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File:280px-Picart alpheus arethusa.jpg

An engraving by Bernard Picart depicting Alpheios in his attempt to capture Arethusa.

Alpheios (Ancient Greek: Ἀλφειός) whose name means "whitish", was in Greek mythology a river (the modern Alpheios River) and river-god. The Alpheios had its headwaters in the south-eastern corner of Arkadia. It flowed the length of the country east into Elis, past Olympia where it emptied into the Ionian sea. Several of its tributories were also personified as river-gods namely Ladon, Erymanthos, Kladeos and Kytheros. Another personified Eleian river was the small Anigros to the south.


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Like most river-gods, he is a son of Oceanus and Tethys. Telegone, daughter of Pharis, bore his son, the king Orsilochus. Through him, Alpheios was the grandfather of Diocles, and great-grandfather of a pair of soldiers, Krethon and Orsilochus, whom were slain by Aeneas during the Trojan War.

According to Pausanias, Alpheios 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 Alpheios became a river, which flowing from Peloponnesus under the sea to Ortygia, there united its waters with those of the well Arethusa. This story is related somewhat differently by the Roman writer Ovid: Arethusa, a beautiful nymph, once while bathing in the river Alpheios in Arkadia, 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.

According to yet other traditions, Artemis herself was the object of the love of Alpheios. 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 Alpheius could not discover or distinguish her, and was obliged to return. 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. An allusion to Alpheios' love for Artemis is also contained in the fact that at Olympia the two divinities had one altar in common.

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 Alpheios would make its reappearance in the well Arethusa in Ortygia. Plutarch gives an account which is altogether unconnected with those mentioned above. According to him, Alpheios was a son of Helios, and killed his brother Cercaphus in a contest. Haunted by despair and the Erinyes he leaped into the river Nyctimus which afterwards received the name Alpheios.

Alpheios was also the river which Herakles, in the fifth of his labors, re-routed in order to clean the filth from the Augean Stables in a single day, a task which had been presumed to be impossible.