ALPHEIOS (Alpheus) was a River-God of Elis and Arkadia (Arcadia) in the Peloponnesos, southern Greece. He fell in love with the nymph Arethousa (Arethusa) who fled his advances and leapt into the sea. Alpheios pursued her across the sea to the island of Syrakousa (Syracuse) in Sicily where the spring of Arethousa burst forth from the ground.
The River Alpheios had its headwaters in the south-eastern corner of Arkadia, flowing the length of the country east into Elis, past Olympia where it emptied into the Ionian sea. Several of its tributories were also personified as river-gods namely Ladon, Erymanthos, Kladeos (Cladeus) and Kytheros (Cytherus). Another personified Eleian river was the small Anigros to the south.
FAMILY OF ALPHEUS
ALPHEIUS or A′LPHEUS (Alpheios or Alpheos), the god of the river Alpheius in Peloponnesus, a son of Oceanus and Thetys. (Pind. Nem. i. l; Hes. Theog. 338.) According to Pausanias (v. 7. § 2) Alpheius was a passionate hunter and fell in love with the nymph Arethusa, but she fled from him to the island of Ortygia near Syracuse, and metamorphosed herself into a well, whereupon Alpheius became a river, which flowing from Peloponnesus under the sea to Ortygia, there united its waters with those of the well Arethusa. (Comp. Schol. ad Pind. Nem. i. 3.) This story is related somewhat differently by Ovid. (Met. v. 572, &c.) Arethusa, a fair nymph, once while bathing in the river Alpheius in Arcadia, was surprised and pursued by the god; but Artemis took pity upon her and changed her into a well, which flowed under the earth to the island of Ortygia. (Comp. Serv. ad Virg. Ecl. x. 4; Virg. Aen. iii. 694; Stat. Silv. i. 2, 203; Theb. i. 271, iv. 239; Lucian, Dial. Marin. 3.) Artemis, who is here only mentioned incidentally, was, according to other traditions, the object of the love of Alpheius. Once, it is said, when pursued by him she fled to Letrini in Elis, and here she covered her face and those of her companions (nymphs) with mud, so that Alpheius could not discover or distinguish her, and was obliged to return. (Paus. vi. 22. § 5.) This occasioned the building of a temple of Artemis Alphaea at Letrini. According to another version, the goddess fled to Ortygia, where she had likewise a temple under the name of Alphaea. (Schol. ad Pind. Pyth. ii. 12.) An allusion to Alpheius' love of Artemis is also contained in the fact, that at Olympia the two divinities had one altar in common. (Paus. v. 14. § 5 ; Schol. ad Pind. Ol. v. 10.) In these accounts two or more distinct stories seem to be mixed up together, but they probably originated in the popular belief, that there was a natural subterraneous communication between the river Alpheius and the well Arethusa. For, among several other things it was believed, that a cup thrown into the Alpheius would make its reappearance in the well Arethusa in Ortygia. (Strab. vi. p. 270, viii. p. 343; Senec. Quaest. Nat. iii. 26; Fulgent. Myth. iii. 12.) Plutarch (de Fluv. 19) gives an account which is altogether unconnected with those mentioned above. According to him, Alpheius was a son of Helios, and killed his brother Cercaphus in a contest. Haunted by despair and the Erinnyes he leapt into the river Nyctimus which hence received the name Alpheius.
Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
CLASSICAL LITERATURE QUOTES
PARENTAGE OF ALPHEUS
Hesiod, Theogony 337 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
"Tethys bore to Okeanos (Oceanus) the swirling Potamoi (Rivers), Neilos (Nile), Alpheios (Alpheus), and deep-eddying Eridanos . . . [in a long list of rivers]."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Preface (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"From Oceanus and Tethys [were born] the Oceanides . . . Of the same descent Rivers : Strymon, Nile, Euphrates, Tanais, Indus, Cephisus, Ismenus, Axenus, Achelous, Simoeis, Inachus, Alpheus, Thermodon, Scamandrus, Tigris, Maeandrus, Orontes."
CHILDREN OF ALPHEUS
Homer, Iliad 5. 541 ff (trans. Lattimore) (Greek epic C8th B.C.) :
"Sons of Diokles (Diocles), Orsilochos (Orsilochus) and Krethon (Crethon), men whose father dwelt in Phere the strong-founded, rich in substance, and his generation was of the river, Alpheios (Alpheus), who flows wide through the country of the Pylians, and who got a son, Ortilokhos (Ortilochus), to be lord over many men, but the son of Ortilockhos was high-hearted Diokles."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 4. 30. 2 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"He [Homer] makes no reference to Telegone, who in the Messenian account bore Ortilokhos (Ortilochus) to Alpheios (Alpheus)."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 244 (trans. Grant) (Roman mythographer C2nd A.D.) :
"Men who killed their relatives . . . Phegeos (Phegeus) [king of Arkadia (Arcadia)], son of Alpheios (Alpheus), killed the daughter of his daughter Alphesiboia (Alphesiboea)."
THE LOVE OF ALPHEUS FOR ARTEMIS
Pindar, Nemean Ode 1. 1 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) :
"O revered ground where Alpheios (Alpheus) stayed his pursuit, and Artemis found rest, Ortygia . . . branch of glorious Syrakousa (Syracuse)." [N.B. In Pindar Artemis is equated with Arethousa.]
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 14. 6 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"After the altars I have enumerated [at Olympia] there is one on which they sacrifice to Alpheios (Alpheus) and Artemis together. The cause of this Pindar, I think, intimates in an ode, and I give it in my account of Letrinoi."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 6. 22. 9 :
"An image of Artemis Alpheiaia in a temple [at Letrinoi (Letrini), Elis]. Legend has it that the goddess received the surname for the following reason. Alpheios (Alpheus) fell in love with Artemis, and then, realising that persuasive entreaties would not win the goddess as his bride, he dared to plot violence against her. Artemis was holding at Letrinoi an all-night revel with the Nymphai (Nymphs) who were her playmates, and to it came Alpheios. But Artemis had a suspicion of the plot of Alpheios, and smeared with mud her own face and the faces of the Nymphai with her. So Alpheios, when he joined the throng, could not distinguish Artemis from the others, and, not being able to pick her out, went away without bringing off his attempt. The people of Letrinoi called the goddess Alpheian because of the love of Alpheios for her."
Pindar, Nemean Ode 1. 1 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) :
"O revered ground where Alpheios (Alpheus) stayed his pursuit, and Artemis found rest, Ortygia . . . branch of glorious Syrakousa (Syracuse)."
[N.B. Pindar equates Artemis with Arethousa. The Arethousan spring 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 [near Syrakousa (Syracuse), Sikelia (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 Arethousa is the Alpheios (Alpheus), which latter, they say, rises in the Peloponnesos, 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 (Pindar) follows these reports when he says : ‘O resting-place august of Alpheios, Ortygia, scion of famous Syrakouse.’ And in agreement with Pindaros Timaios (Timaeus) 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. 3 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"They say that there was a hunter called Alpheios (Alpheus), who fell in love with Arethousa (Arethusa), who was herself a huntress, Arethousa, unwilling to marry, crossed, they say, to the island opposite Syrakousa (Syracuse) called Ortygia, and there turned from a woman to a spring. Alpheios too was changed by his love into the river . . . But 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 (Delphi) confirms the story. For when he despatched Arkhias (Archias) the Korinthian to found Syrakousa he uttered this oracle : ‘An isle, Ortygia, lies on the misty sea over against Trinakria (Trinacria), where the mouth of the 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."
Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 2. 6 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"The land [at Olympia] furnishes a stadium in a simple glen of sufficient extent, from which issues the stream of the Alpheios (Alpheus), a light stream--that, you know, is why it alone of rivers flows on top of the sea."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 5. 572 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"[Ceres-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 (Nymphs) whose home is in Achais [Greece] 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 [i.e. the island of the town of Syrakousa (Syracuse)], 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."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 6. 339 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
"[During the Great Deluge :] The Neilos (River Nile), pouring his lifegiving stream through is seven mouths, went astray and met love-sick Alpheios (Alpheus). His wish was to creep through the fruitful soil, and delight his thirsty bride [Arethousa (Arethusa)] with watery kisses; but the other had lost the familiar road of his old time hunt, and rolled along in sorrow, until seeing Pyramos [another River] the lover moving by his side he cried out and said--‘Neilos, what am I to do? Arethousa is hidden! Pyramos, why this haste? You have left you companion Thisbe--to whom? Happy Euphrates! He has not felt the sting of love. Jealousy and fear possess me together. Perhaps Kronos' (Cronus') watery son [Poseidon] has slept with lovely Arethousa! I fear he may have wooed your Thisbe in his flowings! Pyramos is no consolation for Alpheios. The rain of Zeus has not stirred us so much as the arrow of the Foamborn [Aphrodite]. Follow me the lover, I will seek the tracks of Syrakousan (Syracusan) Arethousa, and do you, Pyramos, hunt for Thisbe.
‘But you will say--the earth quakes, the sky attacks us, the sea compels us, the unnavigable upper air itself swells in a foaming flood! I care not of the wild deluge. See what a great miracle! The blazing earth, the flaming sea, the rivers--all have been swept clean by the downpour of Zeus, only one trifle it has not quenched, the Paphian fire of Alpheios! However, if the great flood confounds me, if I suffer from fire, there is one small medicine for my pain, that tender Adonis is wandering too and vexing Aphrodite.’
His tale was not yet ended, when fear conquered his voice."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 13. 322 ff :
"Sikelian Arethousa (Sicilian Arethusa), where after his wandering travels Alpheios (Alpheus) creeps proud of his Pisan chaplet--he crosses the deep like a highway [fi.e. rom Elis in Greece to Syracuse in Sicily], 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 loved by hapless Alpheios (Alpheus), who brings to Arethousa (Arethusa) as a gift of love his garlanded waters untainted by brine."
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 42. 98 ff :
"Witness wandering Alpheios (Alpheus), whom you see the servant of waterfaring love, in that travailing water through water in all those floods he escaped not hot love, though he was a water traveller!"
Suidas s.v. Adrias (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Adrias (Adriatic) : A Sicilian sea, which the [river] Alpheios (Alpheus) dives under from Arkadia (Arcadia) and mingles in very pure form with the Sikelikon (Sicilian) spring Arethouse (Arethusa)."
Suidas s.v. Alpheios :
"Alpheios (Alpheus) : 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 Sikelia (Sicily) around the spring called Arethousa (Arethusa)--he being her beloved."
Suidas s.v. Arethousa :
"Arethousa (Arethusa) : A spring on the island of Sikelia (Sicily), into which the Alpheios (Alpheus) 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."
ALPHEUS POETIC MISCELLANY
Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 17 (trans. Fairbanks) (Greek rhetorician C3rd A.D.) :
"[From a description of an ancient Greek painting depicting the chariot-race of Pelops and Oinomaos (Oenomaus) at Olympia :] Even the [the River-God] Alpheios (ALpheus) leaps from his eddy to pluck a crown of wild olive for Pelops as he drives along the bank of the river."
GEOGRAPHY OF THE RIVER ALPHEUS
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 54. 3 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"The boundary between the territories of Lakedaimon (Lacedaemon) [Sparta] and Tegea [Arkadia (Arcadia)] is the river Alpheios (Alpheus). Its water begins in Phylake (Phylace), and not far from its source there flows down into it another water from springs that are not large, but many in number, whence the place has received the name Symbola (Meetings). It is known that the Alpheios differs from other rivers in exhibiting this natural peculiarity; it often disappears beneath the earth to reappear again. So flowing on from Phylake and the place called Symbola it sinks into the Tegean plain; rising at Asea, and mingling its stream with the Eurotas, it sinks again into the earth. Coming up at the place called by the Arkadians Pegai (Springs), and flowing past the land of Pisa and past Olympia, it falls into the sea above Kyllene (Cyllene), the port of Elis. Not even the Adriatic could check its 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 (Arethusa)."
CULT OF ALPHEUS
I. SPARTA Chief Town of Lacedaemonia (Southern Greece)
Pausanias, Description of Greece 3. 12. 8 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"There is also a sanctuary [at Sparta] of [the Seilenos (Silen)] Maron and of [the River] Alpheios (Alpheus)."
II. OLYMPIA Town and Sanctuary in Elis (Southern Greece)
Bacchylides, Fragment 5 (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric IV) (C5th B.C.) :
"Sing in praise of Zeus Kronides (Cronides), Olympian, ruler of gods, and Alpheios (Alpheus), tireless stream."
Strabo, Geography 8. 3. 19 (trans. Jones) (Greek geographer C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.) :
"It is said, also, that the Alpheios (Alpheus) [like the nearby river Anigros] was so named from its being a cure for leprosy."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 10. 6 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"[Amongst the sculptural figures on the pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia :] At the very edge lies Kladeos (Cladeus), the river which, in other ways also, the Eleans honour most after Alpheios (Alpheus) . . . Then the pediment narrows again, and in this part of it is represented Alpheios."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 13. 11 :
"[At Olympia :] Every year the soothsayers . . . bring the ash from the town-hall [i.e. from sacrifices to Zeus], and making it into a paste with the water of the Alpheios (Alpheus) they daub the altar therewith. But never may the ash be made into past with other water, and for this reason the Alpheios is thought to be of all Rivers the dearest to Zeus Olympios."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 14. 6 :
"After the altars I have enumerated [at Olympia] there is one on which they sacrifice to Alpheios (Alpheus) and Artemis together. The cause of this Pindar, I think, intimates in an ode, and I give it in my account of Letrinoi (Letrini). Not far from it stands another altar of Alpheios."
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5. 24. 7 :
"[At Olympia] they have dedicated images of Pelops and of the river Alpheios (Alpheus) respectively.
Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 20. 2 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"Leukippos (Leucippus) [mythical Eleian hero] was growing his hair long for the river Alpheios (Alpheus)."
[N.B. Youths dedicated the uncut locks of their childhood to the local river-god.]
Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 5 (summary from Photius, Myriobiblon 190) (trans. Pearse) (Greek mythographer C1st to C2nd A.D.) :
"As a hommage to the river Alpheios (Alpheus), after a victory at [the Games of] Olympia, Herakles called with his name the letter ‘alpha’ which he placed at the head of the alphabet."
III. HERAEA (HERAIA) Town in Sicily (Southern Italy)
Aelian, Historical Miscellany 2. 33 (trans. Wilson) (Greek rhetorician C2nd to 3rd A.D.) :
"The nature of rivers, and their streams, are visible to us. But men who honour them, and have statues made of them, in some cases set up anthropomorphic statues, while others give them bovine form . . . The form of a man is adopted by the Psophidians for the Erymanthos (Erymanthus), and by the Heraians (Heraeans) for the Alpheios (Alpheus); the Kherronesians from Knidos (Cnidus) treat the same river in the same way."
[N.B. Hybla Heraia was a Greek colony in south-eastern Sicily near Syracuse.]
- Homer, The Iliad - Greek Epic C8th B.C.
- Hesiod, Theogony - Greek Epic C8th - 7th B.C.
- Pindar, Odes - Greek Lyric C5th B.C.
- Greek Lyric IV Bacchylides, Fragments - Greek Lyric C5th B.C.
- Strabo, Geography - Greek Geography C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Pausanias, Description of Greece - Greek Travelogue C2nd A.D.
- Aelian, Historical Miscellany - Greek Rhetoric C2nd - 3rd A.D.
- Philostratus the Elder, Imagines - Greek Rhetoric C3rd A.D.
- Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History - Greek Mythography C1st - 2nd A.D.
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca - Greek Epic C5th A.D.
- Hyginus, Fabulae - Latin Mythography C2nd A.D.
- Ovid, Metamorphoses - Latin Epic C1st B.C. - C1st A.D.
- Virgil, Aeneid - Latin Epic C1st B.C.
- Suidas, The Suda - Byzantine Greek Lexicon C10th A.D.
Other references not currently quoted here: Plutarch Moralia 19.