Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Siren with a hidden tomb: Parthenope

The Odious Women Tour: The origins of Naples trace back to an odious woman – the siren, Parthenope. Greek colonizers landed on the Campania shores around the eighth century B.C. and first founded the acropolis town of Cuma. From there, they ventured down to the Bay where they settled in a city they named Parthenope. Soon, they founded an additional city attached to Parthenope, which they called Neapolis or the New City.

From a purely mythological standpoint, Homer’s character Odysseus sailed through much of the boot of Italy, and perhaps sailed north, where he passed Parthenope along the island of Nisida. Of course, I'd like to claim this legend since I live in Naples.

Interestingly, the sirens were portrayed in Greek vases as birds with human faces. The Roman writer, Ovid, codified this idea when he wrote that the sirens were companions to Persephone. When she was abducted by Hades, the sirens couldn't find her and begged to have wings. Demeter granted their wish, giving them sticks for legs, wings, and yet let them retain their female faces and human voice.

But beyond the legends -- could Parthenope have been a real person? Strabo (63/64 B.C. – 24 A.D.), the traveling Greek historian and geographer, mentioned that the tomb of Parthenope existed near Neapolis and a torch race was held every year in her honor. Could this tomb still lie somewhere beneath the city?

Today, a sliver of the ancient Greek foundations can be visited in Piazza Bellini. Perhaps Parthenope lies close by:

Or perhaps she lies along the street Neapolitans named after her -- the Via Parthenope:

Or perhaps she lies beneath the Castel dell'Ovo and her ghost knows the location of Virgil's Egg. While the castle we see today was built by the Normans, the Greeks from Cuma settled first along this small island:

Interestingly, the Italian word ‘Sirena’ today does not mean siren or bird, but ‘mermaid’ – a creature of the sea.

1 comment:

Espresso said...

Specific city...