The Goddess of Arethusa

Arethusa was a singularly beautiful nymph, daughter of Nereus and Doris; she was also the favourite of Diana, goddess of hunting and knowledge. Arethusa looked so beautiful that all men who set eyes upon her ended up desiring her: it was not long before Alpheus, son of the Ocean god, fell in love with her.

After a hunt Arethusa, moving away from Diana, conceded herself to bath in a river. After a short time, however, the waters began to seethe in a strangely restless manner. This was the work of Alpheus, who was madly in love and decided to become a river so he may find some consolation by wetting the limbs of the nymph and enjoying this way of her body. Afraid of the vortices, the nymph started to leave the water hurriedly; it was at that moment that Alpheus appeared in his human form, coming out of the river; shaking his thick, blonde hair and appearing in all his lustful beauty.

Arethusa tried to run to the river bank, understanding Alpheus’ willingness to make her his own and violate her virginity; he pursued her and began to run too: when the nymph began to get tired of running, in an desperate plea she sought the help of Diana: “Transform me into water as far away as possible from here.” Diana welcomed the call of Arethusa and allowed her to hide from Alpheus’ view in a dense fog, she then turned her into a fresh water spring far, far away from Greece (distance were relative in the world know back then): Diana saw in Ortigia the perfect place for her beloved ward.

This legend is so ingrained in the culture and history of Syracuse that citizens have taken the nickname “aretusei” and all now wear it with pride. The depiction of Arethusa was present on all coins of Syracuse in the fifth century BC, in which the image of the nymph was crowned with dolphins. The nymph was also depicted in the banknotes of 500 pounds of the Italian state in 1966.

Today the name “Arethusa Fountain” refers to a fresh water source in Ortigia. Its origin is one of the outlets of the water table which is located in Syracuse, the aquifer that also supplies the river Ciane on the opposite side of the harbor. Now it is a place of historical and touristic interest, thanks to the peculiarities of the source of fresh water on the shore of the sea, the presence of bushy papyrus and funny ducks wallowing and gorging with tourists sandwiches.

The myth of Arethusa and Alpheus is told by all the Syracusans with immense pride; each time it is handed down, the story undergoes small variations, each of which is worth listening to.

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