ARETHOUSA (or Arethusa) was the Naiad nymph of the sacred spring which bore her name in the Greek colony of Syrakousa (Syracuse) on the island of Ortygia near Sicily.
She was originally an Eleian Nymph who escaped to the fled to the island to escape the amorous pursuit of the river-god Alpheios. There she was transformed into the spring of the same name. Alpheios followed in her wake, flowing beneath the sea to spring forth anew on the Sicilian mainland and mingle his waters with hers.
ARETHU′SA (Arethousa), one of the Nereids (Hygin. Praef. p. 9, ed. Staveren; Virg. Georg. iv. 344), and the nymph of the famous well Arethusa in the island of Ortygia near Syracuse. Virgil (Eclog. iv. 1, x. 1) reckons her among the Sicilian nymphs, and as the divinity who inspired pastoral poetry. The Syracusans represented on many of their coins the head of Arethusa surrounded by dolphins.
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
Pindar, Nemean Ode 1. 1 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) :
"O revered ground where Alpheios (the River Alpheus) stayed his pursuit, and Artemis found rest, Ortygia . . . branch of glorious Syrakousa (Syracuse)."
[N.B. Pindar apparently equates Artemis with Arethousa. The spring of Syracuse was sacred to the goddess.]
Strabo, Geography 6. 2. 4 (trans. Jones) (Greek geographer C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"The Island of Ortygia [in Sicily] . . . has the fountain of Arethousa (Arethusa), which sends forth a river that empties immediately into the sea. People tell the mythical story that the river Arethusa is the Alpheios (Alpheus), which latter, they say, rises in the Peloponnesus, flows underground through the sea as far as Arethousa, and then empties thence once more into the sea. And the kind of evidence they adduce is as follows: a certain cup, they think, was thrown out into the river at Olympia and was discharged into the fountain; and again, the fountain was discolored as the result of the sacrifices of oxen at Olympia.
Pindaros follows these reports when he says: ‘O resting-place august of Alpheios, Ortygia, scion of famous Syrakouse (Syracuse).’ And in agreement with Pindaros Timaios the historian also declares the same thing.
Now if the Alpheios fell into a pit before joining the sea, there would be some plausibility in the view that the stream extends underground from Olympia as far as Sikelia (Sicily), thereby preserving its potable water unmixed with the sea; but since the mouth of the river empties into the sea in full view, and since near this mouth, on the transit, there is no mouth visible that swallows up the stream of the river (though even so the water could not remain fresh; yet it might, the greater part of it at least, if it sank into the underground channel), the thing is absolutely impossible. For the water of Arethousa bears testimony against it, since it is potable; and that the stream of the river should hold together through so long a transit without being diffused with the seawater, that is, until it falls into the fancied underground passage, is utterly mythical."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 7. 2 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"They say that there was a hunter called Alpheios (Alpheus), who fell in love with Arethousa (Aretheusa), who was herself a huntress. Arethousa, unwilling to marry, crossed, they say, to the island opposite Syrakouse (Syracuse) called Ortygia, and there turned from a woman to a spring. Alpheios too was changed by his love into the river . . . That the Alpheios passes through the sea and mingles his waters with the spring at this place I cannot disbelieve, as I know that the god at Delphoi confirms the story. For when he despatched Arkhias the Korinthian (Corinthian) to found Syrakouse he uttered this oracle: ‘An isle, Ortygia, lies on the misty ocean over against Trinakria [Sicily], where the mouth of Alpheios bubbles mingling with the springs of broad Arethousa.’ For this reason, therefore, because the water of the Alpheios mingles with the Arethousa, I am convinced that the legend arose of the river's love-affair."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 7. 24. 3 :
"Aigion (Aegium) [in Akhaia ] has . . . a sanctuary of Soteria (Safety). Her image may be seen by none but the priests, and the following ritual is performed. They take cakes of the district from the goddess and throw them into the sea, saying that they send them to Arethousa at Syrakouse (Syracuse)."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 54. 3 :
"Not even the Adriatic could check its [the river Alpheios'] flowing onwards, but passing through it, so large and stormy a sea, it shows in Ortygia, before Syrakouse (Syracuse), that it is the Alpheios, and unites its water with Arethousa."
Aelian, On Animals 8. 4 (trans. Scholfield) (Greek natural history C2nd to 3rd A.D.) :
"It seems that Fishes are both tame and tractable, and when summoned can hear and are ready to accept food that is given them, like the sacred eel in the Fountain of Arethousa."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 5. 407 & 487 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"Bacchiadae [i.e. Syracuse], where settlers once from Corinthus' isthmus built between two harbours their great battlements. A bay confined by narrow points of land lies between [the springs] Arethusa and Cyane . . .
[Haides abducted Persephone on the island of Sicily and descended into the Underworld through the spring of Kyane. Demeter went in search of her daughter.] The whole world failed her search. She turned again to Sicania (Sicily) and there, in wandering that led her everywhere, she too reached Cyane . . .
Then that fair Nympha [Arethousa] whom once Alpheus loved rose from her pool and brushed back from her brow her loved dripping hair, and said: world hast sought thy child, mother of crops and harvest, ‘O thou, divine Mother, who through the cease at last thy boundless toil and end they savage rage against land that has kept faith with thee. The land is innocent; the against its will it opened for that rape. Nor is it mine, this land I for--I, a stranger here. My land is Pisa and plead I trace my stock from Elis [in Greece]. Here in Sicania (Sicily) I dwell an alien, but in all the world is dearer now to me. I, Arethusa, have no land here my home, my heart. This land, I pray, goddess most cherish and preserve. Why I forsook my home and fared so gentle, far ocome to tell, when cares are lightened and thine eyes are ’er the vast ocean to Ortygia, a fitting time will bright. The earth opened a way for me and I was borne deepest caverns, until here I raised my head and saw the below its stars again. And so it was that, while beneath the earth I my Stygian stream, I saw, myself with my own eyes, glided in your Proserpina [Persephone]. Her looks were sad, and fear still in and yet a queen, and yet of that dark land Empress, and yet her eyes; with power and majesty the consort of the Sovereign lord of Hell.’"
Ovid, Metamorphoses 5. 572 ff :
"[Demeter] enquired of Arethusa the reason of her flight and why she was a sacred spring. The waters of her pool fell silent; from the depths their goddess raised her head and, combing her green tresses dry, told the old story of the Eleian River's [Alpheus'] love. ‘One of the Nymphae whose home is in Achais I used to be, and none more keen than I to roam the glades, more keen to place the nets. Though I was strong and brave and never sought beauty's renown, yet I was known for beauty, nor did its praise--too praised--once profit me. That dower of beauty, other girls' delight, brought but a bumpkin’s blushes to my cheeks and in my thoughts it seemed a crime to please. I was returning tired, I well remember, from hunting in the woods; the heat was great and doubled my toil. I found a stream that glided with no eddy, with no sound, clear to the bottom, each pebble in its depths easy to count; it hardly seemed to move. Poplars fed by the stream and silvery willows gave to the shelving banks a natural shade.
‘I reached the water's edge and dipped my feet; then to my knees, and not content with that took off my light soft clothes and laid them by on a curved willow branch and, naked, dropped into the water, plunging to and fro in countless twists and turns; and as I flung my arms and gaily gambolled there, I heard, deep in the stream, a strange rough rumbling sound, and leapt in terror on the nearer bank. "Wither so fast?" It was Alpheus' voice, calling me from his waters. "Wither so fast, fair Arethusa?" his harsh voice called again.
‘I fled, just as I was, unclothed--my clothes there on the other bank. He chased the hotter; I seemed the readier in my nakedness. As doves on fluttering wings flee from a hawk, and as a hawk pursues a fluttering dove, so did I run, so fiercely he gave chase. On past Orchomenos, past Elis' towers and Psophis and Cyllene and the combes of Maenalus and icy Erymanthus I held my flight, nor did he gain on me; until, my strength outmatched, the pace was more than I could long endure, and he still fresh. Yet on through moors and tree-clad mountainsides, over crags and cliffs and trackless wastes I ran. The sun was at our backs: I saw in front--or it was fear that saw--a giant shadow. For sure I heard his frightful footfalls, fled his panting breath upon my braided hair. Exhausted, "Save me! Save thy hunting-nymphe Diana [Artemis]," I cried, "to whom so oft thou gavest thy bow to bear, they arrows and thy quiver!’ The goddess heard and, choosing a thick cloud, draped it about me; and the Amnis (River), baulked, circled me wrapped in darkness, quested round the hollow cloud, stood twice, at fault, beside my hiding-place and twice called "Arethusa! Hey, Arethusa!"
‘Oh poor wretched me! What heart had I! Was I not like a lamb that hears the wolves howling around the fold, or like a hare that, hiding in the brake, sees the hounds’ deadly jaws and dares not stir? Alpheus waited; at that place he saw my footprints stop; he watched the clouds, the place. Trapped and besieged! A cold and drenching sweat broke out and rivulets of silvery drops poured from my body; where I moved my foot, a trickle spread; a stream fell from my hair; and sooner than I now can tell the tale I turned to water. But the Amnis (River) knew that water, knew his love, and changed again, his human form discarding, and resumed his watery self to join his stream with me. Delia [Artemis] cleft the earth. I, sinking down, borne through blind caverns reached Ortygia, that bears my goddess’ name, the isle I love, that first restored me to the air above.’"
Virgil, Aeneid 3. 694 ff (trans. Day-Lewis) (Roman epic C1st B.C.) :
"Over against wave-worn Plemyrium there’s an island athwart the gulf of Syracuse, an isle the ancients named Ortygia. According to legend, Alpheus, the river of Elis, once drove a secret passage hither, beneath the sea-bed, to mingle at Arethusa’s fount with waters of Sicily. As instructed, we worship the patron spirits of the place."
Pliny the Elder, Natural History 3. 89 (trans. Rackham) (Roman encyclopedia C1st A.D.) :
"The colony of Syracuse with the Spring of Arethusa--although the territory of Syracuse is also supplied with water by the springs of Temenitis, Archidemia, Magea, Cyane and Milichie."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 6. 339 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"Love-sick Alpheios. His wish was to creep through the fruitful soil, and delight his thirsty bride with watery kisses; but the other had lost the familiar road of his old time hunt, and rolled along in sorrow, until seeing [the River] Pyramos the lover moving by his side he cried out and said--‘What am I to do? Arethousa is hidden! Pyramos, why this haste? . . . Follow me the lover, I will seek the tracks of Syrakousan Arethousa.’"
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 13. 322 ff :
"Sikelian Arethousa, where after his wandering travels Alpheios creeps proud of his Pisan chaplet--he crosses the deep like a highway [from Elis in Greece to Sicilian Syracuse], and draws his water, the slave of love, unwetted, over the surface of the sea, for he carries a burning fire [love] warm through the cold water."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 37. 172 ff :
"The land of the Nymphe [i.e. Syrakousa home of Arethousa] loved by hapless Alpheios (Alpheus), who brings to Arethousa as a gift of love his garlanded waters untainted by brine."
Suidas s.v. Adrias (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Adrias (Adriatic): A Sicilian sea, which the [river] Alpheios dives under from Arkadia and mingles in very pure form with the Sicilian spring Arethouse."
Suidas s.v. Alpheios :
"Alpheios: A river of the Arkadian city [of that name], which is situated in the Peloponnese. Reaching open water through the Adriatic Sea, and mixing in no way with the brine, it surges up by the island of Sicily around the spring called Arethousa--he being her beloved."
Suidas s.v. Arethousa :
"Arethousa: A spring on the island of Sikelia (Sicily), into which the Alpheios flows, [a river of] the Arkadian city, reaching open water through the Adriatic Sea and mixing in no way with the brine, as if [it were] the beloved of such a spring."
- Pindar, Odes - Greek Lyric C5th B.C.
- Strabo, Geography - Greek Geography C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Pausanias, Guide to Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
- Aelian, On Animals - Greek Natural History C2nd-3rd A.D.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses - Latin Epic C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Virgil, Aeneid - Latin Epic C1st B.C.
- Pliny the Elder, Natural History - Latin Encyclopedia C1st A.D.
- Nonnos, Dionysiaca - Greek Epic C5th A.D.
- Suidas - Byzantine Greek Lexicon C10th A.D.