Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
T happened once that Zeus would punish Apollo, his son. Then he
banished him from Olympus, and he made him put off his divinity
and appear as a mortal man. And as a mortal Apollo sought to earn
his bread amongst men. He came to the house of King Admetus and
took service with him as his herdsman.
For a year Apollo served the young king, minding his herds
black cattle. Admetus did not know that it was one of the
immortal gods who was in his house and in his fields. But he
treated him in friendly wise, and Apollo was happy whilst serving
Afterward people wondered at Admetus's ever-smiling face and
ever-radiant being. It was the god's kindly thought of him that
gave him such happiness. And 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 baffling Death than any
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 Heracles. And often Heracles would have
Admetus beside him to tell him about the radiant god Apollo,
whose bow and arrows Heracles had been given.
After that voyage and after the hunt in Calydon Admetus went back
to his own land. There he wed that fair and loving woman,
Alcestis. He might not wed 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. Thereafter Admetus, having the love of Alcestis,
was even more happy than he had been before.
 One day as he walked by fold and through pasture field he saw a
figure standing beside his herd of black cattle. A radiant figure
it was, and Admetus knew that this was Apollo come to him again.
He went toward the god and he made reverence and began to speak
to him. But Apollo turned to Admetus a face that was without joy.
"What years of happiness have been mine, O Apollo, through your
friendship for me," said Admetus. "Ah, as I walked my pasture
land to-day it came into my mind how much I loved this green earth
and the blue sky! And 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 and his voice was not that clear and vibrant voice
that he had once in speaking to Admetus. "Admetus, Admetus," he
said, "it is for me to tell you that you may no more look on the
blue sky nor walk upon the green earth. It is for me to tell you
that the god of the Underworld will have you come to him.
Admetus, Admetus, know that 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: "O Apollo, Apollo,
thou art a god, and surely thou canst 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 thy behalf. Thou hast been
 given a
chance more than any mortal man. If one will go willingly in thy
place with Death, thou canst still live on. Go, Admetus. Thou art
well loved, and it may be that thou wilt find one to take thy
Then Apollo went up unto 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 aged 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.
So Admetus thought as he went toward the palace. And then he came
upon an ancient woman who sat upon stones in the courtyard,
grinding corn between two stones. Long had she been doing that
wearisome labor. Admetus had known her from the first time he had
come into that courtyard as a little child, and he had never seen
aught in her face but a heavy misery. There she was sitting as he
had first known her, with her eyes bleared and her knees shaking,
and with the dust of the courtyard and the husks of the corn in
her matted hair. He went to her and spoke to her, and he asked
her to take the place of the king and go with Death.
But when she heard the name of Death horror came into the face of
the ancient woman, and she cried out that she would not let Death
come near her. Then Admetus left her, and he came upon another,
upon a sightless man who held out a shriveled hand for the food
that the servants of the palace might
 bestow upon him. Admetus
took the man's shriveled hand, and he asked him if he would not
take the king's place and go with Death that was coming for him.
The sightless man, with howls and shrieks, said he would not go.
Then Admetus went into the palace and into the chamber where his
bed was, and he lay down upon the bed and he lamented that he
would have to go with Death that was coming for him from the god
of the Underworld, and he lamented that none of the wretched ones
around the palace would take his place.
A hand was laid upon him. He looked up and he saw his tall and
grave-eyed wife, Alcestis, beside him. Alcestis spoke to him
slowly and gravely. "I have heard what you have said, O my
husband," said she. "One should go in your place, for you are the
king and have many great affairs to attend to. And if none other
will go, I, Alcestis, 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, then, 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
upon her; her body weakened and she sank down upon the bed. Then,
watching over her, he knew that not he but
 Alcestis would go with
Death. And the words he had spoken he would have taken back—the
words that had brought her consent to go with Death in his place.
Paler and weaker Alcestis grew. Death would soon be here for her.
No, not here, for he would not have Death come into the palace.
He lifted Alcestis from the bed and he carried her from the
palace. He carried her to the temple of the gods. He laid her
there upon the bier and waited there beside her. No more speech
came from her. He went back to the palace where all was silent—the
servants moved about with heads bowed, lamenting silently for
As Admetus was coming back from the temple he heard a great
shout; he looked up and saw one standing at the palace doorway.
He knew him by his lion's skin and his great height. This was
Heracles—Heracles come to visit him, but come at a sad hour. He
could not now rejoice in the company of Heracles. And yet
Heracles might be on his way from the accomplishment of some
great labor, and it would not be right to say a word that might
turn him away from his doorway; he might have much need of rest
Thinking this Admetus went up to Heracles and took his hand and
welcomed him into his house. "How is it with you, friend
Admetus?" Heracles asked. Admetus would only say
 that nothing was
happening in his house and that Heracles, his hero-companion, was
welcome there. His mind was upon a great sacrifice, he said, and
so he would not be able to feast with him.
The servants brought Heracles to the bath, and then showed him
where a feast was laid for him. And as for Admetus, he went
within the chamber, and knelt beside the bed on which Alcestis
had lain, and thought of his terrible loss.
Heracles, after the bath, put on the brightly colored tunic that
the servants of Admetus brought him. He put a wreath upon 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. And thinking of what companionship he would have
with Admetus, Heracles left the feasting hall and came to where
the servants were standing about in silence.
"Why is the house of Admetus so hushed to-day?" Heracles asked.
"It is because of what is befalling," said one of the servants.
"Ah, the sacrifice that the king is making," said Heracles. "To
what god is that sacrifice due?"
"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 Heracles the story of how Alcestis had
taken her husband's place, going in his stead with Death.
Heracles thought upon 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 such sorrow was upon him. And then Heracles felt that
another labor was before him.
"I have dragged up from the Underworld," he thought, "the hound
that guards those whom Death brings down into the realm of the
god of the Underworld. Why should I not strive with Death? And
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 laid upon me, and it is a labor I will undertake." So
Heracles said to himself.
He left the palace of Admetus and he went to the temple of the
gods. He stood inside the temple and he saw the bier on which
Alcestis was laid. He looked upon the queen. Death had not
touched her yet, although she lay so still and so silent.
Heracles would watch beside her and strive with Death for her.
Heracles watched and Death came. When Death entered the temple
Heracles laid hands upon him. Death had never been gripped by
mortal hands and he strode on as if that grip meant nothing to
him. But then he had to grip Heracles. In Death's grip there was
a strength beyond strength. And upon Heracles a dreadful sense of
loss came as Death laid hands upon him—a sense of the loss of
light and the loss of breath and the loss of movement. But
Heracles 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
Heracles strove with
him, and at last he overthrew him and he held Death
down upon the
"Now you are held by me, Death," cried Heracles. "You are held by
me, and the god of the Underworld will be made angry because you
cannot go about his business—either this business or any other
business. You are held by me, Death, and you will not be let go
unless you promise to go forth from this temple without bringing
one with you." And Death, knowing that Heracles 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 bringing one with him. Then Heracles took his grip
off Death, and that stony shape went from the temple.
Soon a flush came into the face of Alcestis as Heracles watched
over her. Soon she arose from the bier on which she had been
laid. She called out to Admetus, and Heracles went to her and
spoke to her, telling her that he would bring her back to her
Admetus left the chamber where his wife had lain and stood before
the door of his palace. Dawn was coming, and as he looked toward
the temple he saw Heracles coming to the palace. A woman came
with him. She was veiled, and Admetus could not see her features.
 "Admetus," Heracles said, when he came before him, "Admetus,
there is something I would have you do for me. Here is a woman
whom I am bringing back to her husband. I won her from an enemy.
Will you not take her into your house while I am away on a
"You cannot ask me to do this, Heracles," said Admetus. "No woman
may come into the house where Alcestis, only yesterday, had her
"For my sake take her into your house," said Heracles. "Come now,
Admetus, take this woman by the hand."
A pang came to Admetus as he looked at the woman who stood beside
Heracles and saw that she was the same stature as his lost wife.
He thought that he could not bear to take her hand. But Heracles
pleaded with him, and he took her by the hand.
"Now take her across your threshold, Admetus," said Heracles.
Hardly could Admetus bear to do this—hardly could he bear to
think of a strange woman being in his house and his own wife gone
with Death. But Heracles pleaded with him, and by the hand he
held he drew the woman across his threshold.
"Now raise her veil, Admetus," said Heracles.
"This I cannot do," said Admetus. "I have had pangs enough. How
can I look upon a woman's face and remind myself that I cannot
look upon Alcestis's face ever again?"
"Raise her veil, Admetus," said Heracles.
 Then Admetus raised the veil of the woman he had taken across the
threshold of his house. He saw the face of Alcestis. He looked
again upon his wife brought back from the grip of Death by
Heracles, the son of Zeus. And 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 Heracles had all
that he cared to have.