Padraic Colum (18811972). The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived before Achilles. 1921.
Part III. The Heroes of the Quest
Chapter V. Admetus
IT 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 of 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 Admetus.
Afterward people wondered at Admetuss ever-smiling face and ever-radiant being. It was the gods 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 mortal man.
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 Apollos 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 place.
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 kings 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 mans shriveled hand, and he asked him if he would not take the kings 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 backthe 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 silentthe servants moved about with heads bowed, lamenting silently for their mistress.