Heracles, Alcestis, and the Determined Human Heart’s Heroic and Relentless Path Through This World

Below is a fourth century Roman catacomb image of two courageous people who followed their hearts right into the very jaws of death: Heracles and Alcestis. The basic story from Greek mythology (and which Euripides made into a play) goes like this: Through Apollo’s manipulations, the Fates granted Admetus (the male figure who appears below at the right) the opportunity to continue his life if, at the hour of his death, he could find one person—just one!—who loved him sufficiently to take his place in the underworld. Unfortunately, Admetus had no one who loved him to such a limitless degree—loved him to death—not even his parents!

No one, I should say, except Alcestis.

Alcestis is the woman shown on the left below. She loved her husband Admetus so much that she willingly took his place in death, and the Fates, accepting her heart’s sacrifice, promptly dispatched her to the realm of death, to Pluto’s nether regions.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Heracles (depicted at center below), on hearing this powerful tale of Alcestis’s love, risked his own life by descending into Hades in an attempt to rescue Alcestis back from death. Heracles succeeded, and his control of Hades (at least for a brief time) is depicted in the image of him holding Pluto’s three-headed dog, the Cerberus, on a leash and escorting Alcestis to the source of her love, Admetus.

In a sonnet by John Milton to his dead wife (“Methought I saw my late espoused Saint”), Milton refers to both Alcestis (which he spells “Alcestus”) and Heracles (“Jove’s great Son”) in these lines:

Methought I saw my late espoused Saint

Brought to me like Alcestus from the grave,

Who Jove’s great Son to her glad Husband gave,

Rescu’d from death by force though pale and faint.

And here’s the 4th century catacomb image:

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Why, by the way, of all the things one might depict Heracles as taking from Hades, did the artist choose the dog monster Cerberus? Because Heracles was already associated with Cerberus, and so depicting him with Cerberus would have marked him as Heracles. Heracles had been to Hades more than once. In Heracles’s 12th and final labor, he entered Hades to rescue another famous character, Theseus (the founding king of Athens), and Heracles brought Cerberus up from Hades with him (only briefly, however). Anyway, that’s why Heracles is paired with Cerberus.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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