The trouble with Hercules was that he was an inveterate drunk. He was a merry friend when in his cups, which is no great surprise when Dionysus possesses the common man. But Hercules had never been a common man. A common man cannot smite a whirling thunderhead, nor swallow one.
The King of Thessaly was a great friend of Hercules, insofar as Hercules had friends in those days. This was either before or long after Hercules had been induced to mania by Hera and slaughtered his wife and children. Hercules felt just awful about that and undertook his legendary twelve labors to purify himself. It is not known if Hercules encountered Admetus returning from one such travail or if this was in the halcyon days when he wandered far afield to escape the drudgeries of mere matrimony. The legend is fuzzy on this point, and so there are two tales.
Both begin the same way. Hercules immersed himself in drunken revelry whilst a guest in Admetus’ house.
Admetus was in mourning but, ever a proper host, he put up his friend and bid him enjoy himself, claiming the funeral he attended was for a distant relation, no more. Hercules quickly fell to drinking and feasting and singing, his Olympian lungs carrying his slurring carols far across the kingdom. When the servants refused to drink with him, Hercules grabbed one roughly by the shoulders, snapping both his feeble arms. Hercules proceeded to beat the servant with his own flailing hands, twisting him this way and that, until the man told him the reason for this outrageous incivility. The old servant sobbed that the queen was dead, the lady of their house, and that they could not imbibe while in mourning.
At once Hercules dropped the man on the floor and was overcome by a fit of weeping. “How low of me!” he bellowed. “My good friend Admetus does not wish to weigh down my heart and so, even in his sorrow, he bids me partake of life’s supreme joys.” Hercules scooped up the moaning old servant and bid him tell Admetus that he would right this grievous wrong.
Not stopping to inquire as to the cause of her expiration, and drunk besides, Hercules dashed off to find Hades, punch Death in the face, tie Cerberus’ snake tail in a knot, and bring back the king’s beloved. Unfortunately, Alcestis had died according to her husband’s will. She had taken his place in Hades’ hall after Apollo had whispered to the king that there was a way to stave off his own death. Alcestis, ever a proper wife, descended like Persephone into the land of the dead, for love. Admetus had waved from the mortal shore, tears in his eyes.
Now by the time Hercules returned to Admetus the funeral was quite finished. Admetus, not understanding his guest’s sudden disappearance, was surprised to see him again and with so familiar a companion. Alcestis stood at Hercules’ side wringing her hands, looking both abashed and incensed. Admetus was not able to meet her eyes and instead cast his gaze over his shoulder, whereupon he saw Death, one eye sorely bruised, who promptly pulled him down to Hades as was his fate.
This is the story most often told of Hercules’ revival of Alcestis, but there is another version of the tale, which takes place long after he has begun his twelve labors. In this second tale the drunken Hercules is confronted by his dead wife in the midst of plundering the Underworld. Such words exchanged between the unstoppable demigod and the murdered Megara make for so dark a comedy that Homer himself was struck blind in fits of guilty giggling.