This painting, by the Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt (c. 1854-1905), was inspired by stories about the ancient Greek mythological figure, Alcestis. She was the daughter of King Pelias of Iolcos, and she eventually married Admetos (or Admetus)—the ruler of the Thessalian city of Pherae. Admetos was a divinely well-connected man, and he was particularly good friends with the god Apollo. Yet, having the close attention of the divine beings was not always a good thing, as the fickle gods could punish just as easily as they could bless. And that is exactly what happened in Admetos’ situation.
One fateful day, as the myth goes, Admetos was visited by his godly friend Apollo, but this time, Apollo was also accompanied by his divine sister, Artemis. Admetos and Apollo, as usual, got along splendidly. But Artemis, who decided to snoop around Pherae’s temples and shrines, soon fell into a foul mood, for she discovered that her due sacrifices and offerings in Pherae were not up to her standards. Being a typical ancient divinity, Artemis succumbed to the vice shared by most gods—wrath. In her fury over the deficient offerings, Artemis began to plot a deadly punishment against the king of the city. She was not subtle about her intentions, and Admetos became aware of his impending doom. Therefore, he went to his powerful and influential friend, Apollo, and begged for assistance. After listening to the situation, Apollo agreed to do what he could to help, but the god also explained that Artemis’ curse could only be delayed or transferred.
Following Apollo’s guidance, Admetos was able to postpone Artemis’ vengeance, and in the meantime, the Fates were bargained with in order to give Admetos more options. As the story goes, the Fates were persuaded to allow for a willing volunteer to take Admetos’ place the next time the king faced death. Yet, the trick would be finding a person who was willing to make such a selfless sacrifice. As the reader might have guessed from the painting, only Admetos’ wife, Alcestis, was prepared to give up her life so that her husband could keep living. Yet, Apollo, a prophetic god, might have known that Alcestis’ fate was not as hopeless as it seemed. This myth and its conclusion was described by a scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century):
“Apollo advised him to propitiate the goddess, and demanded of the Fates that when Admetos was about to die, he should be released from death if somebody would freely choose to die in his place. When the day came for him to die, neither his father nor his mother was willing to die for him, so Alcestis died in his place. But Kore [or Persephone] sent her back to earth again, or, according to some accounts, Heracles fought with Hades for her [and returned her to Admetos]” (Apollodorus, Library, I.9.15).
Such, then, is the backstory for Albert Edelfelt’s painting of Alcestis standing on the banks of the River Styx. It is set after she faced death willingly in Admetos’ stead. Now, she waits for Heracles to bring her back to Pherae, or for the goddess, Persephone, to set her free from the underworld.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.