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HIS TWELFTH LABOR: THE DESCENT INTO HADES
DARESAY you have forgotten—for it is a long way
back—the name of Admētus, that King of
Pheræ in Thessaly, whom Apollo, when banished
from heaven, served as a shepherd for nine years.
Admetus did not know that it was a god whom he had to
keep his sheep; but he was so good and kind a master
that Apollo, revealing himself at the end of his exile,
bade him name any boon he desired, and it should be
There is no such difficult question in the world to
answer as that. Admetus answered, "Grant that I may
But that is the one thing which not even the gods can
grant to mortal men. The very cause of Apollo's having
been banished to earth was his killing the Cyclops for
forging the thunderbolt with which Jupiter had killed
Æsculapius for making dead men live again. Not
even the Fates could change that law even for the sake
of Apollo. But they said, "Admetus shall live so long
as he can find somebody else to die instead of him
whenever his death-time comes," which was all they
 After the return of Apollo to heaven, Admetus lived on
in great happiness and welfare. He was one of the
Argonauts; and he took part in the hunting of the
Calydonian boar. He had fallen in love with Alcestis,
the beautiful daughter of that King Pelias of whom you
read in the story of the Golden Fleece, whose hand had
been promised to the man who should come for her in a
chariot drawn by a wild boar and a lion. This Admetus
did; and in this chariot he drove her back to his own
kingdom of Pheræ, where he made her his queen.
And there they lived in great love and happiness for
But the day came at last which had been appointed to
Admetus for his death-time. Then Admetus, remembering
the promise of the Fates, and not able to bear losing
the happiness of living, thus besought his old father,
"Father, you are already old and near to death; you
have lived your life; it matters nothing to you whether
your old age lasts a year less or a year more. What you
now call life is only weariness and pain. But I am
still young and strong, with the best part of my life
still unlived, and my children ungrown, and my kingdom
to govern: I beseech you to die for me, so that I also
may live to be as old and as wise as you."
But his father answered: "No, my son; life is precious,
even when one is old. The nearer we approach
 the cold dark grave, the dearer grow the sunshine and
the living air. I will do anything else for you, but
Then Admetus besought Clymēne, his mother—
"Mother, you are old and weak, and a woman; I am young
and strong, and a man. What is such life as yours
compared with mine? I beseech you to die for me: let
not a mother doom to death her own child."
But his mother answered: "No, my son; he who loves his
life as you love it, and fears death as you fear it, is
not one for whom even his mother ought to die."
Then Admetus besought all his friends and kinsmen but
all were deaf to him. For well the Fates had known that
their promise would be in vain. But at last his dear
and beautiful wife Alcestis came to him, and
"I will die for you, and gladly!" Ah, those Fates do
not know everything after all!
Admetus, with all his selfishness, had never thought of
sacrificing his wife; and he was overcome with horror.
He prayed that Apollo's gift might be taken back; but
the Fates are not to be played fast and loose with in
that way, and they were angry perhaps at finding
themselves baffled by a mere loving woman. Alcestis had
to die instead of Admetus; and so she died, as she had
said, proudly and gladly.
 Now that it was too late, her husband was broken-hearted
at having caused his wife's death for the sake of what
had been but a selfish whim. All he could do for her in
return was honor her love and devotion by a splendid
funeral, to which people came from far and near to
cover her grave with flowers.
Alcestis was buried, and the farewell hymn was being
sung, when there thrust his way, rather roughly,
through the crowded temple a stranger of mighty build,
carrying a club, and clad with a lion's skin, seemingly
the worse for wine. Admetus was too absorbed in his
grief to notice this rude intrusion; but some of the
bystanders cried shame on the stranger, and one of the
priests came in his way, and said sternly—
"Who are you that dare to trouble grief like ours?"
"Who am I? Why, the servant of Eurystheus, King of
Argos and Mycenæ. Is this how you receive
strangers in your land? I had heard that Admetus of
Pheræ is the most generous of kings, and Alcestis
the most gracious of queens; and here I find you all
like ghosts at a funeral. Where is the king?"
"There stands the king," said the priest, solemnly. And
then he told the stranger the story which many a poet
has told since—the story of how strong true love
is, and how foolish it is to measure life by the number
of its years.
 Hercules—for he the stranger was—was
sobered in a moment. "It is a shame!" he exclaimed,
bringing down his club on the floor. "Fates or no
fates, it shall not be! I am bound to Hades on an
errand for my own king, and I will not come back unless
I do a better one for yours."
So, leaving them all offended at what they took for a
drunken boast, he dropped into the open grave: the
people only thinking that he had passed from the temple
somewhat suddenly. Hence he followed the passage taken
by the queen's soul till he reached the Styx; and hard
work must poor old Charon have had to row across such a
weight as Hercules instead of the ghosts to which he
was accustomed. On he went, finding his way as best he
could without a guide, until, chancing upon the black
gate of Tartarus, there growled in the middle of his
path the three-headed dog Cerberus, with flashing eyes
and flaming jaws.
Orpheus, you remember, had quieted Cerberus with the
music of his lute: Hercules, going to work in other
fashion, brought down his club upon one of the dog's
skulls in a way that bewildered the other two. Then,
seizing the monster by the throat, and in spite of its
furious struggles, he fairly dragged it along with him
by sheer strength, even into the very presence of Pluto
"And," he cried, "god and goddess though you are,
 I will brain this dog of yours upon the steps of your
throne unless you surrender to me the soul of Alcestis,
that I may deliver her from death, and lead her back
into life again."
It was an unheard-of thing that a man should thus take
Hades by storm, and dictate terms to its king and
queen. But for that moment I verily believe that
Hercules became more than man—nay, more than
Alcestis, because, while she had betaken herself to
Elysium for the love of one who was dear to her, he had
dared the torments of Tartarus out of pity for
strangers and hate of wrong. Nay, I think it was truly
this which had made his grip so fast on the dog's
throat, and his club so heavy on the dog's three
skulls; and this that made a mortal stand as their
master before even Pluto and Proserpine.
"In the name of all the gods," said Pluto, "take the
woman, and begone."
Then Alcestis appeared—a mere gray shade, the
touch of whose hand was but like a film of gossamer.
But as he dragged the less and less struggling Cerberus
with one hand, and led her with the other, her shade
took color and formed, and her fingers tightened upon
his, until the living Alcestis, more beautiful than
before, stepped with him out of her still open grave,
and threw herself into her husband's arms.
 Hercules did not wait for thanks; indeed, with Cerberus
still on his hands, his only thought was to hurry back
to Mycenæ. It is the strangest picture one can
think of—a man dragging along the three-headed
dog of Hades in the open light of day. It was one long
strain on his whole strength, all day and all night
long, for many nights and days. But he reached
Mycenæ at last—and into his brazen pot
leaped Eurystheus in the twinkling of an eye.
"I have brought him," said Hercules. "Cerberus is
"Then," cried Eurystheus, as well as his terror would
let him, "be off with you, Cerberus and all. Never more
be servant of mine; never let me see your face or hear
of you again!"
Thus Hercules, by obedient service, won his freedom,
and his great penance was fulfilled. And the first use
he made of freedom was to give it to Cerberus, who
straightway, with a terrible howl, plunged into the
earth, and disappeared.