Arethusa (mythology)

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Arethusa on a coin of Syracuse, Sicily, 415-400 BC
"Alpheias" redirects here. For the genus of moths, see Alpheias (moth).

Arethusa (/ˌærˈθjzə/; Ancient Greek: Ἀρέθουσα) means "the waterer". In Greek mythology, she was a nymph and daughter of Nereus (making her a Nereid),[1] who fled from her home in Arcadia beneath the sea and came up as a fresh water fountain on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily.

As a patron figure of Syracuse, the head of Arethusa surrounded by dolphins was the usual obverse of their coins.[2] They are regarded as among the most famous and beautiful Ancient Greek coins.[3] Apart from retellings by classical authors including Ovid and Virgil, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a poem on Arethusa in 1820.

An engraving by Bernard Picart depicting Alpheus in his attempt to capture Arethusa.

The myth of her transformation begins in Arcadia when she came across a clear stream and began bathing, not knowing it was the river god Alpheus, who flowed down from Arcadia through Elis to the sea. He fell in love during their encounter, but she fled after discovering his presence and intentions, as she wished to remain a chaste attendant of Artemis. After a long chase, she prayed to her goddess to ask for protection. Artemis hid her in a cloud, but Alpheus was persistent. She began to perspire profusely from fear, and soon transformed into a stream. Artemis then broke the ground allowing Arethusa another attempt to flee.[4] Her stream traveled under the sea to the island of Ortygia, but Alpheus flowed through the sea to reach her and mingle with her waters.[5] Virgil augurs for Arethusa a salt-free passage beneath the sea on the condition that, before departing, she grant him songs about troubled loves, not those in her own future, but those of Virgil's friend and contemporary, the poet Cornelius Gallus, whom Virgil imagines dying from unrequited love beneath the famous mountains of Arcadia, Maenalus and Lycaeus.[6]

During Demeter's search for her daughter Persephone, Arethusa entreated Demeter to discontinue her punishment of Sicily for her daughter's disappearance. She told the goddess that while traveling in her stream below the earth, she saw her daughter looking sad as the queen of Hades.[7]

The Roman writer Ovid called Arethusa by the name "Alpheias", because her stream was believed to have a subterranean communication with the river Alpheius, in Peloponnesus.[8][9][10]


  1. ^ Virgil, Georgics 4.344
  2. ^ Coins of Arethusa (contains verse from Ovid and Shelley); [ "Changes in the Depiction of Arethusa on the Coins of Syracuse", PCGS
  3. ^ Paul Fraser Coins[permanent dead link], "In his definitive 1990 book "Ancient Greek Coins", the numismatist G. K. Jenkins describes Syracusan decadrachms of this period as "perhaps the most famous of all ancient coins"."
  4. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.710
  5. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.7.3
  6. ^ Virgil, Bucolics 10.1–15 Virgil; John Van Sickle (2011). Virgil's Book of Bucolics. The Ten Eclogues Translated into English Verse Framed by Cues for Reading Aloud and Clues for Threading Texts and Themes. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 109–112. ISBN 0-8018-9799-8. 
  7. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.407
  8. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 5. 487
  9. ^ Schmitz, Leonhard (1867). "Alpheias". In William Smith. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. p. 133. Archived from the original on 2008-06-13. 
  10. ^ Ovid (1997). William S. Anderson, ed. Metamorphoses. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 548. ISBN 0-8061-2894-1. 

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