Zeus wanted to punish his son Apollo so he banished him from Olympus, and made him appear as a mortal man. Apollo had to earn a living as an ordinary man. He came to the palace of King Admetus and took a job with him as his herdsman.
For a year Apollo served the young king, minding his herds of black cattle. Admetus did not know that it was one of the immortal gods who was in his fields but he treated him well, and Apollo was happy while serving Admetus.
People marveled at Admetus’s ever-smiling face and ever-radiant character. It was the god’s kindly thought of him that gave him such happiness. When Apollo was leaving his house and his fields he revealed himself to Admetus, and he made a promise to him that when the god of the Underworld sent Death for him he would have one more chance of defeating Death than any mortal man.
That was before Admetus sailed on the Argo with Jason and the companions of the quest. The companionship of Admetus brought happiness to many on the voyage, but the hero to whom it gave the most happiness was Hercules. Often Hercules would have Admetus sit beside him to tell him about the radiant god Apollo, whose bow and arrows Hercules had been given.
After that voyage and the hunt in Calydon Admetus went back to his own land where he married that fair and loving woman, Alcestis. He could not marry her until he had yoked lions and leopards to the chariot that drew her. This was a feat that no hero had been able to accomplish. With Apollo’s aid he accomplished it. After that, having the love of Alcestis, made Admetus even more happy than he had been before.
One day as he was walking through a field he saw a figure standing beside his herd of black cattle. It was a radiant figure, and Admetus knew that this was Apollo come to see him again. He went toward the god and he bowed and began to speak to him. But Apollo had no joy on his face.
“How happy these years have been Apollo, due to your friendship for me,” said Admetus. “As I walked though my fields today I realized how much I loved this green earth and blue sky! All that I know of love and happiness has come to me through you.”
But still Apollo stood before him with a face that was without joy. He spoke in a low voice. “Admetus, Admetus,” he said, “I have to tell you that you may no longer look on the blue sky nor walk through green fields. The god of the Underworld wants you to come to him. Admetus, Admetus, even now the god of the Underworld is sending Death for you.”
Then the light of the world went out for Admetus, and he heard himself speaking to Apollo in a shaking voice, “Oh Apollo, Apollo, you are a god, and surely you can save me! Save me now from this Death that the god of the Underworld is sending for me!”
But Apollo said, “Long ago, Admetus, I made a bargain with the god of the Underworld on your behalf. You have been given more chances than any mortal man. If someone will go willingly in your place with Death, you can still live on. Go, Admetus. You are well loved, and it may be that you will find someone to take your place.”
Then Apollo went up to the mountaintop and Admetus stayed for a while beside the cattle. It seemed to him that a little of the darkness had lifted from the world. He would go to his palace. There were elderly men and women there, servants and slaves, and one of them would surely be willing to take the king’s place and go with Death down to the Underworld.
Admetus thought about this as he went toward the palace. There he met a very old woman who sat on stones in the courtyard, grinding corn between two stones. She had been doing that wearisome job for a long time. Admetus had known her from the first time he had come into that courtyard as a little child, and he had never seen anything in her face but a heavy misery. There she was sitting as he had first known her, with her tired eyes and her knees shaking, and with the dust of the courtyard in her matted hair. He went up to her and asked her to take his place and go with Death.
But horror appeared on the face of the old woman when she heard the name of Death, and she cried out that she would not let Death come near her. Then Admetus left her, and he met a blind man who held out a shriveled hand for the food that the servants of the palace might give him. Admetus took the man’s shriveled hand, and he asked him if he would take the king’s place and go with Death that was coming for him. The blind man howled and shrieked and said he would not go.
Then Admetus went into the palace and into his bedroom. Lying down on his bed and he cried that he would have to go with Death that was coming for him from the god of the Underworld, and that none of the wretched ones around the palace would take his place.
A hand touched him. He looked up and saw his tall beautiful wife, Alcestis, beside him. Alcestis spoke to him slowly and gravely. “I have heard what you said my husband,” she said. “Someone should go in your place, for you are the king and have many great affairs to attend to. If no one else will go, I will go in your place, Admetus.”
It had seemed to Admetus that ever since he had heard the words of Apollo that heavy footsteps were coming toward him. Now the footsteps seemed to stop. It was not so terrible for him as before. He sprang up, and he took the hands of Alcestis and he said, “You will take my place?”
“I will go with Death in your place, Admetus,” Alcestis said.
Then, even as Admetus looked into her face, he saw a pallor come over her. Her body weakened and she sank down on the bed. Then, watching over her, he knew that not he but Alcestis would go with Death. The words he had spoken he wanted to take back—the words that had brought her agreement to go with Death in his place.
Alcestis grew paler and weaker. Death would soon be here for her. No, not here, for he would not let Death come into the palace. He lifted Alcestis from the bed and carried her from the palace to the temple of the gods. He laid her there upon the bier and waited beside her. She stopped speaking and lay very still so he went back to the palace where all was silent—the servants moved about with heads bowed, crying silently for their mistress.
As Admetus was coming back from the temple he heard a great shout. He looked up and saw someone standing at the entrance of the palace. He knew him by his lion’s skin and his great height. This was Hercules who had come to visit him, but at such a sad hour. He could not rejoice in the company of Hercules at this time. And yet Hercules might be on his way from the accomplishment of some great labor, and it would not be right to say anything that might turn him away from his doorway. He might have much need of rest and refreshment.
Admetus went up to Hercules and took his hand and welcomed him into his house. “How is it with you, friend Admetus?” Hercules asked. Admetus would only say that nothing was happening in his house and that Hercules, his hero-companion, was welcome there. His mind was preoccupied with a great sacrifice, he said, and so he would not be able to feast with him.
The servants brought Hercules to the bath, and then showed him where a feast was prepared for him. Admetus, went into his room, and knelt beside the bed on which Alcestis had lain, and thought of his terrible loss.
After the bath Hercules, put on the brightly colored tunic that the servants of Admetus brought him. He put a wreath on his head and sat down to the feast. It was a pity, he thought, that Admetus was not feasting with him. But this was only the first of many feasts. Hercules left the feasting hall and came to where the servants were standing about in silence.
“Why is the house of Admetus so quiet today?” Hercules asked.
“It is because of what is happening,” said one of the servants.
“Ah, the sacrifice that the king is making,” said Hercules. “Which god is being sacrificed to?”
“To the god of the Underworld,” said the servant. “Death is coming to Alcestis the queen where she lies on a bier in the temple of the gods.”
Then the servant told Hercules the story of how Alcestis had taken her husband’s place, going instead of him with Death. Hercules thought about the sorrow of his friend, and of the great sacrifice that his wife was making for him. How noble it was of Admetus to bring him into his house and give entertainment to him while being so sad. Then Hercules felt that he had been presented with another labor.
He thought, “I have dragged up from the Underworld, the hound that guards those that Death brings down into the realm of the god of the Underworld. Why shouldn’t I fight with Death? What a noble thing it would be to bring back this faithful woman to her house and to her husband! This is a labor that has not been given to me, but it is a labor I will undertake.” So Hercules said to himself.
He left the palace of Admetus and went to the temple of the gods. He stood inside the temple and saw the bier on which Alcestis was laid. He looked at the queen. Death had not touched her yet, although she lay so still and so silent. Hercules would stay beside her and fight with Death for her.
Hercules watched and Death came. When Death entered the temple Hercules seized him. Death had never been gripped by mortal hands and he strode on as if that grip meant nothing to him. But then he gripped Hercules. In Death’s grip there was strength beyond strength. Hercules felt a dreadful sense of loss as Death seized him; a sense of the loss of light and the loss of breath and the loss of movement. But Hercules struggled with Death although his breath went and his strength seemed to go from him. He held that stony body to him, and the cold of that body went through him, and its stoniness seemed to turn his bones to stone, but still Hercules struggled with him, and at last he threw him down and held Death down on the ground.
“Now you are held by me, Death,” cried Hercules. “You are held by me, and the god of the Underworld will be angry because you cannot go about his business. You are held by me, Death, and you will not be let go unless you promise to leave this temple without taking anyone with you.” Death, knowing that Hercules could hold him there, and that the business of the god of the Underworld would be left undone if he were held, promised that he would leave the temple without taking anyone with him. Then Hercules took his grip off Death, and that stony shape left the temple.
Soon a flush came into the face of Alcestis as Hercules watched over her. Soon she rose from the bier on which she had been laid. She called out to Admetus, and Hercules went to her and spoke to her, telling her that he would bring her back to her husband’s house.
Admetus left the room where his wife had lain and stood at the entrance of his palace. Dawn was coming, and as he looked toward the temple he saw Hercules approaching the palace. A woman accompanied him. She was veiled, and Admetus could not see her clearly.
“Admetus,” Hercules said, when he reached him, “Admetus, there is something I want you to do for me. Here is a woman I am bringing back to her husband. I rescued her from an enemy. Will you take her into your house while I am away on a journey?”
“You cannot ask me to do this, Hercules,” said Admetus. “No woman may come into the house where only yesterday Alcestis, lived.”
“For my sake take her into your house,” said Hercules. “Come now, Admetus, take this woman by the hand.”
Admetus felt pained as he looked at the woman who stood beside Hercules and saw that she was the same size as his lost wife. He thought that he could not bear to take her hand but Hercules pleaded with him, and he took her by the hand.
“Now take her into your palace, Admetus,” said Hercules.
Admetus could hardly bear to do this and to think of a strange woman being in his house and his own wife gone with Death. But Hercules pleaded with him, and so taking her hand he held he led the woman into the palace.
“Now raise her veil, Admetus,” said Hercules.
“This I cannot do,” said Admetus. “This has been difficult enough. How can I look at a woman’s face and remind myself that I cannot look upon Alcestis’s face ever again?”
“Raise her veil, Admetus,” said Hercules. Then Admetus raised the veil of the woman. He saw the face of Alcestis. He looked again at his wife brought back from the grip of Death by Hercules, the son of Zeus. Then a deeper joy than he had ever known came to Admetus. Once more his wife was with him, and Admetus the friend of Apollo and the friend of Hercules had all that he cared to have.