Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, has just finished telling the long and harrowing story of the rape of Proserpine. She moves on to her concluding and far shorter stories, the first being about Arethusa, who had told Ceres of Pluto’s abduction of Proserpine.
This is very indirect narration, as it is Ovid’s account of Calliope’s story of Arethusa’s telling of her life story.
Ceres, Proserpine’s mother, is delighted when her daughter is restored to her from the underworld, even if it is only for a period of six months. Ceres thanks Arethusa for her help, and asks how she came to be made into a sacred stream.
Arethusa says that she had been a nymph in Achaea. One day she had been returning from hunting in the heat, and started to bathe in a stream to cool her body off. As she slipped into the clear water, she removed her clothes and hung them from a tree. Alpheus, a river god, suddenly appeared, calling her. She took fright and flight, leaving her clothes behind.
At first, Arethusa was able to keep her pursuer at a comfortable distance, but as they ran further, she started to tire and sensed him drawing closer. When she was exhausted, she called on Diana to come to her aid:
‘Oh, help me — thou whose bow and quivered darts
I oft have borne — thy armour-bearer calls —
O chaste Diana help, — or I am lost.’
‘It moved the goddess, and she gathered up
a dense cloud, and encompassed me about. —
The baffled River circled round and round,
seeking to find me, hidden in that cloud —
twice went the River round, and twice cried out,
‘Ho, Arethusa! Arethusa, Ho!’
Although Alpheus could not see her any more, he waited, trying to discover where Arethusa had gone:
‘He watched the cloud and spot, and thus besieged,
a cold sweat gathered on my trembling limbs.
The clear-blue drops, distilled from every pore,
made pools of water where I moved my feet,
and dripping moisture trickled from my hair. —
Much quicker than my story could be told,
my body was dissolved to flowing streams. —
But still the River recognized the waves,
and for the love of me transformed his shape
from human features to his proper streams,
that so his waters might encompass mine.
‘Diana, therefore, opened up the ground,
in which I plunged, and thence through gloomy caves
was carried to Ortygia — blessed isle!
To which my chosen goddess gave her name!
Where first I rose amid the upper air!’
After her transformation into flowing water, Arethusa’s stream was joined by Alpheus’ river, but disappeared into the ground in a rock cleft – what is known in limestone terrain as a swallet hole – to reach Diana’s island of Ortygia, in the centre of the city of Syracuse, on Sicily.
This relatively simple and little-known myth has inspired many paintings, most of which are no more than full-length nude portraits of a beautiful woman. There is nothing to distinguish them as being of Arethusa, and they have little narrative merit. A few lesser-known painters of myth did do better, mostly around 1700.
Although popular in Rome at the time, Carlo Maratta has been largely forgotten now. His Alpheus and Arethusa, probably from around 1680, shows Diana – distinguished by her crescent moon symbol – intervening by bringing cloud down to conceal the nymph, just as Alpheus is about to catch her up.
The landscape behind includes a watery area in which Maratta may have included another scene, perhaps after Arethusa’s transformation. If that is the case, this painting uses multiplex narrative.
Attributed to Luigi Garzi, another popular painter in Rome during this period, Alpheus and Arethusa from perhaps slightly later, around 1690, includes a similar group of figures. Diana is again in the clouds, and passing clouds down to hide Arethusa from Alpheus. Oddly, the nymph is here fully dressed, and it is her pursuer who is nude.
Under their feet, and under the watching eyes of another river god and nymphs, the couple are starting to transform into rivulets of water, which combine and drop into a small pool, which joins a larger river at the far right.
Antoine Coypel was French, and remains far better-known today. His slightly later Alpheus Chasing Arethusa, probably from about 1710, oddly omits Diana. Arethusa, still carrying her bow, is just about to be caught by a faun-like Alpheus, as she passes another river god. In the background, two other nymphs look on in surprise.
A century passed before this myth was told again in a major narrative painting, this time by John Martin, whose large work showing Belshazzar’s Feast was lauded when shown in 1821.
Martin’s Alpheus and Arethusa (1832) is a powerful work in which the story is depicted in figures so tiny that they could easily be overlooked, were it not for the pale pink flesh of Arethusa. Martin later went on to paint apocalyptic visions such as The Great Day of His Wrath (c 1853), and to be lambasted by the criticism of John Ruskin.
Both the paintings by Maratta and Garzi are fine and faithful accounts of Ovid’s highly indirect narrative. They might also tempt me to look for their other works, to see if there are any hidden gems among them.
The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.