Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

How Death Was Conquered

Apollo had a son Æsculapius, whom he taught to be so good a doctor that it was said he could even bring the dead back to life. Pluto was displeased at this, for was taking away his rights, so he asked Zeus to throw a thunderbolt at the doctor. That killed him. Nobody could bring him back to life, and Apollo was very angry. He went to Mount Ætna, where the Cyclopes worked at making thunderbolts for the king of heaven. These were an entirely different family from those Cyclopes whom Ulysses afterwards met in his wanderings. There were only three of these, and they were industrious blacksmiths, who were kept busy forging bolts for Zeus. Their shop was under the mountain, and from it came the smoke and fire of the volcano.

Apollo shot his arrows at them and greatly annoyed them, but he could not kill them. They cried out to Zeus and asked him to command Apollo not to shoot at them any more. Zeus called the sun-god and said, "You must stop annoying my faithful servants. They are not to blame. They only made the thunderbolts; I cast them where I please. You must arrange your affairs in the sun for a year's absence. During that time you must be servant to a mortal on the earth. That shall be your punishment."

"Very well," said Apollo. "Your will is my law. I have a friend who is king of Thessaly and keeps a great many sheep. I should like to be shepherd for him during that year."

It was so ordered. Apollo went, a fine young man, to Admetus, king of Thessaly, and was given charge of his sheep. He took good care of them, and they seemed very happy. He made the fields bright, the river sparkled when he stood on its banks, and when he was in the palace it was full of sunshine.

Admetus was himself a young man and he was in love with Alcestis. She was the daughter of a king, who said to young men, " Do you see my daughter Alcestis? Should you like to marry her? You may, on one condition. Come for her in a chariot; but understand, it must be drawn, not by horses, or mules, or oxen, but by lions and boars. When will you come for her—next week?"

Then the young men would go away disappointed and angry. Admetus was one of them. He told his shepherd about this foolish saying of the old king. "Is that all?" said the bright shepherd. "That can be easily settled."

He went out and caught two lions and two boars and tamed them, for what creature could disobey him? He harnessed them to the chariot of Admetus and said, "There is your team. Drive over and get your bride and bring her home, and let us all be happy together."

The team did not pull very fast at first. The lions wanted to eat the boars, and the boars tried to tear the lions with their tusks. But after a while they became used to each other, and went off roaring and grunting in fine style.

When they reached the home of Alcestis her father was surprised, but kept his promise. She mounted the chariot with Admetus, and such a wedding procession as following them from the temple was never before known. All the countryside turned out to see the wonderful team of wild beasts.

Admetus and Alcestis were very happy, for they loved each other dearly. But the young husband fell sick and was near death. Apollo could not cure him, but went to the Fates, whom he knew, and begged them to spare the young king. They promised on one condition,—that someone else should agree to die in his steed. Admetus thought he could easily find such a friend. He went for his soldiers who had fought for him, but they said, "Oh, no! It is one thing to die in the excitement of battle, giving and taking fatal blows, but quite another to die in cold blood for somebody else."

Then he sent for old servants who had but a little while to live; but they said, "Oh, no! Life is dear to us as to anybody. Each man must stand in his own place. When our turn comes we must go, but not before."

A friend said, "Why not ask your father or your mother? They love you, and they have not long to live. One of them will surely die in your place."

But they said, "Oh, no! Dear son, we love you, but how can we give up our lives, even for your sake?"

The young king was all the time growing worse. It was plain that he had not long to live. Alcestis said, "O cruel Fates, that have no mercy on loving hearts, you mean to part us! Have, then, your will! Since I must lose my husband by his death or my own, let it be mine. He shall live and see the bright sunshine and the sweet flowers and the pleasant faces of friends. I must wander in the gloomy fields of the underworld among the pale ghosts that dwell there."

Admetus was not willing that his darling should die, but the Fates would not be trifled with. He grew better but his wife was faint and pale, and near the end of life.

Just then Heracles came by and heard the sad story.

"I will save her," he said.

He stood outside the door of her room. Death came to claim his own—himself a monster so frightful that none could look on him and live. In the dark, Heracles caught him in his strong arms. They wrestled and struggled for a long while, until Death called out, "Spare me, Heracles. The queen is yours. Keep her and let me go." The hero loosed his hold, and Death went away. Heracles went into the queen's room and kissed her thin hand and said, "He has gone. You are to stay with us. Smile and get well, and be happy with your husband."