Gateway to the Classics: Children of the Dawn by Elsie Finnimore Buckley
Children of the Dawn by  Elsie Finnimore Buckley

The Flight of Arethusa

M ANY, many hundred years ago a small band of colonists set sail from Corinth to found for themselves a new home and a new city in the far-away west. With a song upon their lips, the sailors bent to their oars.

"Heave ho! Heave ho!" they sang, "for the three-cornered isle of the west! Heave ho! for the fountain that fails not, and the whispering willow-trees! Heave ho! for the waters that are wedded with the waters of our own native land!"

Then, as the breeze filled their sails, they pulled in their oars, and looked back for the last time at the home they were leaving for ever. Proudly between two seas did the rock of Corinth raise her head, encircled with a diadem of walls and towers. With tears in their eyes they watched her sink, and soon all around them was nothing but the waste of the grey sea waves. Thus did they leave the old land for the new with joy and sorrow, hope and fear in their hearts, and sailed away to the west, to the land of their dreams, the three-cornered isle of which the oracle had spoken. For when Archias, their leader, had consulted the priestess at Delphi, she had answered,

"To Trinacria the god bids thee go, the three-cornered isle of the west. There on Ortygia, the sacred islet, shalt thou build thee a home, by the side of the fountain that fails not, Arethusa, whose waters are wedded with the waters of thine own native land."

So, in obedience to her words, Archias set sail with his little band. And they found Ortygia and the spring Arethusa in the shade of the whispering willows. There they planted the seed of that city, which grew to be the greatest in all Sicily and the mistress of the Mediterranean—Syracuse, proud Corinth's prouder daughter. For her sake many a battle has been fought and many a weary war been waged; for through long centuries men knew that whoever held the keys of Syracuse held the keys of power in their hands.

But what did the priestess mean when she bade Archias go to the isle whose waters were wedded with the waters of his own native land? And how came it that when he and his band reached Sicily they found there the flowers and the fruit of the home they had left, and streams that ran in and out of the limestone rocks like the streams of the Peloponnese? I will tell you.

Arethusa, around whose spring in Ortygia the whispering willows bent, was once a nymph, who dwelt in the Arcadian woodlands and followed Artemis the maiden huntress, over hill and over dale. Artemis loved her above all the other nymphs who were her handmaids, and as a sign of her favour she would let her carry her bow and her quiver full of darts. On many a hot summer's day did Arethusa and her companions bathe with their mistress in the cool deep mountain pools. Above their heads the great oaks of the forest spread their branches, and the grass beneath their feet was fresh and green. So long as they stayed by the side of their mistress the nymphs were safe from harm, for no god or goddess in all the land was so powerful as Artemis, and she knew how to protect her own.

So it came to pass that, because Arethusa had never known what fear was, she grew to think that there was no such thing, and one day she left her mistress and her comrades, and wandered forth alone through the woods. Her heart was gay and light, and she sang as she went. In the gloom of the forest she was like a ray of the sun, and on the bare hill-sides she was like a sparkling stream that leaves green grass and flowers wherever it passes. But she thought nothing of her beauty, nor feared any harm because of it. As soon would lily cease from growing, because it feared to be plucked for the sake of its fair sweet flower. So she wandered on happy and light-hearted on that bright summer's day.

At last she came to a broad river that barred her path. High up above her head the water fell leaping and roaring down the face of the rocks, while below the swift current hurried along through swirling eddies and foam. When she saw that she could go no farther, she sat down on a rock by the edge of a stream, and let the cool water play over her feet; then she bent down to fill her hand and drink. As she did so her heart stopped beating, and her limbs grew stiff and numb, and for the first time in her life she knew what fear was. For out of the waters before her there rose up what seemed a great billow of foam and spray, which stretched out a long arm towards her, and from the tips of five great fingers the drops fell cold upon her shoulders. With a cry, she drew herself together, and turned and fled; but she had seen the form of the river-god grow clear in the billow, with the water flowing down from his damp hair and beard, and the flash of his eyes like the flash of lighting in the midst of foam. It was Alpheus, the king of all the rivers of Peloponnese. He had seen Arethusa alone on the bank, and for love of her beauty he had risen from the depths of the stream and stretched out his arms to gather her to himself, and draw her down beneath the waves, to live with him and be his for ever. But she had been too quick for him, and now she fled before him as a deer flees before the hounds, whilst the fear that had numbed her at first now lent wings to her feet. Over hill and over dale she fled, swift as the rushing wind. Her bright locks flew out behind her, and as she leapt from rock to rock her white robes gleamed like the gleam of sunlit waters. Close behind her came Alpheus. The deafening roar of his flood sounded like thunder in her ears, and his misty breath blew cold upon her cheek. On and on she fled, with the swiftness and strength of despair, till at last she could go no farther; for before her stretched the blue waste of the cruel Ionian, and the spray of the waves stung her face, while behind her the floods of Alpheus rushed thundering down. Then she stretched forth her hands, and cried out to the Maid of the Sea,


On and on she fled, with the swiftness and strength of despair.

"O Dictynna, Dictynna, have mercy! In the name of great Artemis, whom thou lovest as I do, help me now."

The Maid of the Sea heard her cry, and wrapped her about in a mist, and her body and her limbs were unloosed and melted away, till she became a spring of fresh, pure water that bubbled and danced over the stones of the shore, and dived at last into the waves of the sea. But behind her the flood of Alpheus still rushed leaping and foaming. He had followed her over mountain and valley, and he followed her now through the ocean. Down through the white waves they dived into the depths of the sea, and passed like silvery currents of light through the green sleeping waters, on and on, through forests of seaweed, and over shell-strewn rocks, till they were stopped at last in their flight by the roots of the three-cornered isle. There, through the fissures and clefts, they forced their way up once more to the sunlight, and side by side they leapt down from the rocks and the crags—down towards the sea once again. But Arethusa fled no longer in terror, and her fear of Alpheus was gone; for he pursued her no more in a thundering, boisterous flood. Now he held out his strong white arms, and called to her gently and low—as gently as the waves call in summer as they dance to the shore.

"Arethusa, Arethusa, I love thee. Come, join thy waters with mine."

But she leapt away from him with a happy, mischievous laugh, and tossed back the spray from her hair, so that it fell on his cheek like a shower of kisses. Thus she leapt laughing, down over the rocks and crags towards the sea, knowing full well that he played with her, and that any moment he could make her his own. At last, as she hovered for a moment on the brink of the cliff, he caught her in his strong white arms, and together they dived once more into the salt sea waves, so that their waters were mingled, and for evermore they were one. And Arethusa showed her bright head again in the spring beneath the willows of Ortygia, which is called by her name to this day. From the time of her flight that spring never failed or grew dry, for from the snows of the mountains Alpheus flowed always to meet her, bringing coolness and plenty to the waters he loved. Men said, moreover, that if a cup were put into the stream of Alpheus in the Peloponnese it would find its way at last to the spring in Ortygia—which showed that the waters of Arethusa and Alpheus were wedded and blended together, so that they lived apart no more.

And that was the reason why Archias found in Sicily the flowers and the fruit of the land he had left; for Alpheus had borne their seeds in his stream from Peloponnese, and scattered them right and left as he sprang through the rocks, that the winds of heaven might sow them where they willed. To this day you will find in Sicily the olive and the vine, and the blushing flower of the almond, and the narcissus with its crown of gold, as you find them in Peloponnese; for is not the water that feeds their meadows one stream that joins two lands? And on the first coins of Syracuse you will find the head of the nymph Arethusa, with the fish swimming round about; for was it not by the side of her spring that the first stones of the city were laid, on the sacred isle of Ortygia, round which the sea-fish swam?

Thus did Arethusa flee in terror from Alpheus, to be wedded to him at last in a land across the sea.

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