Soul Stories: Alcestis

This morning I have been reading about the Greek heroine, Alcestis. Alcestis is the wife of King Admetus of Thessaly, who on their wedding day offends the goddess Artemis and is sentenced to death. Apollo, however, offers Admetus an out, telling him that if he can find someone to willingly die in his stead, the gods will accept that life in exchange for his. None of Admetus’ relatives are interested in this proposition, but his wife consents, offering herself as sacrifice in the ultimate act of love and wifely devotion.

In the manner of a priestess preparing for ritual, Alcestis prepares herself for death, washing her own body, dressing herself in her funeral robes and jewelry, and adorning her own alters with sacred myrtle sprigs. In this ritual she plays the dual role of both priestess and sacrifice. She then prays to Persephone to watch over her children and elicits from Admetus a series of promises including that he will not remarry.

She sees the skiff of Charon, coming to deliver her to Hades and dies. Shortly after, Hercules arrives. Wanting to impress the hero with a lavish welcome, Admetus breaks off the kingdom’s mourning, telling him it was no one of importance who has died, just some stranger. When Hercules learns that it was Alcestis, he resolves to save her, by stopping Death before he carries her from her tomb or by travelling to The Underworld to entreat Persephone for mercy. And, indeed, Hercules does return with a woman veiled in black, saying he won her in a contest. He asks Admetus to keep her for him until he returns, saying that a new wife will console him. At first, Admetus demurs, but eventually capitulates, breaking his promise to Alcestis. The veil is removed and Admetus recognizes the woman as his wife. He is wary, fearing it is a ghost. Despite Hercules’ assurances, he wants to ask the woman if she really is Alcestis, but she cannot speak without being purified or until three days have passed.

So we have this feminine archetype, Alcestis, the good wife, who is willing to sacrifice everything for her husband. In fact, Alcestis is such a good woman that she doesn’t even inconvenience anyone with the details of preparing her body for the funeral. Even this, she does herself. We women have been taught that a good woman doesn’t inconvenience others and puts them before herself, even if it means laying down her life. While these attitudes have improved somewhat with modernity, this sort of culturally ingrained idea that a woman must be giving and selfless is still far too present and why so many of us have so much trouble with self-care.

And so the good wife Alcestis died and was reborn.

The story has many layers, but the one that interests me most is not Alcestis as good wife, but Alcestis as Priestess. While literary criticism has historically viewed Alcestis as the archetype of the devoted wife willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for her man, some interpretation suggests that the story derives from ancient myth about feminine power and the worship of Mother Earth and the Elysian mysteries. According to Norma Lorre Goodrich’s Heroines, “What Alcestis performed during the three days while she absented herself from felicity may have been to worship Mother Earth by descending into the Underworld. There the adoration Alcestis duly performed persuaded the goddess Persephone to give her a diploma, as it we, or the black veil, her passport, her visa for safe transit to the upper world again.” Perhaps this is not so much a story of sacrifice, but one of initiation.

If we ascribe to Goodrich’s reading, Alcestis is not preparing herself for death so much as in the manner of a priestess about to perform a ritual that will take her across the liminal threshhold and into the world of the sacred. Just as the priestess prepares and prays and conducts ceremony on behalf of her community. Alcestis as Priestess enters The Underworld in proxy for her husband. Perhaps she even entreats her husband not to remarry, because she knows she is coming back. It is in casting aside her role as wife and leaving society (death, the ultimate women’s retreat!) that Alcestis is able to commune with the Goddess and return recharged and be reborn.

Of course, we don’t have to literally die to journey to The Underworld. We can do it through meditation and spiritual journey work (even the 3-day period before Alcestis can speak reminds me of the time it takes to ground after journeying). Whether that view is the original intent of the story or just something I’m seeing through the lens of my own goddess worship and journey work, I cannot say, but what I do know is this:

We need time away from the demands of our daily lives to get in touch with the sacred. Our spirits need that time with our gods. What that means for you maybe be different from what it is for me. For some of us, it may mean women’s circles. For some of us, it may mean ritual or church. For some of us, it may mean meditation or prayer. For some of us, it may mean expressing ourselves creatively. And the list goes on. All I know is that we need it, because it replenishes us.

Relationship with spirit is an act of self-care. Where does your life need a little self-care and replenishment?

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