Greek Mortal

Alcestis (daughter of Pelias)

Alcestis was a beautiful and virtuous Greek princess who married the Thessalian king Admetus. When Admetus learned that it was time for him to die, Alcestis volunteered to die in his place.

Top Questions

  • Why did Alcestis die?

    When it came time for Admetus to die, the gods gave him a chance to avoid his fate: they told him he could escape death if someone agreed to die in his place. When Alcestis, Admetus’ wife, learned of the situation, she volunteered to fulfill this grim bargain.

  • Did Alcestis come back to life?

    In the familiar tradition, Alcestis’ selflessness did not go unrewarded: she was restored to life after she agreed to take Admetus’ place in death. In some versions, Heracles wrestled Death himself to bring Alcestis back to the land of the living, while in other versions it was Persephone, the queen of the Underworld, who sent her back.

Overview

Alcestis, the daughter of Pelias, was a Greek princess known for her beauty as well as her virtue. She was married to Admetus, the king of Pherae in the northern Greek region of Thessaly. 

Alcestis proved herself a paragon of matrimonial devotion when it came time for Admetus to die. The god Apollo, who loved Admetus, devised a way for him to put off his fate: if Admetus could find someone to die in his place, then he could go on living. Only Alcestis was willing to accept these terms. After sacrificing herself for her husband, her selfless deed was rewarded and she was restored to life, either by the hero Heracles or, in other versions, by Persephone, the queen of the Underworld.

Etymology

The name “Alcestis” (Greek Ἄλκηστις, translit. Alkēstis) was most likely derived from the Greek word alkē, meaning “defense, help, strength,” or from the underlying Indo-European root *h₂elk-/*h₂lek-s- (“ward off, defend”). Alcestis’ name thus reflects her mythical role as the one who “defended” her husband from death.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    AlcestisἌλκηστις (translit. Alkēstis)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [al-SES-tis]/ælˈsɛs tɪs/

Titles and Epithets

Alcestis had a range of epithets that highlighted her virtue, including aristē, “greatest,” and kednē, “dutiful.”

Attributes and Iconography

Alcestis was well known for her beauty. In the Iliad, for example, Homer refers to her as the “comeliest of the daughters of Pelias.”[1] But Alcestis’ most important attribute—the one at the heart of her myth—was her virtuous and noble nature, which led her to willingly die for her husband Admetus.

Scenes from Alcestis’ myth, especially her return from the Underworld with Heracles, became more common in ancient art around the end of the fifth century BCE (after the myth was popularized by Euripides’ Alcestis of 438 BCE).[2]

Family

Alcestis was the daughter of Pelias—who ruled the kingdom of Iolcus on the eastern coast of northern Greece—and his wife, whose name was either Anaxibia,[3] Phylomache,[4] or Alphesiboea.[5] The mythographer Apollodorus lists her siblings as Acastus, Pisidice, Pelopia, and Hippothoe.[6]

Alcestis married Admetus, the king of Pherae, another northern Greek city. Together they had two children: Eumelus,[7] who fought on the Greek side in the Trojan War, and a daughter named Perimele.[8]

Admetus Alcestis Chiaramonti

Marble sarcophagus decorated with scenes from the myth of Admetus and Alcestis (161–170 CE).

JastrowPublic Domain

Alcestis was also the cousin of Jason, the famous hero who led the Argonauts and carried off the Golden Fleece.

Family Tree

  • Parents
    Father
    Mothers
    • Pelias
    • Alphesiboea
    • Phylomache
    • Anaxibia
  • Siblings
    Brother
    Sisters
    • Acastus
    • Hippothoe
    • Pelopia
    • Pisidice
  • Consorts
    Husband
    • Admetus
  • Children
    Daughter
    Son
    • Perimele
    • Eumelus

Mythology

Marriage to Admetus

Admetus was one of the daughters of Pelias, the king of Iolcus in northern Greece. When she was of marriageable age, her beauty drew many suitors to her father’s kingdom. But Pelias announced that he would only marry his daughter to the man who could yoke a lion and a boar to a chariot.

One of Alcestis’ suitors was Admetus, the king of Pherae. Years before, the god Apollo had been forced to serve Admetus as a slave. But Admetus was a kind and respectful master, which earned him Apollo’s undying friendship. Being friends with one of the most powerful Olympian gods naturally had its benefits. When Admetus wished to marry Alcestis, Apollo helped him accomplish the seemingly impossible task of yoking a lion and a boar to a chariot, thus winning his mortal friend a bride.[9]

Apollo hoedt de kudde van Admetus, 1880

Apollo Herding the Cattle of Admetus by Moyses van Wtenbrouck (1600–1645).

RijksmuseumPublic Domain

The Vicarious Death of Alcestis

From the very beginning, the marriage of Admetus and Alcestis was plagued by ill omen. According to Apollodorus, Admetus offended Artemis by forgetting to offer her a sacrifice when he married Alcestis. Because of this, when Admetus entered his bedchamber on his wedding night, he found it full of coiled snakes. However, with the help of his old friend Apollo (who, incidentally, was also Artemis’ twin brother), Admetus managed to appease Artemis.[10]

This was only the beginning of Admetus and Alcestis’ troubles, however. Shortly after the wedding—the exact timing varies by the source—Admetus learned that he was fated to die soon. But Apollo again came to the rescue, bringing Admetus an unprecedented but problematic favor from the Moirae (the Greek goddesses of fate): Admetus could live on, but only if he found another mortal to voluntarily die in his place.

Alcestis, the symbol of the dutiful Greek wife, was the only one who offered to die for Admetus. With the bargain struck, Thanatos, the personification of death, carried her off to the Underworld. 

But Alcestis did not stay in the Underworld for long. In some versions, Heracles (another one of Admetus’ powerful friends) wrestled Alcestis back from Thanatos.[11] In other versions, Persephone, the queen of the Underworld, took pity on Alcestis and sent her back to the land of the living.[12]

Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis, by Frederic Lord Leighton, England, c. 1869-1871

Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton (ca. 1869–1871). Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.

DaderotPublic Domain

Pop Culture

The myth of Alcestis remains well known. She has inspired numerous poems, operas, plays, and ballets, including works by Rainer Maria Rilke, George Handel, Louise Talma, H. P. Lovecraft, and Sonia Greene.

References

Notes

  1. Homer, Iliad 2.715, trans. A. T. Murray.

  2. See Margot Schmidt, “Alkestis,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1981), 1:533–44.

  3. Apollodorus, Library 1.9.10; Hyginus, Fabulae 51.

  4. Apollodorus, Library 1.9.10.

  5. Theocritus, Idylls 3.45.

  6. Apollodorus, Library 1.9.10.

  7. Homer, Iliad 2.714–15.

  8. Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 23.

  9. Apollodorus, Library 1.9.15; Hyginus, Fabulae 50, 51.

  10. Apollodorus, Library 1.9.15.

  11. Euripides, Alcestis; Apollodorus, Library 1.9.15. This was probably also the version described in Phrynicus’ tragedy Alcestis, which no longer survives (cf. Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 4.694).

  12. Apollodorus, Library 1.9.15. Cf. Plato, Symposium 179c, who claims that the gods restored Alcestis to life without specifying which one was responsible.

Primary Sources

Greek

  • Homer: The earliest reference to Alcestis occurs in Book 2 of the Iliad (eighth century BCE).

  • Euripides: The most complete ancient account of the myth of Alcestis is the tragedy Alcestis (438 BCE), a work likely based on an earlier (but no longer extant) tragedy by Phrynicus.

  • Diodorus of Sicily: In the Library of History (first century BCE), Alcestis is said to have (accidentally) killed her father Pelias, together with her sisters (4.52.2, 4.53.2).

  • Apollodorus: The myth of Alcestis is summarized in Book 1 of the Library (first century BCE or first few centuries CE).

Roman

  • Hyginus: There are references to the myth of Alcestis in the Fabulae, a mythological handbook of the first or second century CE.

Secondary Sources

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Alcestis (daughter of Pelias).” Mythopedia, November 29, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/alcestis-daughter-of-pelias.

Kapach, Avi. “Alcestis (daughter of Pelias).” Mythopedia, 29 Nov. 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/alcestis-daughter-of-pelias. Accessed on 29 Nov. 2022.

Kapach, A. (2022, November 29). Alcestis (daughter of Pelias). Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/alcestis-daughter-of-pelias

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

    Avi Kapach Profile Photo