The Love story of Admetus


Di nos quasi pilas homines habent. The Gods play around with us like toys. Plautus


By Cynthia Vautier

Written in honor of her friend, Laurie Schiffman
who tirelessly advocated for her husband
Steve Schiffman
who died August 7, 2016 of prostate cancer.
He had no better friend.

August 27, 2016



Once upon a time there was a King, in ancient Greece, named Admetus.  He was married to a woman named Alcestis, who was his beloved.  Admetus had, by his kindness to Apollo, who had come to him disguised as a beggar, earned a favor.  The favor was this:  if he should confront death, he would be given a reprieve, if someone else would be willing to die in his place.  Why should Admetus worry about confronting death?  He had angered one of the gods, and that god had decreed that Admetus should face an early death.

One day, without warning, Admetus began to fail.  Normally healthy and hearty, he fell ill.  His condition rapidly worsened.  Admetus knew that his condition was the result of the god's arrow, pointed at his heart, and that he faced death for no reason.  The god had simply decided that it was time to lay claim to the power that the gods have.  But as he lay dying, he remembered the gift that Apollo had given him, and that there might be a reprieve. 

He sent messengers far and wide in his kingdom, who asked the king's subjects this:  if, in remembrance of the many favors he had done for his subjects (for his kindness was renowned), would any one of them be willing to die in his stead?  The old, the frail, those approaching death themselves, who had but days or weeks to live, all turned away.  They loved their king, but they would not die for him.

Alcestis, hearing this, came to Admetus and said:  "I am going to die in your place."  Upon uttering these words, the gift of Apollo took effect, and there was no turning back.  Instantly, she fell to the floor and had to be carried to her bed.  And just as quickly, Admetus felt the flush of health return to him.  He jumped up from his bed, strong and full of vitality.  He rushed to Alcestis' bedside and kissed her pale lips and stroked her cooling hands.  He begged her to linger, but she could not hear him.  If not for a miracle, she would be dead by morning.

Word came to Admetus:  he had a guest, who had just arrived.  It was his friend Hercules, who had arrived to visit him.  Upon learning of Alcestis' condition, and the reason for it, he said to Admetus:  "I will lie in wait at Alcestis' bedside tonight, and when Death comes for her, I will wrestle with him, and if the gods are willing, I will defeat him."

So Hercules took his place beside the pale and unconscious Alcestis, and waited and waited.  After midnight, Hercules heard a sound.  A figure that was as fearsome as Terror itself came drifting toward Hercules, issuing before his cloaks a breath that was so cold that Hercules himself felt as if all his strength were draining into the marble beneath his feet.

But he stood firm, and laid his strong, warm hands upon that ghostly figure that sucked the heat out of every living thing that stood before him.  Death slid his cold hands down Hercules' arms, and Hercules shivered.  But he knew that it was not his powerful muscles that would save him.  It was his will that could be his only salvation.  His strength was in his will.  He willed himself to strive against Death, and though he grew slick with sweat, and colder than he had ever been, he would not give in.  He gripped the ghostly limbs that were so insubstantial and yet so mighty, and would not let go. 

They wrestled through the night, and though Hercules' vision became blurred with weakness, he continued to resist.  And then, close to fainting with the enormity of his struggle, he noticed something.  The horizon, visible through the doors to the room, had begun to lighten.  Hercules fought on.  And he noticed, as he gripped Death's ghostly limbs, that Death's hands had begun to lose their strength.  Hercules tightened his hold, though he gasped for breath. 

Minute by minute the sky grew lighter, and Death's grip grew less and less powerful.  And Hercules knew that he had won.  And Hercules knew that Death knew it, too.  The ghastly figure broke free, and drifted out the door, and vanished like smoke.

Hercules turned to Alcestis.  Her cheeks had begun to turn pink.  He leaned toward her and felt her breath on his face.  He took her hand and felt what he had not felt in either Alcestis or himself all night:  warmth.