James Reuel Smith.

Springs and wells in Greek and Roman literature, their legends and locations online

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tempted ambush by the suitors, returns to Ithaca. 36

3 1 Odyssey, II. 241.

3 2 Odyssey; IV. 421.
a Odyssey; IV. 471.

34 Odyssey; IV. 486.

35 Odyssey; IV. 896.

36 Odyssey; XV. 33.


Island of Ithaca

Going at once to Eumaeus' cottage Telemachus there 37
meets his father who is changed back to his own form for
recognition, and then retransformed into the beggar, in 38
whose shape, and still unknown to the swineherd, he sets
out with the latter for the palace, and walking along; —

Now pass't the rugged road, they journey down
The caverned way descending to the town,
Where, from the rock, with liquid drop distils
A limpid fount; that spread in parting rills ™
Its current thence to serve the city brings ;
An useful work, adorned by ancient kings.
Neritus, Ithacus, Polyctor, there,
In sculptured stone immortalized their care,
In marble urns received it from above,


And shaded with a green surrourding grove;
Where silver alders, in high arches twined,
Drink the cool stream, and tremble to the wind.
Beneath, sequester'd to the nymphs, s seen
A mossy altar, deep embowered in green;
Where constant vows by travelers are paid,
And holy horrors solemnize the shade.

At this fountain Eumseus prefaces a prayer with an
invocation to the; —

Daughters of Jove! who from the ethereal bowers
Descend to swell the springs, and feed the flowers! 40
Nymphs of this fountain! to whose sacred names
Our rural victims mount in blazing flames !
To whom Ulysses' piety preferred
The yearly firstlings of his flock and herd ; —

and concludes with a supplication for the return of
Ulysses. (See No. 410.)

3 7 Odyssey; XVI. n.

38 Odyssey; XVI. 186 & 476.

39 Odyssey; XVII. 233-
*° Odyssey; XVII. 284.


Unnamed Springs

The numerous other Springs that are accessory to
Homer's stories are the useful but humble and nameless
fountains of palace and cottage and wilderness, Springs
that served as wells or drinking places, and furnished the
water for washing, and, more important still, in the days
when bathing had neither begun to rank with holiness
nor to be considered a hygienic necessity, supplied the
beverage for the daily meals and, often, wassail for enter-
tainment and the formal feast before wine had almost
usurped the function of water on such occasions.


There are nearly two score of references to such
Springs, and they are made in a form that, while varying
slightly in the wording in each instance, might be indi-
cated in a general way by the following three couplets; —

A golden ewer the attendant damsel brings,
Replete with water from the crystal Springs. 41

He spoke, and bid the attendant handmaid bring
The purest water of the living Spring. 42

Grim as voracious wolves, that seek the Springs
When scalding thirst their burning bowels wrings. «

The possibility is suggested in No. 280 that one of these
numerous unnamed Springs may have been a favorite of
Penelope's. It played a prominent and rollicking part
in a humorous incident that occurred while the feet of
Ulysses, as a tramp, were being washed by his old nurse
Euryclea. She, during this bath, penetrated the disguise
of enchantment and surprised Penelope with the news
that the king had returned.

The remaining Springs, the many classic fountains that
Homer mentions, are far from Troy, and, having, with the
exception of Arethusa, no connection with the siege or
with the wanderings, they are alluded to under their own
names, elsewhere herein.

4 1 Odyssey; XV. 149.
4* Iliad; XXIV. 388.
43 Iliad; XVI. 206.



Virgil seems to see little but the useful side of Springs
and, when not under the kindly influence of Theocritus,
becomes not only blind to their beauties but even un-
mindful of their existence.

In the final book of the ^Eneid many pages are devoted
to incidents filled with the personality of Juturna, exactly
as his predecessor devoted a scene to Niobe in the last
book of the Iliad. Both of these characters became Springs
that continue today to be objects of marked interest ; but,
while Homer in his passages does not fail to paint an
affecting picture of Niobe's mountain Fount,

"Her own sad monument of woe,"

Virgil makes not the slightest reference to the Spring of
Juturna which he might have seen every day when he
lived on the Esquiline hill at Rome where it was, as it
continues to be, one of the most attractive relics in the

This slight is all the more noticeable because of Ju-
turna' s prominence in the beginnings of Rome, she having
been, according to some assumers, the foster aunt of
Romulus the progenitor of the empire.

In Virgil's version, however, the Romans owe a debt
to Fate for foiling the efforts of Juturna in Turnus' fight 1



with ^Eneas, and the existence of Rome lay on the knees
of the gods while this valiant and active ally of Juno
flitted about the field of the contest; it was "To be, or
not to be," with the nebula of the Empire until Juturna
was finally foiled and JEneas triumphed. Had she
succeeded in her desperate efforts to save her brother,
and brought about the Trojan's death, the star of the
Empire would not have been formed ; there would have
been no Roman history, and the pages and volumes now
filled with that subject would have contained the records
of another nation, with a catalogue of different names
and with accounts of acts and incidents perhaps un-
dreamed of by makers of history and inventors of valor-
ous deeds.

x iEneid; XII. In. 467.


Bucolics. Hylas

Even while Virgil, singing his Songs of Shepherds,
wandered through the Bucolics in the footsteps of
Theocritus he hardly gave more than a passing glance at
the fountains that his Sicilian leader loved to linger over
with fond admiration and delightful description; thus the
Spring of Hylas (which bubbled so bountifully that it
overflowed line after line while Theocritus, absorbed in 2
admiration, described its most minute details, naming its
ferns and flowers and noting their colors) barely dripped
its name and then went dry as Virgil passed it, unob-
servantly and roused to nothing softer than "the sailors' 3
cries for Hylas, left behind them at the fountain." The
stylus of the Poet of Arms was unsuited for the delicate
delineations the Sicilian's so readily traced, and the other


half dozen mentions of Springs in the Bucolics might be 4
given in full in the same number of lines; —

Tityrus, the very fountains anxiously called for you.
Here among sacred fountains you shall enjoy the cool shade.

1 have let boars loose on my crystal Springs.

Strew the ground with leaves ye shepherds; form a shade over the

You mossy fountains, and grass more soft than sleep.
Cover with verdant shade the Springs.
Here are cool fountains; here, Lycoris, soft meads, here a grove.

Dancing nymphs and mild-eyed she-goats; piping 5
shepherds and softly lowing calves, attend the fountains
of Theocritus, rather than the roiling boars that Virgil
lets loose upon his crystal Springs.

And where Virgil disfigures his fountains with leaves,
Theocritus shades them with murmuring pines and
sheltering trees twined with dark ivy. He surrounds
them with fragrant vines and flowers, and hairy humming
bees, and sweet- voiced birds; he brightens them with
beds of silvery, shining pebbles, and sometimes he places
a milk-white heifer's skin near at hand to make a couch's
cover for the indolent and drowsy. He even starts an
epicure's parotid by sybaritically sweetening one of his
Springs with golden honey, so that the least thirsty
skimmer, not heeding the lack of a couple of long oaten
straws, can taste the confection with no more of effort
than is needed to look at the lines. Small wonder Theo-
critus cared as little for summer heats as lovers do for
parents' words!

2 Theocritus; XIII. 39.

3 Bucolics; Eel. VI. 43.
•» Bucolics; —

I. 4-'. 54- II. 58. V. 39. VII. 43. IX. 22. X. 41.
s Theocritus; Idylls;—

I.i. III. 3. VII. 136. IX. 9. XI. 46. XXII. 35. XXV. 31.
Theocritus; Epigrams; IV.


Georgics. Castalia. Peneus. Clitumnus

In the Georgics, where Virgil announces that he has
unsealed the sacred Springs (of poesy) and will tread an
unused track about Castalia, whence a poet's praises of
these fascinating features of Nature's beauty might be
looked for expectantly, Springs are mainly considered
merely as factors in farming, being recommended as an 6
ingredient in five agricultural recipes ; as a ; —

requisite for the feeding ground of flocks;
test for sourness in soils ;
means of fattening horses;
cure for insomnia in cattle ;

necessity for the neighborhood of bee-hives and
violet beds.

Avernus is referred to, not once only but twice.

And then, at the end of the treatise, a part of the story
of the lover of Eurydice is introduced and opens with
Aristasus hastening to the sacred source of the river
Peneus. But, instead of being treated to glimpses of a 7
Thessalian fountain in the open air, Aristasus and the
expectant reader are wearily wafted to a far distant place,
where, in a dark, distressingly noisy, humid, subaqueous
cavern, they are expected to see the source, not only of
Peneus, but, of all the rivers gliding under the great
earth. A little more gloom, and a few more discomforts
added to this uncanny cavern, and it might have vied in
fearsome features with awesome Avernus itself in the
heyday of its horrors.

Clitumnus, Virgil mentions but once, and then only in 8
connection with the color of the cattle that pasture by its
waters; yet, because of its remarkable size and clarity, it


has always been such a fascinating feature of Um-
brian scenery that noted and busy people have made
long journeys to see it; and Pliny, who left a lengthy
eulogism of this Spring, was so enchanted with it that
he earnestly advised his friends not to fail to pay it a

6 Georgics; —

II. 199. 247. HI- US. 532. IV. 18.

7 Georgics; IV. 318.

8 Georgics; II. 146.


The ^Eneid. Arethusa. Timavus. Eridanus.
Numicus. Silvia's Fawn Spring

For the entire story of the ^Eneid, Virgil required but
two Springs; one a fictitious fountain in Libya; and the
other, a real feature, Avernus, in Italy, with which he
connects the source of the Cocytus River. Incidentally
he names the Springs of Arethusa, Timavus, Eridanus,
Numicus, and an unlocated and undescribed Spring in
which Silvia bathes a tame stag.

Virgil describes the Eridanus as rising in Elysium, the
realms of joy, on the charming lawns of which were the
mansions of the Blest, who dwelt in the ultra violet ray, or
at least in a buoyant atmosphere of purple light, with a
private sun and stars of their own.

In this delightful realm Eridanus appeared, in a fra-
grant grove of laurel from which, on upper earth, it welled
forth in mighty volume through the wood.

Under the river Po, which is the offspring of this foun-
tain, further mention is made of Eridanus in the light of
modern description.

When it is added that ^Eneas swears one oath by foun- 9


tains in general, a full concordance of the Springs of the
JEneid is completed.

9iEneid; XII. 179-


The Libyan Spring

Virgil, unlike Homer, was not a creator of Springs, and
this manufactured fountain, the first to appear in the
epic, is found without surprise to be little more than a
diminutive, cold, cheerless and colorless copy of Homer's
cave Spring of Phorcys in the island of Ithaca.

^Eneas with seven ships, instead of the nine that
Ulysses last commanded, arrived in the neighborhood of
Carthage where he was to meet with the Dido of a single
charm, instead of with a versatile enchantress such as
Homer gave to Ulysses in Calypso; and, in searching for
an anchorage, ^Eneas finds ' ' a place of shelter in a deep
retiring bay where an island forms a harbor by its pro-
jecting sides, against which every wave from the ocean
is broken up. On either side there rise huge rocks over-
hung with a dark grove, and, beneath the brow of the
cliffs and facing the bay, theie is a grotto of pendant
rocks within which there is a Spring of sweet water and 10
seats of natural stone — the home of the nymphs."

I0 iEneid; I. 169.


The second of the only two Springs connected with the
story of the ^Eneid is this real one of Avernus.

Although Virgil resided for a time at Rome, looking


very likely for local color for some of the scenes of the
^Eneid, he wrote the epic in the neighborhood of Naples,
among environments that might have been readily de-
duced had mention of them been lacking in the history
of the Poet-Magician's life; for the one Spring that
appears to have made more than a passing impression
upon Virgil is the Spring, or, rather, federation of foun-
tains that forms the little lake Avernus which nestles in
the hills a few miles from the city of Naples, and nearer
still to the place where the epic was penned.

And just as one seems to see the persistence of the
pleasing image of the cavern Spring of Homer's study
den in Smyrna in all of his fontal fancies, so one finds
Avernus recurring in Virgil again and again in place of the
more cheerful fontlets that gush so beguilingly in Homer's
pictuie poetry.

Avernus has been a lake from the infancy of Fable, and
its associations with dread and the terrors of the lower
regions seem therefore somewhat unreasonable. But
Science, with a thousand eyes seeing farther back than
Fable could remember, descries in the basin of the lake
the crater of a violent volcano that may have made, in
prememorial ages, as many night-like days and spread as
many fiery horrors as Vesuvius, twenty miles away has
often done in History's time. Inference then, relying on
Science's sight, easily accounts for early beliefs in the
marvelous beings, the Cimmerians — the People of Night
— who lived near the portals of Homer's hell and were
transferred to Avernus without any satisfactory warrant ;
and for Hecate's undesirable residence in the neighbor-
hood of Avernus.'

It might, however, be added that a local historian,
Ephorus, writing about 408 B.C., says that the name was
given to the servants of an oracle near Avernus, because


they were not permitted to see the sun; they were obliged
to remain underground during the day and went abroad
only at night.

But before the time of Agrippa, about the year 37 of
Christian chronology, the vicinage had been deserted by
one terror after another until it had become merely a
densely wooded and darksome place, and it ceased to be
even that when the forests had been thinned by Agiippa,
who also cut a channel from the sea and made the lake a
naval basin.

The lake is a symmetrical, circular body of water about
half a mile across and with a maximum depth of a few
feet more than two hundred. It is kerbed with a solid
stone wall and provided with a little two foot wide stone
canal through which the overflow runs in a swift moving
current of four inches' depth down to the sea on a three
and a half foot lower level.

Towards the sea, on the side where the outlet is, about
one sixth of the circumference of the crater is missing
clear down to the level of the lake, giving an outline not
unlike that of the partly pillaged Colosseum at Rome.
The remainder of the cone, some two hundred feet high,
is terraced and cultivated, and a half dozen houses and a
castle-like ruin cling around this ancient throat of hell, as
though Pluto had suddenly paused while devouring a
partly chewed settlement.

Modern birds fly over the lake with impunity, and fish

swim in its waters ; but for some reason the natives do not

drink the water of the lake, and the fish that they catch

in it are kept, for a time before they are eaten, in the

Lucrine Lake that made the oyster famous, and which is

within a quarter of a mile of Avernus, and a half mile

from the sea.

Today one might search long and far before finding a


water source with surroundings less suggestive of hell
than anything now connected with this smooth, silent,
symmetrical, peaceful, and partially sedge-surfaced
Spring, that is bordered with wildflowers and gay with
their colors in the months of the year when Springs, that
are nourished in cradles less likely to rock out or burn
up their contents, are smothered with snows.

The fumes of former times have lost their vigor and
volume, and a small collection of meager jets of slightly
sulfuretted steam, escaping through the ground a few
miles away, are all that remain to remind one of the
supposedly dense mass of noxious vapor that once
poisoned the overhanging air and, by making its neighbor-
hood birdless, gave the lake its name.

Nowadays a bad smell or an injurious gas is such a
rarity in this neighborhood that the few remaining
sulphur Springs, and one exit of carbonic acid gas, are
carefully kept out of sight under lock and key, and are
only exhibited as curiosities for a quid pro quo ; and so the
jets of steam that now rise in a circumscribed space called
the Solfatara, a crater some two miles straight away from
the lake, are cherished as carefully as the last living speci-
mens of a perishing species of animal life. They are well
guarded and tariffed, these pretty, white spirals from the
fumaroles of the Solfatara, but with a small silver root,
instead of the golden branch required of JEneas, one may
wind about and wander among them without danger or

Besides these features, these little innocent and tenu-
ous whisps of steam, some extinct volcanic cones on
Ischia and the near-by islands, and the hill of Monte
Nuova that the forces below have, within five hundred
years, pushed upward through the crust of the ground,
there is scarcely aught to help to visualize the subter-


ranean commotions in this locality in past ages — the
traditions of which commotions perhaps gave Virgil, St.
John, and Dante and others inspiration for the portrayal
of far distantly located disturbances — and they might
now be forgotten but for the Apocalypses and the Poems,
and the stories connecting those compositions with the
ebullitions of the earth around Avernus.

While Virgil uses the same names that Homer did in his
geography of the Infernal Regions, he does not follow him
in locating the entrance to the Nether World; it being
evident from the course of Ulysses' vessel that he landed
at an entrance very far from this Avernus — Ulysses
himself never knew where it was, for when he tried to
find out he was told, by the power he questioned, that it
was not necessary for him to know, as the ship would sail
there of its own accord.

Virgil, possibly to avoid the somewhat ridiculous im-
pression of a soused and dripping hero, constructed a
cave, on the shore of Avernus, for Eneas' entrance; this 11
cave was near the Cumaean Rock, over which, and the
Lake and its groves, Hecate had appointed a Sibyl to
preside as her priestess.

This Sibyl having told JEneas that the way to Avernus
was easy if he first procured a certain golden branch
from one of the myriad trees in the grove, he secured it
through the guidance of two pigeons, though more appro-
priate pilots might possibly have been provided for those
birdless precincts ; they flew slowly before him to the edge
of the lake and alighted on a shady holm above the only
bright spot in all the gloomy woods, the needed golden
branch which tinkled in a gentle breeze and kindly gave a
guiding sound. Armed with this branch, ^Eneas passed
into the deep and hideous cave whose yawning mouth
was set upon Avernus* shingly shore and whose tunnel-


like path led to the Tartarian Lake, Acheron, of which
Avernus was an overflow. At the side of this path a
horrid Spring, a seething eddy, turbid and impure, boiled 1 2
up with mire in a vast abyss and supplied the river
Cocytus over which, on seeing the golden branch, Charon
ferried the bearer with pole and sail, in a boat that, accus-
tomed only to cargoes of impalpable shades, promptly
sprang a leak when it felt the husky hero's weight. Land-
ing on the other side of the river Cocytus, ^Eneas mounted
the bank guarded by Cerberus and reached the region
that is imprisoned by the river Styx in a nine-fold circling
stream, and continued to where the road forked — to
Tartarus on the left, and to Elysium on the right.

To the left of this road, under a rock, ran Phlegethon, a
river of flaming torrents and roaring rocks, which sur-
rounded the court of Rhadamanthus, one of the three
judges of hell.

Further along ^Eneas came to a winding vale and a
lonely grove, and the River of Forgetfulness, Lethe, which
skirts the spacious, airy plains of Elysium. After a
thousand years' purgation the spirits there drank from
this river, forgot the past, and returned again to mortal
bodies on the earth.

The exit from this peculiar and impossible territory,
where rivers ran uphill and boats sailed over mud, was
through two gates, one of horn for true dreams, and one
of transparent ivory for false dreams.

Quite appropriately, ^Eneas left by the gate of false
visions and, very surprisingly, soon found himself again
in the vicinity of Avernus.

To this remarkable underground region, Virgil pro-
vided another entrance, somewhat in the nature of a
private way for the immediate members of Pluto's family,
which he describes as an awful cavern with pestilential


jaws and a vast whirlpool receiving its water, like Aver-
nus, from Acheron's overflow, and located where a roar-
ing noise is heard in a densely dark part of the valley of

Now, in the XXth century, the only feature near
Avernus that is openly suggestive of hell has been made
by man! It is a factory for the production of Armstrong
artillery, intended to injure the bodies and shorten the
lives of men, and it spreads over an extensive area of the
shore where formerly, in the meadows salted by the mild
Mediterranean, flocks of peaceful sheep were wont to
gambol and graze, and to grow gigots to pleasure the
palates and prolong the lives of humanity.

Today no prettier spots could be picked out to live in
than those to be seen from the lip of Avernus' slightly
marred vase, before which extends a curving coast form-
ing, as Florus said, delightful places of retirement, even 13
for the sea, and beautiful views of enchanting islands;
islands laden with legend and linked forever with the
classics of virgin literature; carvings, of the sea and the
storm, that are lovely either when the atmospherical
microscope of a moteless day shows their shapes with the
sharpness of a silhouette, or when their rosy hues are
softly powdered by impalpable puffs from Vesuvius and
they appear in their haze like fancy figured clouds float-
ing upon the sea, rather than solid bulks arising from its

Perhaps because of these beauties, as well as the place's
proximity to Avernus, Virgil located his Neapolitan villa
at the foot of Posilipo, a height on the coast that over-
looks every feature of the land and sea for many miles
around, and his last wish was that he might be laid to rest
on this hill.

He is said to have been in Greece in the year 19 B.C.,


the year of his death at the age of 52, and it is pleasant
to believe, though some have had the heart to doubt it,
that his last wish was lovingly fulfilled. But no one could
have selected a more dismal part of the prominence of
Posilipo than was chosen by those who located the Poet's
tomb, which is in an interior depression of the tufa hill,
and has to be reached through a tunnel from the outside,
or by interminable steps through a vineyard on the inside,
and from which absolutely nothing can be seen that
might interest even the most easily pleased spirit with a
bent for scenic beauties; and the view of Avernus that
Virgil perhaps wanted his spirit to have always in sight,
as indeed it might have had it, had the top of the hill been
adorned with the structure, is quite invisible from the
tomb, which is placed half a hundred yards below the
pinnacle of Posilipo.

Strangely enough, and suggestive either of retribution
or of the irony of Fate, it has come to pass that this poet,
who treated Springs with little better than contempt, is
lying through the sleep of eternity in a structure that has

Online LibraryJames Reuel SmithSprings and wells in Greek and Roman literature, their legends and locations → online text (page 35 of 46)