Euripides: Alcestis

In the 2004 film, Alexander, Alexander the Great addresses his army before the battle of Gaugamela – “I say to you what every warrior has known since the beginning of time: conquer your fear and I promise you, you will conquer death!” Conquering death is a feat that has fascinated mankind from time immemorial. Mankind has devised many ways to achieve this feat. Some cultures have advised that people can conquer death by performing heroic deeds and thereby achieve immortal fame. Other cultures have created resurrection myths, which narrate a hero’s victory over death and return to life. In this video, we will explore the resurrection myth of Alcestis, as presented by the Ancient Greek playwright Euripides.

The Alcestis was first performed at the City Dionysian festival in 438 BC. It tells the tale of King Admetus of Pherae and his wife Alcestis. The Fates agree to grant Admetus freedom from death upon the condition that he finds a beloved relative to take his place. Alcestis volunteers to take her husband’s place and consequently dies. However, Hercules, a dear friend of Admetus, wrestles with Death, defeats it, and restores Alcestis to life.

According to Aristotle, the purpose of tragedy is catharsis, or the purgation of pity and fear. The Alcestis is Euripides’ attempt to purge the audience of the fear of death, which is one of the greatest fears that afflict mankind. Modern Western religions have tried to mitigate this fear by creating myths of an eternally blissful afterlife. But the Ancient Greek concept of the afterlife is gloomy. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus tries to console the spirit of Achilles in the underworld. Achilles grimly responds, “I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.”

Because the Ancient Greek conception of the afterlife is so gloomy, Euripides relies on a resurrection myth similar to that of Christianity. Just as modern Christianity utilizes the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to mitigate the fear of death in its adherents, so Euripides utilizes the myth of Alcestis to mitigate the fear of death in his audience. Although a bleak afterlife awaits them, the Ancient Greek audience is consoled by the idea that a hero like Hercules might “bring them back from the mansions of the dead to heaven’s fair light.”

The Alcestis allays the fear of death not only in Ancient Greeks, but also in modern audiences. One does not need to believe in the myth of Alcestis to be inspired by the play’s message, which is that conquering Death is possible. Although the chorus declares that “No tears recall the dead to life’s sweet light,” and Admetus laments that “The dead return not to this light,” Hercules proves them all wrong.

The Ancient Greeks believed that they could accomplish anything. This optimism is displayed in the Greco-Persian wars, in which they defeated the vastly larger Persian army at the battles of Marathon and Salamis. The Ancient Greek confidence has been handed down to modern Western cultures, as evidenced by the concept of the “American Dream” – that anything is possible if you work hard enough to attain it. Mankind must continue to harvest this fertile sentiment in order to achieve ever greater things; the opposite emotion – pessimism – is crippling, and therefore must be eradicated.

So, whenever you are lost in despair, remember the moral of Euripides’ Alcestis: “With various hands the gods dispense our fates; now showering various blessings, which our hopes dared not aspire to; now controlling ills we deemed inevitable. Such is the fortune of this happy day.”

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3 thoughts on “Euripides: Alcestis

  1. What is still missing from Hercules’ victory over death is an overarching narrative of purpose to existence. Without that, I would still chose death than eternal life without meaning. As a slave or a master, it would make no difference.

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