Sicilian Nymph

Arethusa

Alpheus and Arethusa by Battista di Domenico Lorenzi

Alpheus and Arethusa by Battista di Domenico Lorenzi (1568–1570).

The Metropolitan Museum of ArtPublic Domain

Overview

Arethusa, sometimes called a daughter of Nereus and Doris, was a beautiful nymph and the namesake of a famous freshwater spring in the port of Syracuse. She was loved by the river god Alpheus, who chased her across the sea from Peloponnese to the island of Ortygia near Sicily. Desperate to escape, Arethusa was turned into a spring. Alpheus, undaunted, flowed under the island and mingled his waters with Arethusa’s.

The spring of Arethusa was said to be in the port of Syracuse, the most important city in Sicily. Arethusa was highly revered by the Syracuseans, who put her face on their coinage.

Etymology

Etymologically, the name “Arethusa (Greek Ἀρέθουσα, translit. Aréthousa) seems to be derived from the Greek verb θέω (théō), meaning “to run, hurry.” Compare the names of several other Greek mythical figures, including Pirithous, Thoas, and Thoosa.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    ArethusaἈρέθουσα (Aréthousa)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [ar-uh-THOO-zuh]/ˌær əˈθu zə/

Attributes

Arethusa was a nymph but also the freshwater spring in Syracuse to which the nymph gave her name. The chief attribute of the nymph Arethusa seems to have been her beauty—an attribute she shared with all nymphs.

Silver decadrachm showing the head of Arethusa surrounded by leaping dolphins

Silver decadrachm showing the head of Arethusa surrounded by leaping dolphins. Minted in Syracuse, Sicily (405–400 BCE).

American Numismatic SocietyPublic Domain

As for the spring Arethusa, it was located near the port of Syracuse, the most powerful and important city in the island of Sicily. The most interesting thing about this spring was that, in antiquity, it was believed that its water was supplied by the River Alpheus. The Alpheus was a river in the region of Arcadia in the Greek Peloponnese, and thus separated from Sicily and Syracuse by some 400 nautical miles of the Ionian Sea! The popular folk belief was that the Alpheus flowed under the sea and to supply water for the spring of Arethusa. The supposed proof was that a wooden cup thrown into the Alpheus would resurface in the spring Arethusa and that the blood that flowed into the Alpheus from the sacrifices at nearby Olympia would discolor the Arethusa’s water.[1]

As the nymph of one of their most important sources of water supply, Arethusa was highly revered by the people of Syracuse. The spring teemed with fish which were considered sacred and could not be touched or eaten;[2] one author mentions a sacred eel.[3] Arethusa herself was sometimes identified with Artemis, the Olympian goddess of the wild.[4]

In ancient art, Arethusa was most familiar from Syracusean coins, which often displayed her head ringed by a circle of leaping dolphins. These remain some of the most famous coins known from antiquity. Arethusa was sometimes, but rarely, represented in other visual arts such as vase paintings and mosaics.[5]

The Spring of Arethusa

The Spring of Arethusa in Syracuse, Sicily.

Berthold WernerCC BY-SA 3.0

Family

Arethusa’s genealogy is obscure. A late source makes Arethusa one of the fifty Nereids, daughters of the sea gods Nereus and Doris.[6] But Arethusa was not included in more standard catalogues of the Nereids, and most sources for her mythology call her a nymph without saying who her parents were.[7]

In one tradition, Arethusa was a lover of Poseidon and the mother by him of Abas, ancestor of the Abantes tribe of Euboea.[8]

Mythology

Origins

Surviving sources for Arethusa’s myth tell us little about her origins. Hyginus’ Fabulae, a Latin mythographical text, made Arethusa one of the Nereids, but Hyginus often reported idiosyncratic genealogies that differed from more standard accounts.[9]

According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on the other hand, Arethusa originally came from the town of Pisa in Elis, in the eastern Peloponnese.[10] Since Arethusa’s mythology connects her with the Peloponnese and the Peloponnesian river Alpheus, it is likely safe to assume that Ovid was representing what was the most familiar tradition.

One lesser known, historicizing variation of the myth had it that Arethusa as well as her would-be lover Alpheus were hunters, not gods.[11]

Arethusa and Alpheus

Arethusa’s myth tells of how she caught the eye of the River Alpheus. Alpheus, like other Greek river gods, was characteristically aggressive: he tried to take Arethusa by force. Arethusa fled across the sea, to Ortygia, a tiny island off the coast of the larger island of Sicily. But Alpheus followed her. In a final, desperate attempt to escape, Arethusa turned into a spring (the sources are vague about how exactly she accomplished this).[12]

Alpheus and Arethusa, attributed to Luigi Garzi

Alpheus and Arethusa, attributed to Luigi Garzi (17th or 18th century).

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

But in the most famous tradition, Alpheus was not to be kept away so easily. He found an underground passage and flowed into the spring that Arethusa had become, mingling his waters with hers.[13]

Arethusa and Demeter

Arethusa makes an appearance In Ovid’s account of the myth of Demeter’s search for her abducted daughter Persephone. After Persephone had vanished while playing on the island of Sicily, writes Ovid, Demeter searched high and low for her. During her search, however, she neglected her duties as goddess of agriculture and as a result no crops grew.

Eventually, Demeter’s search took her to Arethusa’s spring. There, Arethusa revealed to Demeter at last what had happened to Persephone: as Arethusa flowed underneath the earth, she had seen Persephone in the Underworld, where Hades had taken her to be his queen. With this information, Demeter was finally able to reunite with her daughter. In return, Arethusa asked only that Demeter take pity on the earth and let the crops grow again.[14]

Pop Culture

Despite her rather spare mythology, Arethusa was quite popular in the arts of the west. Most recently, she has inspired musical scores by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, the English composer Benjamin Britten, and the American Indie band The Decemberists.

References

Notes

  1. Strabo, Geography 6.2.4; Polybius, Histories 12.4d.

  2. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 5.3.6.

  3. Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 8.4.

  4. Scholia on Pindar, Nemean Ode 1.3.

  5. Herbert A. Cahn, “Arethousa,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC) (Zurich: Artemis, 1984), 2:582–84.

  6. Hyginus, Fabulae pref.7; cf. Virgil, Georgics 4.346.

  7. Note that there is another Arethusa, called the daughter of Hyrieus, whose mythology is very similar to the more famous Sicilian Arethusa: this Arethusa slept with Poseidon and was subsequently changed into a spring by Hera (Hesiod, frag. 188a Merkelbach-West).

  8. Hyginus, Fabulae 157.

  9. Hyginus, Fabulae pref.7; cf. Virgil, Georgics 4.346.

  10. Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.494.

  11. Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.7.2.

  12. See esp. Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.573ff.

  13. Moschus, Idyll 7; Virgil, Aeneid 3.694ff; Ovid, Amores 3.6.29–30; Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.7.2.

  14. Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.487ff.

Primary Sources

Greek

References to the nymph Arethusa are scattered across Greek literature, usually in connection with her eponymous spring in Sicily. The earliest literary reference to Arethusa comes from Pindar (ca. 518–ca. 538 BCE), who alludes to the myth of Arethusa in his first Nemean Ode without recounting it in detail. Later on, we also find brief references to the myth in the works of the poet Moschus (mid-second century BCE), the geographer Pausanias (ca. 115–ca. 180 CE), and the epic poet Nonnus (fifth century BCE).

When other early Greek authors spoke of Arethusa, they were usually speaking primarily about the Sicilian spring. There was some debate over the source of the spring, the traces of which we detect in the works of Polybius (ca. 200–ca. 118 BCE), Diodorus of Sicily (before 90–after 30 BCE), Strabo (ca. 63 BCE–ca. 23 CE), and Pausanias. Diodorus, interestingly, mentions a story about the origins of the spring that has nothing to do with the nymph Arethusa.

Roman

The most important sources for the myth of Arethusa are Roman rather than Greek. Virgil (70–19 BCE) gives a very brief summary of Arethusa’s myth in Book 3 of the Aeneid. More complete is the account given in Book 5 of the Metamorphoses, a playful epic by Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE). Ovid’s is by far the most detailed account of the myth of Arethusa and Alpheus that has survived from antiquity.

Arethusa is also mentioned in the Fabulae, a mythological handbook attributed to Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” (first century CE or later), where she is listed—perhaps erroneously—as one of the Nereids.

Other

More information on Arethusa can be found in later texts and commentaries such as the scholia. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

Cahn, Herbert A. “Arethousa.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 2, 582–84. Zurich: Artemis, 1984.

Graf, Fritz. “Arethusa (7).” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e134010

Smith, William. “Arethusa (1).” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed January 28, 2021. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DA%3Aentry+group%3D38%3Aentry%3Darethusa-bio-1.

Stoll, H. W. “Arethusa (2).” In W. H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, Vol. 1, 494–95. Leipzig: Teubner, 1884–1890.

Theoi Project. “Arethousa.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Nymphe/NympheArethousa.html.

Wagner, Richard. “Arethusa (14).” In Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Vol. 2.1, 681. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1893–1980.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Arethusa.” Mythopedia, February 14, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/arethusa.

Kapach, Avi. “Arethusa.” Mythopedia, 14 Feb. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/arethusa. Accessed on 6 Jun. 2024.

Kapach, A. (2023, February 14). Arethusa. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/arethusa

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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