which now compasseth us about."
"A woman of a strange land is dead--so much the worse for her; but when your king and his house are well"
"Our king and his house!" exclaimed the steward, "Alas! sir, you know not the grief under which we groan."
"Can it be that your lord has deceived me?" cried Herakles, in alarm.
"Admetus holds the rites of hospitality in such honour that he would sacrifice everything to them. It is, indeed, a woman of a strange country who dead, but no slave, alas!"
"Could it be," said Herakles, "that Admetus was really in bitter grief himself, yet hid it from me?"
"Yes, for he would not sadden thee. But seest thou not how our heads are shaven, and what black robes we wear? No common grief, no servile mourning this."
"Who, then, is dead?" impatiently exclaimed the hero.
"The wife of Admetus, guest-friend!" cried the steward; and he hid his face in his mantle, unable longer to control his tears.
"And yet ye received me and made me a feast?"
"Yes, for it was his will; he honours Zeus Zenius 5 too much to thrust thee away."
"Poor prince! What a wife to lose!"
"Ay, sir, we are all undone; she was the light and comfort of the house."
"I saw," said Herakles, "that as he spoke to me his eyes were full of tears--I saw his mourning garments and his shaven head; but I believed what he told me of a foreign woman who was to be buried--a foreign woman indeed was the matchless Alcestis, but who so near and dear? A voice within me warned me that I should turn aside from the house, but I would not hearken to it. To think that I should have drunk and feasted in the house of a man so overwhelmed with sorrow! Tell me, man, tell me where he has buried her, that I too may mourn over her."
Then the steward's tongue was loosened and he told to Herakles the whole story of the fate that had threatened Admetus, and how the Moirae had been won to accept another life, as noble, instead of his, and how Alcestis, gaining knowledge of this, had given her own life for his: "as noble a life," said the weeping steward, "as ever was lived upon this earth." Herakles listened without a word to all the story, moved to the bottom of his great soul at the virtue of Alcestis, and stung with shame at his own dulness in not searching more deeply into the source of the sorrow in the house, and there entered into his heart
a wonderful resolution, even to enter once more realms of Hades, whence he had already dragged three-headed Cerberus for Eurystheus to see, and wrest the newly-flown spirit from the grasp of Thanatos. Such seemed to him the only fit compensation he could make to her or to Admetus for breaking upon them in their sorrow. So without more delay hastened to the tomb--now richly spread with honey cakes, and silent--and lay in wait until, as he expected Thanatos came to regale himself on the offerings; then he rushed out upon him, and grasping him in his arms would by no means let him go until he promised bring back the queen alive to the earth.
Admetus meanwhile was so overwhelmed with sorrow that he could not gather courage to return to his widowed home: the tender memories of his wedded life came back to him, and in his loneliness he envied her who was dead, thinking that he would gladly have leapt into the pit where her body was laid, and been covered up with her out of the sight of men.
While he still lingered outside the palace, he was surprised to behold the guest, whom he believed to be resting safely in his guest-chamber, approach him leading by the hand a veiled woman. Herakles at once and frankly reproached him for leaving him in ignorance of so momentous a truth as the death of his wife, since between friends all speech should be free and open; but he said that though he had just cause complaint against him, he would not add to his sorrow
but would show him the trust he still placed in his friendship by giving into his charge a lady, the captive of his spear, whom he had much reason to honour dearly. "Do thou, Admetus," he said, "take her under thy roof, while I go to this fierce Thracian, whose horses I must needs have; and well I wot that he will not give them to me without a struggle, in which either he or I must fall. Should he be the conqueror--which the gods avert!--I make thee a present of this fair prize, won not without strain of nerve and sinew! Let her well in thine house for my sake."
"Noble Herakles," replied Admetus, "forgive me that I hid my grief from thee. How could I let thee, wayworn and weary as thou wert, toil onward in search of food and rest, and so lose to my poor house the honour of sheltering once more the first of heroes? But as to this lady, I beg thee seek entertainment for her elsewhere; there are many in Pherae who would gladly pay her all honour, to be accounted thy guest-friend. As for me, the sight of a lady about the house would move me to endless weeping, my trouble is new and heavy upon me. Your prize is young and fair--one can see that even under her veil--she would need some kindly woman to care for and to guide her. Alas! Even now she reminds me of her who is dead. For the sake of all the gods, noble Herakles, take her from my sight. When I look at her my heart leaps and the fountains of my tears are broken up; for even so did Alcestis stand, so did she move!"
"Would that Jove would give thee back thy wife, poor friend!" said Herakles.
"A vain wish, noble son of Alkmene, seeing that the dead return not to dwell in their earthly homes."
Then Herakles strove to cheer him, telling him that the time would come when the thought of second nuptials would not be painful to him; at mention of which the soul of Admetus flamed out in anger. Then Herakles again pressed him to take the strange lady into his house, and Admetus was at length persuaded to take her by the hand to conduct her into the palace, that she might abide there until he should return to reclaim her. "But," said the son of Alkmene, "before thou dost lead her in, draw aside her veil, and behold if this stranger resemble not thine own wife in feature and in complexion, as well as in height and gait, and if great and abundant joy be not prepared for thee instead of overwhelming grief."
Scarce comprehending the words of Herakles, Admetus with a trembling hand drew aside the veil that hid the countenance of the stranger, and beheld, O miracle! the true face of his beloved wife, pale indeed, but smiling on him with incomparable love. Who can tell the joy of that hour when the dear wife and mother was given back in a manner so unlooked for, and the house of mourning was turned into a house of joy?
For three days--such test the infernal gods required --Alcestis uttered no sound; but when the rites to
[paragraph continues] Proserpina were duly paid and the lustral sacrifices offered, she was again the tender wife and mother, the gracious queen and mistress, full of thought and care for all, from the royal Admetus to the poor slave, who swept the chambers. Honour first to Him of the silver bow, the ever-present honour and protection of the house, honour and love to the much-enduring Herakles, and safe end to his hard labours!
Alcestis beheld her children, Eumelus and Perimele, row up under her kindly care to be a noble man and woman; and when at length she passed away, full of years, her passage to the realms of Hades was swift and easy as the sleep of the wayfarer weary with long travel.