Fountain of Arethusa - Atlas Obscura

Fountain of Arethusa

According to Greek mythology, this natural spring is the home of a freshwater nymph. 


Ortygia, or Ortigia, is a small island and the historical center of Syracuse, Sicily, known as the Città Vecchia (Old City). Now a picturesque hot spot for visitors, the island was once a natural fortress. 

Ortygia is steeped in Greek mythology. Artemis is the island’s patron goddess, and is considered a protectress of young girls and women giving birth. According to some legends, the goddess Leto also resided in Ortygia, where she gave birth to Artemis and Apollo. In one version of the story, Leto’s sister Asteria metamorphosed into a quail and threw herself into the sea, only to rise out of the waters and become the island itself.

Despite the island’s notable Greek goddesses, the most famous landmark of Ortygia is the Fountain of Arethusa. Arethusa was a nymph and follower of Artemis. After a hunt, she went to bathe in the clear waters of the river Alpheus. Certain she was alone, she took off her clothes to swim. The river suddenly began to ripple and bubble. Fearful of what was happening, Arethusa struggled to the bank for safety. The river Alpheus metamorphosed into a god before her, tempting her toward desire.

But Arethusa was a devotee of Artemis, who inspired a commitment to celibacy in her followers. Disturbed by Alpheus’ advances, she escaped and invoked Artemis for protection. Upon hearing Arethusa’s cry for help, Artemis enveloped the nymph in a thick cloud before transforming her into the freshwater spring. Alpheus, being a river god, was able to merge his waters with Arethusa’s fountain. The two bodies of water became eternally intertwined.

Sometimes you see bubbles emerging from the fountain, which according to local lore, is Alpheus returning to watch his beloved. The legend says that if you throw flowers into the Alpheus river in Greece, they will eventually flow to the Fonte Aretusa in Ortygia, Sicily.

The Fountain of Arethusa overlooks the Ionian Sea and can still be visited today.


Know Before You Go

Go early in the morning to avoid large crowds. 

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April 8, 2024

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