Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Medusa, Siracusa, Arethusa

This page about Magna Graecia relates the Sicilian city of Syracuse to the tale of Arethusa, to Corinth, to Medusa, and to the tradition of Greek poetry:

Thucydides [says] Syracuse was founded by colonists from Corinth in ca. 734 BC, led by a man named Archias. After displacing the Sicel inhabitants, the Greek colonists first settled on the island of Ortygia, famous for its fresh water spring, Arethusa.

Syracuse was blessed with the best harbor in Sicily, and grew to become the wealthiest and most powerful Sicilian Greek city. Hieron I, the ruler of Syracuse from ca. 478-467 BC, was host to several famous Greek poets: Aeschylus, Pindar, Simonides, and Bacchylides. The poets Theocritus and Moschus were residents. Archimedes, the most renowned mathematician of antiquity was born in Syracuse. Syracuse's wealth and power attracted the envy of Athens, who attacked the city under the command of Alcibiades in ca. 415 BC. The Athenians, however, were repelled and defeated with the help of the Spartans in ca. 413 BC.

Gorgon Tablet, Syracuse, old temple of Athena, 610-590 BC

This mold-made, painted terracotta tablet is pierced with four holes, suggesting that it was once attached to a large piece of furniture or altar, or served as decoration for a temple. It represents the Gorgon Medusa, in a conventional pose, half-kneeling and half-running, indicating that she is sprinting at great speed. Her wings, curled up over her shoulders, are painted black and purple as is the preserved wing of her right boot. In her right hand she holds her child, the winged horse Pegasus. The figure of her other child Chrysaor was once held under her left arm and shoulder. According to Greek myth, Pegasus and Chysaor were born of her union with the god of the seas, Posidon. In a gory detail not shown by the tablet, these children were born simultaneous with Medusa's decapitation by the hero Perseus. Because the horrifying expression of the Gorgon Medusa was capable of turning men into stone, Perseus accomplished this difficult and dangerous task by viewing her reflected image in a polished shield.

The image of the Medusa with her children was derived from Corinthian antecedents, and became a theme for Sicilian sculptors working in terracotta. This is one of the earliest examples of the theme in Sicily, dated to the end of the seventh, or the beginning of the sixth century BC.
Arethusa's tale connects the Arcadian river Alpheus to the fountain of Ortygia, and introduces the Rape of Persephone:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Kubla Khan

Arethusa (Ἀρέθουσα) means "the waterer". In Greek mythology, she was a nymph and daughter of Nereus (making her a Nereid),[1] and later became a fountain on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily.

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

The myth of her transformation begins when she came across a clear stream and began bathing, not knowing it was the river god Alpheus. 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.[2] Her stream traveled under the earth to the island of Ortygia, but Alpheus flowed through the sea to reach her and mingle with her waters.[3]

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.[4]

Arethusa occasionally appeared on coins as a young girl with a net in her hair and dolphins around her head. These coins were common around Ortygia, the location in which she ends up after fleeing from Alpheus.

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.[5


[8.54.1] LIV. The boundary between the territories of Lacedaemon and Tegea is the river Alpheius. Its water begins in 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).

[8.54.2] It is known that the Alpheius differs from other rivers in exhibiting this natural peculiarity; it often disappears beneath the earth to reappear again. So flowing on from Phylace 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.

[8.54.3] Coming up at the place called by the Arcadians Pegae (Springs), and flowing past the land of Pisa and past Olympia, it falls into the sea above 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 Syracuse, that it is the Alpheius, and unites its water with Arethusa.

Alfeios: In the Aeneid, Virgil describes the Alpheus as flowing under the sea to resurface at Ortygia on Sicily, or "so runs the tale".

Stay gentle Swains, for though in this disguise,
I see bright honour sparkle through your eyes,
Of famous Arcady ye are, and sprung
Of that renowned flood, so often sung,
Divine Alpheus, who by secret sluse,
Stole under Seas to meet his Arethuse;
Milton, Arcades

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