IL MARE SOPRA / IL MARE SOTTOJuly 9, 2021
Why was Siracusa born here, in this corner of Sicily?
Certainly because of the fertile hinterland and the extraordinary natural harbour which in the words of Homer allowed you to land and set sail with no need for hawsers or cables, and because of the Anapo river which led towards the interior and the world of the Sikels. But it was also because of the fountain of Aretusa, a natural spring of sweet water which became one of the symbols of the ancient city; a symbolic place, so important it became a myth, an immaterial element that gave even greater lustre and nobility to the pòlis, tying the city with the threads of the story to the Greek motherland.
Who was Aretusa? She was a nymph, handmaiden of Artemis, loved by a young shepherd, Alpheus, but his love was not returned. He followed her day and night, full of desire for her, until his sentiment became a veritable torment for poor Aretusa who, tired of fleeing his unwanted attentions, begged Artemis for help.
“O radiant goddess, you who often gave me your bow, arrows and quiver to keep safe, do not abandon me! Save me from this rapacious sparrow-hawk that has almost caught me”.
Alpheus lost sight of her as she disappeared into a cloud sent by Artemis which hid her from his eyes, but he never ceased to look for her.
"This is how Cicero described it: “an incredibly large fountain, teeming with fish, it would be submerged by the waves if it weren’t protected from the water by a stone wall”
“Aretusa! Aretusa! My love, my delight, where are you hidden? Why do you spurn me? Can you not see with how much passion my heart calls to you?”
Once again Artemis intervened: Aretusa was transformed into water and flowed into a crevasse in the ground before reappearing as a spring in distant Sicily.
“Moved to tenderness for me, she opened up the earth and I flowed into that gentle fissure and disappeared. I travelled underground, I saw dark caverns and tunnels, and crossed the river of the underworld, the Styx. When I reached Sicily, I emerged to see the light of the sun once more.”
But Alpheus could not rest: he wept hot tears for his lost love, moving the gods to compassion. They transformed him into a river which disappeared underground in Greece to re-emerge, having crossed the Ionian Sea, next to his beloved Aretusa.
"Thus the sons of heaven transformed him into a river. He sank into the depths of the sea, driven by the ardour of his love for me, and wandered underground searching for me until, at last, he reached Siracusa. On the island of Ortigia he found me, and his waters mingled with mine. We are still there, Alpheus and I, and if you look closely you can see our timeless, tight embrace."
An ancient tradition tells of a cup thrown into the waters of the Alpheus river in Greece which reappeared in the Fountain of Aretusa, as proof of the physical link between Siracusa, the homeland and sacred Olympia where the river flows.
The waters of the spring actually come from the surface fissures of the Hyblean plateau, crossing layers of rock that are millions of years old. The rivulets gather to become ever bigger streams and run under the ancient houses of Ortigia and the timeless monuments before pouring into the Great Harbour.
Once the spring flowed straight out of the rocks that marked the eastern rim of the great bay, mixing its sweet waters almost immediately with the salty seawater. As the city was founded, it was surrounded by walls and this is how Cicero described it: “an incredibly large fountain, teeming with fish, it would be submerged by the waves if it weren’t protected from the water by a stone wall”.
That wall no longer exists. The waters have been channelled into a circular space, a bit like the eye of the island of Ortigia which watches the sky. However, if you look carefully on days when the sea is calm, you’ll see the sweet waters pouring into the harbour, almost floating and drawing shapes on the surface, before mixing with the salt water, denser, heavier.
In the pool, amongst the papyrus plants that grow there, silver-bellied mullets dart and dive, exactly as they did twothousand years ago when Cicero wrote, claiming that they were sacred to Artemis and therefore untouchable.
The ducks have also become part of the history of the fountain: clumsy as they strut around the stone perimeter path, agile and elegant once in the water, they are often cited by the locals and are now such an integral part of the scene that the nickname given to the place in Sicilian is Funtàna dde Pàpiri - the spring of the ducks.
The fountain of Aretusa is a place where myth, history and nature meet and mix, where in the shade of the walls that surround it, maidenhair fern grows and its tiny leaves recall the curls of the Greek girls who used to look into the pool.
It’s a fragile ecosystem, based on a delicate balance; there should be neither too much water, not too little, and the seawater must never invade the pool too much because it would damage the papyrus plants which grow there, causing them to die. The care and attention for the site has been assigned by the council of Siracusa to a company which guarantees access to the public.
Archeozoologo e paleontologo, laureato in scienze e specializzato in beni culturali. Studia il rapporto tra uomini e animali nelle società del passato come risorsa economica, alimentare, simbolo sociale e rituale. Avido lettore di storia e dei classici della letteratura greca e latina, ma anche di saggi di astrofisica e meccanica quantistica, vive perennemente in equilibrio tra il mondo dei numeri e quello delle lettere…e scrive per SiracusaCulture.
Collaborazione al testo di Valentina Corsale e Daria Di Giovanni.