2017-08-23 / Features

On the Road in Greece

The Remarkable History of the Alfeios River
By Catherine Tsounis

Alfeios river is at the site of ancient Olympia where the Olympic games were held. Photo by Despina Siolas, MD/Ph.D.
Alfeios river is at the site of ancient Olympia where the Olympic games were held. Photo by Despina Siolas, MD/Ph.D. A river that flows through Greece and emerges in Syracuse, Sicily, shaped western civilization. I followed the path of the Alfeios river in two trips through the Peloponnese and Sicily. Today, it does not appear vibrant in June. Weather changes since ancient times have reduced its height. Alfeios river is at the site of ancient Olympia where the Olympic games were held. If there was no Alfeios river, there would not have been an Olympia with its games. 2017 Games would not be called the Olympic Games. The ancients believed of a connection between the fountain of Arethousa, Syracuse and the Alfeios river. They explained it in the myth of Arethousa and Alpheus.


During an Arba Sicula (Sicilian Dawn) Society tour, Greek Mythology became alive in the The Alfeios River is the longest in the Peloponnese, rising near Dhavia in central Arcadia.
The Alfeios River is the longest in the Peloponnese, rising near Dhavia in central Arcadia. myth of Arethousa and Alpheus. The legend of the Arethousa fountain has its roots in the Peloponnese. It was first told by Ibycus in the 6th century B.C. Later, it was retold by Pindar, Strabo, Virgil and other ancient writers. Arethousa was a nymph of Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt. She was the daughter of Nereus and Doris. The name translated into English means swift water. One day during the hunt, Arethousa bathed in the river Alpheus. The river God fell instantly in love with her. He assumed human form to pursue her. Arethousa fled under the ocean to the isle of Ortigia (ancient Syracuse). Artemis transformed her into a stream as a means of protection. Alpheus followed and changed himself into a river, uniting with her.

The Alfeios flows along Olympia.
The Alfeios flows along Olympia. In ancient times, it was believed that the waters of the Alfeios River flowed beneath the sea from Greece and reappeared in the fresh water spring of Arethousa in the harbor of Syracuse. In reality, the Alfeios River is the longest in the Peloponnese, rising near Dhavia in central Arcadia. Leaving the plain of Megalópolis in a rugged gorge, above which it is known as the Elísson, the Alfeios turns abruptly northwest. It flows along Olympia and empties into the Ionian Sea. Olympia, a Unesco site, is located at a point where the Alfeios and Cladeus rivers meet. Wooded hills and farmland are in the surroundings. The ancient highway linking Patras and Kalamata runs along the Alfeios for most of its length east of Olympia.1

Water spring of Arethousa in the harbor of Syracuse, that ancients believed was connected with the Alfeios river.Water spring of Arethousa in the harbor of Syracuse, that ancients believed was connected with the Alfeios river.The head of Arethousa, surrounded by darting dolphins was the symbol of Syracuse. This image was imprinted on its coinage. The myth highlights the religious link between Syracuse and its mother city, Corinth of the Peloponnese. The present-day fountain is surrounded by papyrus and green vegetation. The Peloponnesian immigration from about 750 to 500 B.C. began the first mass exodus from Greece. Syracuse was one of the first prosperous colonies. According to Salvatore Furnari in his landmark book, Myths, Legends and Customs in Greek and Roman Sicily, “a legend or myth often hides a mysterious meaning, not appreciated by those who only read superficially.” Greek mythology shaped their history. The Alfeios river shaped the destinies of two civilizations alive today in Greece and Sicily, Italy.

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