Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Alpheus and Arethusa

Assigning a god to every single object around you seems so much fun, I'm considering doing it for my household items. I'd have two gods for my desktops, a goddess for the laptop and a winged child for the netbook. Oh, and something in the shape of a snail for the cell phone. And then I'd start a war against the gods of the kitchen appliances.

That's how the ancients did it anyway. For instance, on the island of Ortygia, in Sicily, there was a river called Alpheus, which had its own god, and a well called Arethusa, which had its own goddess. The inhabitants noticed that the waters of these two communicated underground, as objects thrown in the river would resurface after a while in the well, so they quickly made up a love story.

As Ovid tells it, Arethusa was a Nereid and a follower of Artemis. One day she was bathing in a river, when the respective river-god, Alpheus, of course, saw her and fell in love. Arethusa ran away, seeking refuge with her goddess. Artemis hid her in a cloud, but Arethusa was sweating so much, she turned into a spring. Artemis decided to help her once more, so she caused the ground to split open, and the waters of the spring flew in the hole, creating a well. But the river-god found an underground passage to his love, and their waters would mix forever.

Another funny thing is how these minor gods end up playing cameo roles in big stories. When Demeter was desperately searching for her kidnapped daughter, Persephone, Arethusa informed her that she had seen Persephone underground, as queen in the realm of the dead. Alpheus is the river re-routed by Hercules to clean up the Augean Stables. He's also the father, or grand-father, of a soldier killed by Aeneas before fleeing from Troy. Big cast, these ancient legends had.