Alcestis (Ἄλκηστις) is a princess in Greek mythology, known
for her love of her husband. Her story was popularised in
Euripides's tragedy Alcestis. She was the daughter of
Pelias, king of Iolcus, and either Anaxibia or Phylomache.
In the story, many suitors appeared before King Pelias, her
father, when she became of age to marry. It was declared she
would marry the first man to yoke a lion and a boar (or a
bear in some cases) to a chariot. The man who would do this,
King Admetus, was helped by Apollo, who had been banished
from Olympus for 9 years to serve as a shepherd to Admetus.
With Apollo's help, Admetus completed the king's task, and
was allowed to marry Alcestis. After the wedding, Admetus
forgot to make the required sacrifice to Artemis, and found
his bed full of snakes. Apollo again helped the newly wed
king, this time by making the Fates drunk, extracting from
them a promise that if anyone would want to die instead of
Admetus, they would allow it. Since no one volunteered, not
even his elderly parents, Alcestis stepped forth. Shortly
after, Heracles rescued Alcestis from Hades, as a token of
appreciation for the hospitality of Admetus. Admetus and
Alcestis had a son, Eumelus, a participant in the siege of
Troy, and a daughter, Perimele.
Milton's famous sonnet, "Methought I Saw My Late Espoused
Saint," alludes to the myth, with the speaker of the poem
dreaming of his dead wife being brought to him "like
Alcestis". The Viennese composer Gluck wrote an opera based
on the story of Alceste. Thornton Wilder wrote A Life in The
Sun (1955) based on Euripides' play, later producing an
operatic version called The Alcestiad (1962). The American
choreographer Martha Graham created a ballet entitled
Alcestis in 1960.
In the animated Disney film Hercules the background story of
the Megara character also alludes to Alcestis. As Hades
tells it, Megara dies for her lover, who does not honor the
sacrifice and very soon gives his heart to some other girl.
or ALCESTE (Ἄλκηστις or Ἀλκέστη), a daughter of Pelias and
Anaxibia, and mother of Eumelus and Admetus. (Apollod.
1.9.10, 15.) Homer (Hom. Il. 2.715) calls her the fairest
among the daughters of Pelias. When Admetus, king of Pherae,
sued for her hand, Pelias, in order to get rid of the
numerous suitors, declared that he would give his daughter
to him only who should come to his court in a chariot drawn
by lions and boars. This was accomplished by Admetus, with
the aid of Apollo. For the farther story, see ADMETUS. The
sacrifice of herself for Admetus was highly celebrated in
antiquity. (Aelian, Ael. VH 14.45, Animal. 1.15; Philostr.
Her. 2.4; Ov. Ars Am. 3.19; Eurip. Alcestis.) Towards her
father, too, she shewed her filial affection, for, at least,
according to Diodorus (4.52 ; comp. however, Palaeph. De
incredib. 41), she did not share in the crime of her
sisters, who murdered their father.
Ancient as well as modern critics have attempted to explain
the return of Alcestis to life in a rationalistic manner, by
supposiung that during a severe illness she was restored to
life in a physician of the name of Heracles. (Palaeph. l.c.
; Plut. Amator. p. 761.) Alcestis was represented on the
chest of Cypselus, in a group shewing the funeral
solemnities of Pelias. (Paus. 5.17.4.) In the museum of
Florence there is an alto relieve, the work of Cleomenes,
which is believed to represent Alcestis devoting herself to
death. (Meyer, Gesch. der bildend. Künste, i. p. 162,
2.159.) - A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and
mythology, William Smith, Ed.