Admetus, king of Pherae in Thessaly, was thought by many to be among the luckiest of men. He was young, strong, and handsome, the only son of a father who had given up the kingdom to him as soon as he came of age. Admetus was an affectionate son, and the old people felt proud and pleased that, though they had given him all their power, he still paid them every attention which could make their old age a happy one. Nor was this all. The wealth of the king lay largely in his immense flocks and herds, for which he had the good fortune to obtain a marvelous herdsman.
Apollo himself had been condemned to spend a year on earth in the form of a servant as a punishment for an offense he had committed in anger against Zeus. He came in this way to Admetus, and since the young king was a just master, the year was a good one for them both. Admetus saw much of his chief herdsman and came to respect him, while Apollo mightily increased the flocks of the king in return for his upright dealing. When the year came to an end, Admetus learned that not only was he a much richer man than before, but he had also acquired a powerful friend and protector. One of the first uses he made of Apollo’s friendship was to gain himself a wife whom any prince in Greece would have been proud to marry.
Pelias, ruler of another Thessalian kingdom which he had seized by force from his cousin, had several daughters, but Alcestis was by far the loveliest. Not only was she beautiful, but she was skilled in all the arts of women. She was a notable spinner and maker of cloth, a good housewife, and performed everything with a charm which really came from a gentle, affectionate, and honorable nature. Even her dark and sinister father was fond of her and by no means anxious to let her marry and go to live in some other land. Nevertheless from the first moment she was old enough Pelias had been bothered by suitors for Alcestis. Every young man who saw her and a great many who only heard of her asked her father for her hand. At last Pelias became weary of the business and let it be known that he would marry his daughter only to the prince who could come to ask for her in a chariot drawn by a wild boar and a lion. Of course, no man could do this without help from the gods, so Pelias thought it most likely that he would be able to keep his daughter. But when Admetus accomplished the feat with Apollo’s aid, Pelias at least could be satisfied that she was marrying a prosperous king who had the help of a powerful protector. He made the best of it, therefore, and the wedding was held with much rejoicing.
For several years after this Admetus was even happier than before. His parents thoroughly approved of his bride, who treated them with loving respect. Alcestis was a gentle, dignified queen, a beloved mistress of the household, and an affectionate mother. Towards her husband even though she had not chosen him herself, she showed all the love he could desire. Nothing seemed to be lacking. Admetus’ face was radiant as he moved among his people; everything he did, he enjoyed. Men would mention him in conversation as an example of one who did not know what misfortune meant.
Meanwhile Apollo had not forgotten his friend, and loved to appear in human form from time to time and talk with him. But at last one day he came with a very grave face. “Admetus, my friend,” he said seriously, “the Fates will spin out lasting happiness for no man. Each must have fortune and misfortune too, and so it is with you. It is decreed that in this very year your luck shall change. Within twelve months it is your fate to die.”
The “fortunate” king went pale as ashes. His legs failed beneath him so that he sat down heavily, his hands limp at his sides. Then in a moment he leapt up and began to beg and implore Apollo. “You are powerful,” he said desperately. “Save me from this. I am young, I am strong, no man enjoys life as I do. Why should I die? Life is full and rich for me; I enjoy every moment. Why, they say I even smile in sleep, and my dreams are glad ones. People point at me in the streets, There goes a happy man,’ they say. And it is true. Why should I die when so many live who are weary of life, who are old, poor, sick, or lonely? Why should I die?”
“It is not possible to alter Fate,” said Apollo gravely, “that is, not entirely. What I could do I have done. Someone, at least, must die, but I have won for you the promise that if another will die instead of you when the time comes, you may live.” And with that hope the king was forced to be content.
From that time on nobody pointed to Admetus in the streets and called him the fortunate king. Indeed he made no secret of his misfortune, hoping always that someone who was tired of life would offer to change with him. But time went forward, and no one came. Other people who had envied his luck did not see why a less happy man should take on his load now that it was his turn to suffer. The year went on, and in all his kingdom no one offered the service that Admetus was too proud to ask. He found himself wandering past mean hovels, casting imploring glances at poor or crippled people. He fancied they understood what he wanted of them and that they looked at him mockingly. At last he could bear the city no longer and went out to manage his estate as he had been used. But the bleating of the countless lambs and the lowing of the cows in his great milking sheds only drove him to desperation. Finally his courage failed him, and as the long year came to an end, he went to see his father.
His father was outraged at the proposition Admetus put before him. “How dare you suggest such a thing?” he shouted. I have ten more good years of life and it is my own. I earned it and I shall enjoy it. Nobody ever called me the fortunate king. I toiled hard all my life for what I had. And now you, who have had everything given you and made no effort, want my last years of peace and happiness as well. What do you think a father is for, my son? Do you expect him always to give what you need? Oh no, I have given already and far too much. A father should receive respect and affection and obedience from his children as the gods have ordained it. And this is all you offer: respect when it takes no trouble, affection when it is the easiest way. Get out of my sight.”
“Selfish old man,'” answered Admetus, beside himself with fury at the direct refusal. “Now I know how much your only son is worth to you, not even a few miserable, toothless years of life.”
“Get out of my sight,”‘ yelled the old man.
“I will,” shouted Admetus, “and gladly, for you are no true parent of mine. At least I have a mother.”
Admetus’ mother was no more willing than her husband. “Look after yourself,” she said indignantly. “You are not a baby any more. As long as you were one, I watched over you, fed you, dressed you, and sat up with you. You owe your life to me in any case. I never asked you as a baby to look after me. Now it is your turn.”
“Now may you be cursed,” retorted Admetus in a passion. “May the gods remember you as an unworthy mother, a hard, unfeeling woman. What use was it to give me life and nurse me up for this? A fine gift you gave! May you die unwept and unhonored.”
“May Hera, the great queen mother, and Leto hear me,” screamed the old woman. “They know what it is to have children. May they……” But Admetus turned away without hearing, for he felt that his time was come.
Admetus lay down on his couch and groaned aloud in bitter despair as he hid his face and waited for the coming of death. Meanwhile in her inner chamber the queen Alcestis quietly arose, kissed her two children, and gave them to her attendants. Then she bathed herself and put on fresh, white garments and went to the sacrifice. There she prayed the gods to take her life. Then as faintness came over her, she lay down on a couch and died quietly, while the groaning Admetus felt health surging back again and sat suddenly bolt upright. It was the miracle! His luck had saved him; he was not to die!
Even as he felt sure of this, he heard wails of women from the inner chamber and, rushing in, beheld the body of his wife. Admetus fell on his knees beside the corpse and kissed it, tears running down his cheeks. It had never occurred to him to ask Alcestis. He loved her, and she was so young. Everybody was so fond of her. She had as much to look forward to as he; there was no possible reason why she should die. Then as the greatness of the queen’s sacrifice became clear to him, he saw for the first time how selfish he had been. Of course, he should shoulder his own misfortunes just like everybody else. What right had he running to his parents? He had had more luck than other people in any case. Why should it not be his turn? Admetus groaned again and would gladly have died if by so doing he could have brought his Alcestis to life, but it was too late.
An attendant touched him timidly on the shoulder. There was a stranger shouting for him in the great hall. It was Heracles, the mighty hero, returned from one of his deeds of strength and bursting to celebrate his achievement. He could not have come at a worse time, but he had to be met, so Admetus roused himself to go out and explain to him that this was a house of mourning. On the way, however, he thought better of it. Why should the happiness of Heracles be spoiled? Admetus had brought this sorrow on himself, and it was fitting he should bear it alone. He was utterly tired of his own selfishness. He stopped and gave orders to his servants to prepare a feast. He spoke firmly to them and they went obediently at last, muttering among themselves. Admetus went out to see his guest and made himself smile as he welcomed him.
The great, good-humored Heracles was not a sensitive man, and just now he was in an excited mood. He noticed nothing curious about Admetus or the servants; he was bent only on having a good time. And Admetus gave him a good time with wine, and song, and feasting. There was much laughter and a lot of noise. The disapproving servants, who had loved their mistress far more than they did Admetus, looked as gloomy as they dared. They grouped together in corners muttering, but for a long time Heracles noticed nothing at all. When finally the revelry was dying down and the excitement was nearly over, Heracles perceived their disapproval and, not liking it, called loudly for more wine. It was brought to him, but with an air of reluctance which made him strike his fist on the table and demand indignantly why they could not serve him better. Admetus was out of the room, and there was no one to restrain the anger of the servants at what was going on. They told him exactly what was the matter in the plainest terms.
Heracles was appalled at the trouble he had caused, but he was also touched by Admetus. Never, he felt, had he been entertained in so princely a fashion before. It was like a great prince to put aside his grief and celebrate with a guest, even while his beloved wife lay dead within his halls. Heracles questioned the servants as to how long ago the queen had died, for he knew the way to Hades well and he had a plan. He had been down to Hades, and so great was his strength that not all the monsters of that place had availed to keep him there. He had bound the mighty Cerberus and brought him up to earth alive. In fact, there was no feat that Heracles was not equal to, for he was half divine and, though he was a man now, he would be a god in time. It might be possible to pursue Death and wrestle with him for the spirit of Alcestis as they went hand in hand down the steep path to the underworld. He said nothing to Admetus as yet and told the servants to keep silence, but he took up his great club from the corner where he had laid it, threw his lionskin over his shoulders, and strode off in the direction of the dreadful path he had trodden once before.
It was early morning when Heracles came back, and with him walked a muffled figure. Admetus, summoned haggard and sleepless from his chamber, came, much tried but still courteous, to answer his guest’s unreasonable demands. Heracles put back the cloak, and Alcestis looked at her hus- band as though she were just waking from sleep. As he ran forward and clasped her, he felt her come to life in his arms.
Alcestis and Admetus lived long after that time, happy yet generous to the poor and ailing. Admetus had learned both seriousness and sympathy. Though he was as prosperous as before, he had found that there were qualities more admirable than good luck, and he never cared again to by known by the title of “the fortunate king.”