Apollo did not live always free of care, though he was the most glorious of the gods. One day, in anger with the Cyclopes who work at the forges of Vulcan, he sent his arrows after them, to the wrath of all the gods, but especially of Zeus. (For the Cyclopes always make his thunderbolts, and make them well.) Even the divine archer could not go unpunished, and as a penalty he was sent to serve some mortal for a year. Some say one year and some say nine, but in those days time passed quickly; and as for the gods, they took no heed of it.
Now there was a certain king in Thessaly, Admetus by name, and there came to him one day a stranger, who asked leave to serve about the palace. None knew his name, but he was very comely, and moreover, when they questioned him he said that he had come from a position of high trust. So without further delay they made him chief shepherd of the royal flocks.
Every day thereafter, he drove his sheep to the banks of the river Amphrysus, and there he sat to watch them browse. The country-folk that passed drew near to wonder at him, without daring to ask questions. He seemed to have a knowledge of leech-craft, and knew how to cure the ills of any wayfarer with any weed that grew near by; and he would pipe for hours in the sun. A simple-spoken man he was, yet he seemed to know much more than he would say, and he smiled with a kindly mirth when the people wished him sunny weather.
Indeed, as days went by, it seemed as if summer had come to stay, and, like the shepherd, found the place friendly. Nowhere else were the flocks so white and fair to see, like clouds loitering along a bright sky; and sometimes, when he chose, their keeper sang to them. Then the grasshoppers drew near and the swans sailed close to the river banks, and the country-men gathered about to hear wonderful tales of the slaying of the monster Python, and of a king with ass’s ears, and of a lovely maiden, Daphne, who grew into a laurel-tree. In time the rumor of these things drew the king himself to listen; and Admetus, who had been to see the world in the ship Argo, knew at once that this was no earthly shepherd, but a god. From that day, like a true king, he treated his guest with reverence and friendliness, asking no questions; and the god was well pleased.
Now it came to pass that Admetus fell in love with a beautiful maiden, Alcestis, and, because of the strange condition that her father Pelias had laid upon all suitors, he was heavy-hearted. Only that man who should come to woo her in a chariot drawn by a wild boar and a lion might ever marry Alcestis; and this task was enough to puzzle even a king.
As for the shepherd, when he heard of it he rose, one fine morning, and left the sheep and went his way,—no one knew whither. If the sun had gone out, the people could not have been more dismayed. The king himself went, late in the day, to walk by the river Amphrysus, and wonder if his gracious keeper of the flocks had deserted him in a time of need. But at that very moment, whom should he see returning from the woods but the shepherd, glorious as sunset, and leading side by side a lion and a boar, as gentle as two sheep! The very next morning, with joy and gratitude, Admetus set out in his chariot for the kingdom of Pelias, and there he wooed and won Alcestis, the most loving wife that was ever heard of.
It was well for Admetus that he came home with such a comrade, for the year was at an end, and he was to lose his shepherd. The strange man came to take leave of the king and queen whom he had befriended.
“Blessed be your flocks, Admetus,” he said, smiling. “They shall prosper even though I leave them. And, because you can discern the gods that come to you in the guise of wayfarers, happiness shall never go far from your home, but ever return to be your guest. No man may live on earth forever, but this one gift have I obtained for you. When your last hour draws near, if any one shall be willing to meet it in your stead, he shall die, and you shall live on, more than the mortal length of days. Such kings deserve long life.”
So ended the happy year when Apollo tended sheep.