“Alcestis” by Katharine Beutner (Soho, 2010)


Alcestis is a princess from Greek mythology, popularized in Euripides’s tragedy of the same name.  It is the story of a wife who sacrifices herself in the place of her husband.  Alcestis was the daughter of Pelias, who proclaimed to all her suitors that the only man who could take her hand would be one who could yoke a lion and a boar to a chariot.  King Admetus, who will stop at nothing to marry Alcestis, does just this with the help of the god Apollo.  Fulfilling his promise, Pelias allows Alcestis and Admetus to marry, but Admetus forgets to make a sacrifice to Artemis after the ceremony and they find themselves in a bed full of snakes.  Apollo once again steps in, making the Fates drunk, and extracting a promise that anyone may sacrifice themselves in place of Admetus.  No one volunteers, and then Alcestis steps forward.  Alcestis is taken to Hades and shortly after is rescued by Heracles.

This is the Euripides story.

Katharine Beutner has another story to tell, from the viewpoint of Alcestis, which has never been told before.  In Alcestis, the reader learns what this strong and determined woman was really like, the important sacrifice she made, and what she did to survive and maintain her composure and sanity in Hades before she was rescued.  Beutner doesn’t hold back on description and detail, which is important as many readers will be unfamiliar with this world and setting.  What makes Alcestis such an enchanting story is Beutner’s clear writing style that doesn’t attempt to boggle and overload the reader with Mycenaean Greece, but treating Alcestis like a normal person in a different world, a different time, making it accessible to any reader, while the story is both compelling and interesting.

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Originally written on May 4 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

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