Alpheus (deity)

Alpheus or Alpheios (/ælˈfiːəs/; Ancient Greek: Ἀλφειός, meaning "whitish"), was in Greek mythology a river (the modern Alfeios River) and river god.[1]

Picart alpheus arethusa
An engraving by Bernard Picart depicting a scene from Ovid's Metamorphoses in which Alpheus attempts to capture the nymph Arethusa.


Like most river gods, he is a son of Oceanus and Tethys.[2][3] Telegone, daughter of Pharis, bore his son, the king Orsilochus.[4] Through him, Alpheus was the grandfather of Diocles, and great-grandfather of a pair of soldiers, Crethon and Orsilochus, who were slain by Aeneas during the Trojan War.[5] The river god was also called the father of Melantheia who became the mother of Eirene by Poseidon.[6] In later accounts, Alpheus (Alphionis) was the father of Phoenissa, possible mother of Endymion by Zeus.[7]


La Ninfa Aretusa
La Ninfa Aretusa by Alexandre Crauk

According to Pausanias, Alpheus was a passionate hunter and fell in love with the nymph Arethusa, but she fled from him to the island of Ortygia near Syracuse, and metamorphosed herself into a well, after which Alpheus became a river, which flowing from the Peloponnese under the sea to Ortygia, there united its waters with those of the well Arethusa.[8][9] This story is related somewhat differently by the Roman writer Ovid: Arethusa, a beautiful nymph, once while bathing in the river Alfeios in Arcadia, was surprised and pursued by the river god; but the goddess Artemis took pity upon her and changed her into a well, which flowed under the earth to the island of Ortygia.[10][11][12][13][14][15]

According to other traditions, Artemis herself was the object of the love of Alpheus. Once, it is said, when pursued by him she fled to Letrini in Elis, and here she covered her face and those of her companions (nymphs) with mud, so that Alpheus could not discover or distinguish her, and was obliged to return.[16] This occasioned the building of a temple of Artemis Alphaea at Letrini. According to another version, the goddess fled to Ortygia, where she had likewise a temple under the name of Alphaea.[17] An allusion to Alpheius' love of Artemis is also contained in the fact that at Olympia the two divinities had one altar in common.[18][19]

In these accounts two or more distinct stories seem to be mixed up together, but they probably originated in the popular belief that there was a natural subterranean communication between the river Alpheios and the well Arethusa. It was believed that a cup thrown into the Alpheius would make its reappearance in the well Arethusa in Ortygia.[20][21][22] Plutarch gives an account which is altogether unconnected with those mentioned above.[23] According to him, Alpheius was a son of Helios, and killed his brother Cercaphus in a contest. Haunted by despair and the Erinyes he leapt into the river Nyctimus which afterwards received the name Alpheius.[1]

Alpheus was also the river which Heracles, in the fifth of his labours, rerouted in order to clean the filth from the Augean Stables in a single day, a task which had been presumed to be impossible.


Antoine Coypel - Alpheus chasing Arethusa

Alpheus chasing Arethusa by Antoine Coypel (18th-century)


Alpheus and Arethusa by René-Antoine Houasse

Story of Arethusa by Francesco Primaticcio, pen, ink, brush and washes

The Story of Arethusa by Francesco Primaticcio

Alpheus and Arethusa, Abraham Bloteling

Alpheus and Arethusa by Abraham Bloteling (between 1655 and 1690)

Alpheus and Arethusa - Roman School

Alpheus and Arethusa (Roman School, circa 1640)

Alpheus and Arethusa 01 - Carlo Maratta

Alpheus and Arethusa by Carlo Maratta (7th-century)

Alpheus and Arethusa

Alpheus and Arethusa by John Martin (1832)

Arethusa Chased by Alpheus LACMA 65.37.135

Arethusa Chased by Alpheus by Wilhelm Janson and Antonio Tempesta (1606)

Johann König - Alpheus und Arethusa

Alpheus and Arethusa by Johann König (probably 1610s)

Attributed to Luigi Garzi - Alpheus and Arethusa

Alpheus and Arethusa by Luigi Garzi

Paolo de Matteis - Alpheus and Arethusa

Alpheus and Arethusa by Paolo de Matteis (1710)

Roubaix piscine burthe arethuse et alphee

Aréthuse et Alphée by Léopold Burthe (1847)

Urbino, francesco x. avelli, tagliere con aretusa nascosta da diana in una nube, 1534


Scultore fiorentino, alfeo e aretusa, 1561-62

Scultore fiorentino, alfeo e aretusa, 1561-62

Alpheus and Arethusa MET DP248115

Alpheus and Arethusa by Battista di Domenico Lorenzi (1568–70)

See also


  1. ^ a b Schmitz, Leonhard (1867). "Alpheias". In William Smith (ed.). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. pp. 133–134. Archived from the original on 2008-06-13.
  2. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 338
  3. ^ Pindar, Nemean Odes i. 1
  4. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece 4.30.2
  5. ^ Homer, Iliad 5.45
  6. ^ Plutarch, Quaestiones Graecae, 19
  7. ^ Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 10.21-23
  8. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece v. 7. § 2
  9. ^ Comp. Scholiast on Pindar's Nemean Odes i. 3
  10. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses v. 572, &c.
  11. ^ Comp. Serv. ad Virg. Ecl. x. 4
  12. ^ Virgil, Aeneid iii. 694
  13. ^ Statius, Silvae i. 2, 203
  14. ^ Theb. i. 271, iv. 239
  15. ^ Lucian, Dialogi Marini 3
  16. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece vi. 22. § 5
  17. ^ Scholiast on Pindar's Pythian Odes ii. 12
  18. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece v. 14. § 5
  19. ^ Scholiast on Pindar's Olympian Odes v. 10
  20. ^ Strabo, Geographia vi. p. 270, viii. 343
  21. ^ Seneca the Younger, Naturales quaestiones iii. 26
  22. ^ Fulgent. Myth. iii. 12
  23. ^ Plutarch, de Fluv. 19

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSmith, William, ed. (1870). "Alpheias". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.

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