| Stories from the Greek Tragedians|
|by Alfred J. Church|
|Thirteen strong, interesting tales from Greek tragedy, admirably retold by Alfred J. Church and retaining remarkably well the spirit of the originals. Includes the stories of Alcestis, Medea, Antigone, Philoctetes, Agamemnon, Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes among others. Ages 11-14 |
THE STORY OF THE LOVE OF ALCESTIS
 ASCLEPIUS, the son of Apollo, being a mighty physician,
raised men from the dead. But Zeus was wroth that a man
should have such power, and so make of no effect the
ordinance of the Gods. Wherefore he smote Asclepius
with a thunderbolt and slew him. And when Apollo knew
this, he slew the Cyclopés that had made the
thunderbolts for his father Zeus, for men say that they
make them on their forges that are in the mountain of
Etna. But Zeus suffered not this deed to go unpunished,
but passed this sentence on his son Apollo, that he
should serve a mortal man for the space of a whole
year. Wherefore, for all that he was a god, he kept the
sheep of Admetus, who was the Prince of Pheræ in
Thessaly. And Admetus knew not that he was a god; but,
nevertheless, being a just man, dealt truly with him.
 came to pass after this that Admetus was sick unto
death. But Apollo gained this grace for him of the
Fates (which order life and death for men), that he
should live, if only he could find some one who should
be willing to die in his stead. And he went to all his
kinsmen and friends and asked this thing of them, but
found no one that was willing so to die; only Alcestis
his wife was willing.
And when the day was come on the which it was appointed
for her to die, Death came that he might fetch her. And
when he was come, he found Apollo walking to and fro
before the palace of King Admetus, having his bow in
his hand. And when Death saw him, he said—
"What doest thou here, Apollo? Is it not enough for
thee to have kept Admetus from his doom? Dost thou keep
watch and ward over this woman with thine arrows and
"Fear not," the god made answer, "I have justice on my
"If thou hast justice, what need of thy bow?"
" 'Tis my wont to carry it."
"Ay, and it is thy wont to help this house beyond all
right and law."
 "Nay, but I was troubled at the sorrows of one that I
loved, and helped him."
"I know thy cunning speech and fair ways; but this woman
thou shalt not take from me."
"But consider; thou canst but have one life. Wilt thou
not take another in her stead?"
"Her and no other will I have, for my honour is the
greater when I take the young."
"I know thy temper, hated both of Gods and of men. But
there cometh a guest to this house, whom Eurystheus
sendeth to the snowy plains of Thrace, to fetch the
horses of Lycurgus. Haply he shall persuade thee
against thy will."
"Say what thou wilt; it shall avail nothing. And now I
go to cut off a lock of her hair, for I take these
firstfruits of them that die."
In the meantime, within the palace, Alcestis prepared
herself for death. And first she washed her body with
pure water from the river, and then she took from her
coffer of cedar her fairest apparel, and adorned
herself therewith. Then, being so arrayed, she stood
before the hearth and prayed, saying, "O Queen Heré,
behold! I depart this day. Do thou therefore keep my
children, giving to this
 one a noble husband and to that a loving wife." And all
the altars that were in the house she visited in like
manner, crowning them with myrtle leaves and praying at
them. Nor did she weep at all, or groan, or grow pale.
But at the last, when she came to her chamber, she cast
herself upon the bed and kissed it, crying, "I hate
thee not, though I die for thee, giving myself for my
husband. And thee another wife shall possess, not more
true than I am, but, maybe, more fortunate!" And after
she had left the chamber, she turned to it again and
again with many tears. And all the while her children
clung to her garments, and she took them up in her
arms, the one first and then the other, and kissed
them. And all the servants that were in the house
bewailed their mistress, nor did she fail to reach her
hand to each of them, greeting him. There was not one
of them so vile but she spake to him and was spoken to
After this, when the hour was now come when she must
die, she cried to her husband (for he held her in his
arms, as if he would have stayed her that she should
not depart), I see the boat
 of the dead, and Charon standing with his hand upon the
pole, who calleth me, saying. 'Hasten; thou delayest
us;' and then again, 'A winged messenger of the dead
looketh at me from under his dark eyebrows, and would
lead me away. Dost thou not see him?' " Then after
this she seemed now ready to die, yet again she
gathered strength, and said to the King, "Listen, and I
will tell thee before I die what I would have thee do.
Thou knowest how I have given my life for thy life. For
when I might have lived, and had for my husband any
prince of Thessaly that I would, and dwelt here in
wealth and royal state, yet could I not endure to be
widowed of thee and that thy children should be
fatherless. Therefore I spared not myself, though thy
father and she that bare thee betrayed thee. But the
Gods have ordered all this after their own pleasure. So
be it. Do thou therefore make this recompense, which
indeed thou owest to me, for what will not a man give
for his life? Thou lovest these children even as I love
them. Suffer them then to be rulers in this house, and
bring not a step-mother over them
 who shall hate them and deal with them unkindly. A
son, indeed, hath a tower of strength in his father.
But, O my daughter, how shall it fare with thee, for
thy mother will not give thee in marriage, nor be with
thee, comforting thee in thy travail of children, when
a mother most showeth kindness and love. And now
farewell, for I die this day. And thou, too, farewell,
my husband. Thou losest a true wife, and ye, too, my
children, a true mother."
Then Admetus made answer, "Fear not, it shall be as
thou wilt. I could not find other wife fair and well
born and true as thou. Never more shall I gather
revellers in my palace, or crown my head with garlands,
or hearken to the voice of music. Never shall I touch
the harp or sing to the Libyan flute. And some cunning
craftsman shall make an image fashioned like unto thee,
and this I will hold in my arms and think of thee. Cold
comfort indeed, yet that shall ease somewhat of the
burden of my soul. But oh! that I had the voice and
melody of Orpheus, for then had I gone down to Hell and
persuaded the Queen thereof or her husband with my song
to let thee go; nor
 would the watch-dog of Pluto, nor Charon that ferrieth
the dead, have hindered me but that I had brought thee
to the light. But do thou wait for me there, for there
will I dwell with thee; and when I die they shall lay
me by thy side, for never was wife so true as thou."
Then said Alcestis, "Take these children as a gift from
me, and be as a mother to them."
"O me!" he cried, "what shall I do, being bereaved of
And she said, "Time will comfort thee; the dead are as
But he said, "Nay, but let me depart with thee."
But the Queen made answer, " 'Tis enough that I die in
And when she had thus spoken she gave up the ghost.
Then the King said to the old men that were gathered
together to comfort him, "I will see to this burial.
And do ye sing a hymn as is meet to the god of the
dead. And to all my people I make this decree: that
they mourn for this woman, and clothe themselves in
black, and shave their heads, and that such as have
 cut off their manes, and that there be not heard in the
city the voice of the flute or the sound of the harp
for the space of twelve months."
Then the old men sang the hymn as they had been bidden.
And when they had finished, it befell that Hercules,
who was on a journey, came to the palace and asked
whether King Admetus was sojourning there.
And the old men answered, " 'Tis even so, Hercules. But
what, I pray thee, bringeth thee to this land?"
"I am bound on an errand for King Eurystheus; even to
bring back to him horses of King Diomed."
"How wilt thou do this? Dost thou not know this
"I know nought of him, nor of his land."
"Thou wilt not master him or his horses without blows."
"Even so, yet I may not refuse the tasks that are set
"Thou art resolved then to do this thing or to die?"
"Ay; and this is not the first race that I have run."
 "Thou wilt not easily bridle these horses."
"Why not? They breathe not fire from their nostrils."
"No, but they devour the flesh of men."
"What sayest thou? This is the food of wild beasts, not
"Yet 'tis true. Thou wilt see their mangers foul with
"And the master of these steeds, whose son is he?"
"He is son of Ares, lord of the land of Thrace."
"Now this is a strange fate and a hard that maketh me
fight ever with the sons of Ares, with Lycaon first,
and with Cycnus next, and now with this King Diomed.
But none shall ever see the son of Alcmena trembling
before an enemy."
And now King Admetus came forth from the palace. And
when the two had greeted one another, Hercules would
fain know why the King had shaven his hair as one that
mourned for the dead. And the King answered that he was
about to bury that day one that was dear to him.
 And when Hercules inquired yet further who this might
be, the King said that his children were well, and his
father also, and his mother. But of his wife he
answered so that Hercules understood not that he spake
of her. For he said that she was a stranger by blood,
yet near in friendship, and that she had dwelt in his
house, having been left an orphan of her father.
Nevertheless Hercules would have departed and found
entertainment elsewhere, for he would not be
troublesome to his host. But the King suffered him not.
And to the servant that stood by he said, "Take thou
this guest to the guest-chamber; and see that they
that have charge of these matters set abundance of food
before him. And take care that ye shut the doors
between the chambers and the palace; for it is not meet
that the guest at his meal should hear the cry of them
And when the old men would know why the King, having so
great a trouble upon him, yet entertained a guest, he
made answer, "Would ye have commended me the more if I
had caused him to depart from this house and this city?
For my sorrow had not been one
 whit the less, and I had lost the praise of
hospitality. And a right worthy host is he to me if
ever I chance to visit the land of Argos."
And now they had finished all things for the burying of
Alcestis, when the old man Pheres, the father of the
King, approached, and servants came with him bearing
robes and crowns and other adornments wherewith to do
honour to the dead. And when he was come over against
the bier whereon they had laid the dead woman, he spake
to the King, saying, "I am come to mourn with thee, my
son, for thou hast lost a noble wife. Only thou must
endure, though this indeed is a hard thing. But take
these adornments, for it is meet that she should be
honoured who died for thee, and for me also, that I
should not go down to the grave childless." And to the
dead he said, "Fare thou well, noble wife, that hast
kept this house from falling. May it be well with thee
in the dwellings of the dead! "
But the King answered him in great wrath, "I did not
bid thee to this burial, nor shall this dead woman be
adorned with gifts of thine. Who art thou that thou
shouldest bewail her? Surely thou art not father of
mine. For being
 come to extreme old age, yet thou wouldst not die for
thy son, but sufferedst this woman, being a stranger in
blood, to die for me. Her therefore I count father and
mother also. Yet this had been a noble deed for thee,
seeing that the span of life that was left to thee was
short. And I too had not been left to live out my days
thus miserably, being bereaved of her whom I loved.
Hast thou not had all happiness, thus having lived in
kingly power from youth to age? And thou wouldst have
left a son to come after thee, that thy house should
not be spoiled by thine enemies. Have I not always done
due reverence to thee and to my mother? And, lo! this
is the recompense that ye make me. Wherefore I say to
thee, make haste and raise other sons who may nourish
thee in thy old age, and pay thee due honour when thou
art dead, for I will not bury thee. To thee I am dead."
Then the old man spake, "Thinkest thou that thou art
driving some Lydian and Phrygian slave that hath been
bought with money, and forgettest that I am a freeborn
man of Thessaly, as my father was freeborn before me?
I reared thee to rule this house after me; but to die
 thee, that I owed thee not. This is no custom among the
Greeks that a father should die for his son. To thyself
thou livest or diest. All that was thy due thou hast
received of me; the kingdom over many people, and, in
due time, broad lands which I also received of my
father. How have I wronged thee? Of what have I
defrauded thee? I ask thee not to die for me; and I die
not for thee. Thou lovest to behold this light.
Thinkest thou that thy father loveth it not? For the
years of the dead are very long; but the days of the
living are short yet sweet withal. But I say to thee
that thou hast fled from thy fate in shameless fashion,
and hast slain this woman. Yea, a woman hath vanquished
thee, and yet thou chargest cowardice against me. In
truth, 'tis a wise device of thine that thou mayest
live for ever, if marrying many times, thou canst still
persuade thy wife to die for thee. Be silent then, for
shame's sake; and if thou lovest life, remember that
others love it also."
So King Admetus and his father reproached each other
with many unseemly words. And when the old man had
departed, they carried forth Alcestis to her burial,
 But when they that bare the body had departed, there
came in the old man that had the charge of the
guest-chambers, and spake, saying, "I have seen many
guests that have come from all the lands under the sun
to this palace of Admetus, but never have I given
entertainment to such evil guest as this. For first,
knowing that my lord was in sore trouble and sorrow, he
forebore not to enter these gates. And then he took his
entertainment in most unseemly fashion; for if he
lacked aught he would call loudly for it; and then,
taking a great cup wreathed with leaves of ivy in his
hands, he drank great draughts of red wine untempered
with water. And when the fire of the wine had warmed
him, he crowned his head with myrtle boughs, and sang
in the vilest fashion. Then might one hear two
melodies, this fellow's songs, which he sang without
thought for the troubles of my lord and the lamentation
wherewith we servants lamented our mistress. But we
suffered not this stranger to see our tears, for so my
lord had commanded. Surely this is a grievous thing
that I must entertain this stranger, who surely is some
thief or robber.
 And meanwhile they have taken my mistress to her grave,
and I followed not after her, nor reached my hand to
her, that was as a mother to all that dwell in this
When the man had so spoken, Hercules came forth from
the guest-chamber, crowned with myrtle, having his face
flushed with wine. And he cried to the servant, saying,
"Ho, there! why lookest thou so solemn and full of
care? Thou shouldst not scowl on thy guest after this
fashion, being full of some sorrow that concerns thee
not nearly. Come hither, and I will teach thee to be
wiser. Knowest thou what manner of thing the life of a
man is? I trow not. Hearken therefore. There is not a
man who knoweth what a day may bring forth. Therefore I
say to thee: Make glad thy heart; eat, drink, count
the day that now is to be thine own, but all else to be
doubtful. As for all other things, let them be, and
hearken to my words. Put away this great grief that
lieth upon thee and enter into this chamber, and drink
with me. Right soon shall the tinkling of the wine as
it falleth into the cup ease thee of these gloomy
thoughts. As thou art a man, be wise after the
 fashion of a man; for to them that are of a gloomy
countenance, life, if only I judge rightly, is not life
but trouble only."
Then the servant answered, "All this I know; but we
have fared so ill in this house that mirth and laughter
ill beseem us."
"But they tell me that this dead woman was a stranger.
Why shouldst thou be so troubled, seeing that they who
rule this house yet live."
"How sayest thou that they live? Thou knowest not what
trouble we endure."
"I know it, unless thy lord strangely deceived me."
"My lord is given to hospitality."
"And should it hinder him that there is some stranger
dead in the house?"
"A stranger, sayest thou? 'Tis passing strange to call
"Hath thy lord then suffered some sorrow that he told
"Even so, or I had not loathed to see thee at thy
revels. Thou seest this shaven hair and these black
"What then? who is dead? One of thy lord's children, or
the old man his father?"
 "Stranger, 'tis the wife of Admetus that is dead."
"What sayest thou? And yet he gave me entertainment?"
"Yea, for he would not, for shame, turn thee from his
"O miserable man, what a helpmeet thou hast lost!"
"Ay, and we are all lost with her."
"Well I knew it; for I saw the tears in his eyes, and
his head shaven, and his sorrowful regard; but he
deceived me, saying that the dead woman was a stranger.
Therefore did I enter the doors and make merry, and
crown myself with garlands, not knowing what had
befallen my host. But come, tell me; where doth he
bury her? Where shall I find her?"
"Follow straight along the road that leadeth to
Larissa, and thou wilt see her tomb in the outskirts of
Then said Hercules to himself, "O my heart, thou hast
dared many great deeds before this day; and now most of
all must I show myself a true son of Zeus. Now will I
save this dead woman Alcestis, and give her back to her
 husband, and make due recompense to Admetus. I will go,
therefore, and watch for this black-robed king, even
Death. Methinks I shall find him nigh unto the tomb,
drinking the blood of the sacrifices. There will I lie
in wait for him, and run upon him, and throw my arms
about him, nor shall any one deliver him out of my
hands, till he have given up to me this woman. But if
it chance that I find him not there, and he come not to
the feast of blood, I will go down to the Queen of
Hell, to the land where the sun shineth not, and beg
her of the Queen; and doubtless she will give her to
me, that I may give her to her husband. For right nobly
did he entertain me, and drave me not from his house,
for all that he had been stricken by such sorrow. Is
there a man in Thessaly, nay in the whole land of
Greece, that is such a lover of hospitality? I trow
not. Noble is he, and he shall know that he is no ill
friend to whom he hath done this thing."
So he went his way. And when he was gone, Admetus came
back from the burying of his wife, a great company
following him, of whom the elders sought to comfort him
in his sorrow.
 And when he was come to the gates of his palace he
cried, "How shall I enter thee? how shall I dwell in
thee? Once I came within thy gates with many
pine-torches from Pelion, and the merry noise of the
marriage song, holding in my hand the hand of her that
is dead; and after us followed a troop that magnified
her and me, so noble a pair we were. And now with
wailing instead of marriage songs, and garments of
black for white wedding robes, I go to my desolate
But while he yet lingered before the palace Hercules
came back, leading with him a woman that was covered
with a veil. And when he saw the King he said, "I hold
it well to speak freely to one that is a friend, and
that a man should not hide a grudge in his heart. Hear
me, therefore. Though I was worthy to be counted thy
friend, yet thou saidst not that thy wife lay dead in
thy house, but suffered me to feast and make merry. For
this, therefore, I blame thee. And now I will tell thee
why I am returned. I pray thee, keep this woman against
the day when I shall come back from the land of Thrace,
bringing the horses of
 King Diomed. And if it should fare ill with me, let her
abide here and serve thee. Not without toil came she
into my hands. I found as I went upon my way that
certain men had ordered contests for wrestlers and
runners, and the like. Now for them that had the
preeminence in lesser things there were horses for
prizes; and for the greater, as wrestling and boxing,
a reward of oxen, to which was added this woman. And
now I would have thee keep her, for which thing, haply,
thou wilt one day thank me."
To this the King answered, "I thought no slight when I
hid this truth from thee. Only it would have been for
me sorrow upon sorrow if thou hadst gone to the house
of another. But as for this woman, I would have thee
ask this thing of some prince of Thessaly that hath not
suffered such grief as I. In Pheræ here thou hast many
friends; but I could not look upon her without tears.
Add not then this new trouble. And also how could she,
being young, abide in my house, for young I judge her
to be? And of a truth, lady, thou art very like in
shape and stature to my Alcestis that is
 dead. I pray you, take her from my sight, for she
troubleth my heart, and my tears run over with
Then said Hercules, "Would I had such strength that I
could bring back thy wife from the dwellings of the
dead, and put her in thy hands."
"I know thy good will, but what profiteth it? No man
may bring back the dead."
"Well, time will soften thy grief, which yet is new."
"Yea, if by time thou meanest death."
"But a new wife
will comfort thee."
"Hold thy peace; such a thing cometh not into my
"What? wilt thou always keep this widowed state?"
"Never shall woman more be wife of mine."
"What will this profit her that is dead?"
"I know not, yet had I sooner die than be false to
"Yet I would have thee take this woman into thy house."
"Ask it not of me, I entreat thee, by thy father Zeus."
 "Thou wilt lose much if thou wilt not do it."
"And if I do it I shall break my heart."
"Haply some day thou wilt thank me; only be persuaded."
"Be it so: they shall take the woman into the house."
"I would not have thee entrust her to thy servants."
"If thou so thinkest, lead her in thyself."
"Nay, but I would give her into thy hands."
"I touch her not, but my house she may enter."
" 'Tis only to thy hand I entrust her."
"O King, thou compellest me to this against my will."
"Stretch forth thy hand and touch her."
"I touch her as I would touch the Gorgon's head."
"Hast thou hold of her?"
"I have hold."
"Then keep her safe, and say that the son of Zeus is a
noble friend. See if she be like thy wife; and change
thy sorrow for joy."
And when the King looked, lo! the veiled woman was
Alcestis his wife.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics