: A Book Of Myths
“We have victualled and watered,” wrote Nelson from Syracuse in 1798, “and surely, watering at the fountain of Arethusa, we must have victory. We shall sail with the first breeze; and be assured I will return either crowned with laurel or covered with cypress.” Three days later, he won the Battle of the Nile, one of the greatest sea-fights of history.
Here in our own land the tales of the Greek gods seem very remote. Like the colours in an old, old portrait, th
humanity of the stories seems to have faded. But in Sicily they grow vivid at once. Almost, as we stand above Syracuse, that long yellow town by the sea—a blue-green sea, with deep purple shadows where the clouds above it grow dark, and little white-sailed boats, like white butterflies, wing their way across to the far horizon—can we
“Have glimpse of Proteus rising from the sea,
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”
Here, to this day, one of the myths most impossible of acceptance to the scientific modern mind lives on, and Arethusa is not yet forgotten. “In Ortygia,” says Cicero, “is a fountain of sweet water, the name of which is Arethusa, of incredible flow, very full of fish, which would be entirely overwhelmed by the sea, were its waters not protected from the waves by a rampart and a wall of stone.” White marble walls have taken the place of the protecting barrier, but the spring bubbles up to this day, and Ortygia (Quail Island) is the name still given to that part of Syracuse. Fluffy-headed, long, green stalks of papyrus grow in the fountain, and red and golden fish dart through its clear water. Beyond lie the low shores of Plemmgrium, the fens of Lysimeleia, the hills above the Anapus, and above all towers Etna, in snowy and magnificent serenity and indifference to the changes wrought by the centuries to gods and to men. Yet here the present is completely overshadowed by the past, and even the story of Arethusa knocks loudly at the well-barricaded doors of twentieth-century incredulity.
The beautiful Arethusa was a nymph in Diana’s train, and many a time in the chase did she thread her way through the dim woodland, as a stream flows down through the forest from the mountains to the sea. But to her, at last, there came a day when she was no longer the huntress but the hunted.
The flaming wheels of the chariot of Apollo had made the whole land scintillate with heat, and the nymph sought the kind shelter of a wood where she might bathe in the exquisite coolness of the river that still was chilled by the snows of the mountain. On the branch of a tree that bent over the stream she hung her garments, and joyously stepped into the limpid water. A ray of the sun glanced through the leaves above her and made the soft sand in the river’s bed gleam like gold and the beautiful limbs of the nymph seem as though carved from pure white marble by the hand of Pygmalion himself. There was no sound there but the gentle sound of the stream that murmured caressingly to her as it slowly moved on through the solitude, and so gently it flowed that almost it seemed to stand still, as though regretful to leave for the unknown forest so beautiful a thing as Arethusa.
“The Earth seemed to love her
And Heaven smiled above her.”
But suddenly the stillness of the stream was ruffled. Waves, like the newly-born brothers of the billows of the sea, swept both down-stream and up-stream upon her, and the river no longer murmured gently, but spoke to her in a voice that thrilled with passionate longing. Alpheus, god of the river, had beheld her, and, beholding her, had loved her once and forever. An uncouth creature of the forest was he, unversed in all the arts of love-making. So not as a supplicant did he come to her, but as one who demanded fiercely love for love. Terror came upon Arethusa as she listened, and hastily she sprang from the water that had brought fear upon her, and hastened to find shelter in the woodlands. Then the murmur, as of the murmur of a river before a mighty flood comes to seize it and hold it for its own, took form in a voice that pled with her, in tones that made her tremble as she heard.
“Hear me, Arethusa!” it said. “I am Alpheus, god of the river that now thou hast made sacred. I am the god of the rushing streams—the god of the thundering cataracts. Where the mountain streams crash over the rocks and echo through the shadowy hollows of the hills, I hold my kingship. Down from Etna I come, and the fire of Etna is in my veins. I love thee! I love but thee, and thou shalt be mine, and I thine forever.”
Then Arethusa, in blind panic, fled before the god who loved her. Through the shadowy forest she sped, while he swiftly gained upon her. The asphodel bent under her flying feet, and the golden flowers of the Fiori Maggio were swept aside as she fled. Yet ever Alpheus gained upon her, until at length she felt that the chase was ended, and cried to Diana to save her. Then a cloud, grey and thick and blinding as the mist that wraps the mountain tops, suddenly descended and enfolded her, and Alpheus groped for her in vain.
“Arethusa!” she heard him cry, in a voice of piteous longing—“Arethusa!—my belovèd!”
Patiently he waited, with the love that makes uncouth things beautiful, until at length a little breath from Zephyrus blew aside the soft grey veil that hid his beloved from his sight, and he saw that the nymph had been transformed into a fountain. Not for a moment did Alpheus delay, but, turning himself into a torrent in flood, he rushed on in pursuit of Arethusa. Then did Diana, to save her votary, cleave a way for her through the dark earth even into the gloomy realm of Pluto himself, and the nymph rushed onward, onward still, and then upward, until at length she emerged again to the freedom of the blue sky and green trees, and beheld the golden orange groves and the grey olives, the burning red geranium flowers and the great snow-capped mountain of Sicily.
But Alpheus had a love for her that cast out all fear. Through the terrible blackness of the Cocytus valley he followed Arethusa, and found a means of bursting through the encumbering earth and joining her again. And in a spring that rises out of the sea near the shore he was able at last to mingle his waters with those of the one for whom he had lost his godship.
“And now from their fountains
In Enna’s mountains,
Down one vale where the morning basks,
Like friends once parted
They ply their watery tasks,
At sunrise they leap
From their cradles steep
In the cave of the shelving hill;
At noontide they flow
Through the woods below
And the meadows of asphodel;
And at night they sleep
In the rocking deep
Beneath the Ortygian shore;
Like spirits that lie
In the azure sky
When they love but live no more.”