Alcestis in Myth

Unlike the other two myths of descent, Alcestis is the only one not to be included in the “Metamorphoses”. This is probably due to the fact that it has no transformative sequences as a part of the narrative structure of the story. For the full version of the myth, we turn to other sources. The folk tale begins with the god Apollo, who was punished for killing the cyclopes and was required to serve someone for an entire year. Apollo selected the house of King Admetus, a well off bachelor, where he watched over the fields of cattle. After a year, the god was treated so well by his host, that he made it so each of his cows gave birth to twins each time, making Admetus a very prosperous man.

When it was time for Admetus to take a wife, he fell in love with a woman named Alcestis, the daughter of Pelias. She had so many suitors that Pelias devised a nigh impossible task of yoking a boar and a lion to a chariot, where the winner would be worthy of Alcestis’ hand. With some divine intervention from his friend Apollo, Admetus was successful and won the contest and set to marry Alcestis.

Everything was going well when on the morning of the wedding day, they found that snakes had filled the marriage chamber because Admetus failed to sacrifice to the goddess Diana. This prophetic message meant that due to his neglect, he was to die at a young age. Apollo would not allow this to happen and visited the Fates, begging them to spare his life though the best they could do was propose a trade. They said that if a friend or a family member was willing to take his place amongst the dead, he may continue to live. With this news delivered to Admetus, all his worries disappeared. The king was confident that one of his elderly parents would surely take his place. However, this was not the case, and despair set in once again.

Alcestis Fresco
“Alcestis and Admetus”, found at and currently at the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii

That is until Alcestis declared she would take his place instead. She was ferried down to the Underworld after a few days that she spent dying surrounded by her friends and family. It was during this time that Admetus realized he had made a mistake and that he could not live out the remainder of his life while his wife wander the fields of Asphodel for an eternity. Hercules, who was a regular and welcomed guest at the house of Admetus, agreed to go retrieve his recently departed wife so that Admetus may be happy once again. When in the Underworld, Hercules came face to face with Thanatos, the god of death, and wrestled him for the life of Alcestis. Hercules emerged victorious and led the soul of Alcestis from the land of the dead back to Admetus who was grateful for her return. The two lived out full lives together until they were both old and descended into the Underworld together.