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The Legend of Alcestis: Greek Mythology’s Ultimate Act of Love

In Greek mythology, Alcestis was a princess, known for her love and sacrifice for her husband, Admetus. Their separation and ultimate reunion was the subject of a popular tragedy by Europides, called Alcestis. Here’s her story.

Who Was Alcestis?

Alcestis was the daughter of Pelias, the king of Iolcus, and either Anaxibia or Phylomache. She was known for her beauty and grace. Her siblings included Acastus, Pisidice, Pelopia and Hippothoe. She married Admetus and had two children by him – a son, Eumelus, and a daughter, Perimele.

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When Alcestis had come of age, many suitors came to King Pelias, seeking her hand in marriage. However, Pelias didn’t want to cause trouble by choosing any one of the suitors and instead decided to set a challenge. He stated that any man who could yoke a lion and a boar (or bear depending on the source) to a chariot would win the hand of Alcestis.

The only man who was successfully able to do this difficult task was Admetus, king of Pherae. Admetus had a close relationship with the god Apollo, who had served him for a year when he had been exiled from Mount Olympus for killing Delphyne. Apollo helped Admetus carry out the task successfully, thereby winning the hand of the fair Alcestis.

Alcestis and Admetus

Alcestis and Admetus loved each other deeply and were quickly married. However, after the wedding, Admetus forgot to make an offering to the goddess Artemis. Artemis didn’t take such things lightly and sent a nest of snakes to the bed of the newlyweds.

Admetus took this as a sign of his impending death. Apollo once again intervened to help Admetus. He managed to trick the Fates into agreeing to take someone else in place of Admetus. However, the catch was that the substitute had to be willing to go into the underworld, thereby exchanging places with Admetus.

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Alcestis and Admetus
Alcestis and Admetus

No one wanted to choose death over life. No one volunteered to take Admetus’ place. Even his parents refused. However, the love that Alcestis had for Admetus was so strong that she stepped in, choosing to go into the underworld and save Admetus’ life in the process.

Alcestis was then taken to the underworld where she stayed until a chance encounter with Heracles, who had gone into the underworld to complete one of his Twelve Labors. Heracles had been the object of Admetus’ hospitality and to show his appreciation, he fought Thanatos and rescued Alcestis.

According to some older sources, it was Persephone who brought Alcestis back to the land of the living, after hearing her sad story.

Admetus and Alcestis Reunited

When Heracles brought Alcestis back to Admetus, they found Admetus coming back distraught from Alcestis’ funeral.

Heracles then asks Admetus to look after the woman who was with him while he, Heracles, went on to complete another of his tasks. Admetus, not knowing that it was Alcestis, refuses, saying that he had promised Alcestis that he would never marry again and having a woman in his court so soon afer the death of his wife, would give off a wrong impression.

ercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis
ercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis

However, on Heracles’ insistence, Admetus then lifted the veil on the ‘woman’s’ head and realized that it was his wife, Alcestis. Alcestis and Admetus rejoiced at being reunited and lived the rest of their lives together. Finally, when their time was up, Thanatos came back once more, this time to take the both of them together.

What Does Alcestis Symbolize?

Alcestis was the ultimate symbol of love, loyalty and fidelity in marriage. Her love for her husband was such that she sacrificed her life for him, something that even his own elderly parents were not willing to do for him. The story of Alcestis also symbolizes death and resurrection.

Ultimately, the story is about a wife’s profound love for her husband and reinforces the perspective that love conquers all. In this case – even death.

Alcestis Facts

1- Who are Alcestis’ parents?

Alcestis’ father is King Pelias and mother is either Anaxibia or Phylomache.

2- Who does Alcestis marry?

Alcestis marries Admetus.

3- Who are Alcestis’ children?

Alcestis has two children – Perimele and Eumelus.

4- Why is Alcestis’ story significant?

Alcestis is best known for dying in the place of her husband, symbolizing loyalty, love, faithfulness and sacrifice.

5- Who saves Alcestis from the underworld?

In early sources, Persephone brings Alcestis back but in later myths, Heracles does this task.

Wrapping Up

Alcestis remains a symbol of wifely love and devotion, and her actions make her one of the most self-sacrificing of all characters in Greek mythology.

Affiliate Disclosures
Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.