The name both of the largest river in Greece (in Boeotia) and of the river god. Achelous was said to be the son of Oceanus and Tethys, that is to say, of one of the most ancient couples known to Greek theogonies. He was regarded as the oldest of the three thousand river gods who were his brothers.

Different legends say that Achelous was the son either of Helios and Earth, or one of the sons of Poseidon (in these versions the river is called Phorbas). One day Achelous was fatally wounded by an arrow while crossing the river. He fell in and the river was later called after him.

Achelous is said to have had various affairs, first with Melpomene, by whom he was believed to have been the father of the Sirens, and then with some of the other Muses. He was also regarded as the father of several streams: of Pirene in Corinth, of Castalia at Delphi, and of Dirce in Thebes. Callirhoe ('the lovely spring') who married Alcmaeon was said to be his daughter, but no tradition records her mother's name (see Alcmaeon and Acarnan).

Achelous was closely involved in the cycle of the Labours of Heracles. As a neighbor of Oeneus, king of Calydon in Aetolia, he asked for the hand of Oeneus' daughter Deianeira. Being both god and river Achelous was endowed with the gift of assuming whatever shape he liked, such as that of a bull or a dragon, but Deianeira was not at all attracted by the idea of having such a disquieting husband and when Heracles presented himself to Oeneus' court, and asked for her hand she immediately accepted him. Nevertheless, Heracles had to win her by force from Achelous who did not lightly allow himself to be supplanted, and in the ensuing battle between the two claimants Achelous used all his resources and Heracles all his strength. In the course of the struggle Achelous turned himself into a bull and Heracles tore off one of his horns, at which point Achelous considered himself defeated, and surrendered. He conceded to Heracles the right to marry Deianeira but demanded the return of his horn. Heracles gave him back a horn of the she-goat Amalthea, the nurse of Zeus, who spread fruit and flowers far and wide. Other authors claimed that this miraculous horn belonged to Achelous himself.

The Echinades Islands, lying at the mouth of the river, were reputed to have been miraculously created by Achelous. While four nymphs of the country were sacrificing to the divinities on the river banks of the Achelous they omitted to indlude the god of the river himself and in his anger he caused the waters to rise and sweep them down into the sea where they became islands. The fifth island in the group, Perimele, was a girl whom the god loved and whose virginity he had taken by force. He father Hippodamas cast his daughter into the river as she was about to give birth to a child. In answer to her lover's prayers the girl was changed by Poseidon into an island.

The modern name of the Achelous, which flows into the Ionian Sea at the entrance to the gulf of Patras, is the Aspropotamo.


Table of Sources:
- Hesiod, Theog. 340; Macr. Sat. 5, 18, 10
- Serv. on Virgil Georg. 1, 8
- Joann. Malalas, Chron. 6, 164
- Prop. 2, 25, 33
- Ovid, Met. 8, 550ff.
- Hom. Il. 21, 194
- Apollod. Bibl. 1, 3, 4; 1, 7, 10; 3, 7, 5
- Apoll. Rhod. Arg. 4, 896
- Paus. 2, 2, 3; 10, 8, 5
- Euripides Bacch. 519
- Apollod. Bibl. 1, 8, 1
- Sophocles Trach. 9ff.
- Diod. Sic. 4, 35, 3ff.
- Dio Chrysostom 60
- Hyg. Fab. 31
- Ovid, Met. 8, 577ff.; 9, 1ff.

From Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (London, 1880)

ACHELO'US ('Achelphos), the god of the river Achelous which was the greatest, and according to tradition, the most ancient among the rivers of Greece. He with 3000 brother-rivers is described as a son of Oceanus and Thetys (Hes. Theog. 340), or of Oceanus and Gaea, or lastly of Helios and Gaea. (Natal. Com. vii. 2.) The origin of the river Achelous is thus described by Servius (ad Virg. Georg. i. 9; Aen. viii. 300) -. When Achelous on one occasion had lost his daughters, the Sirens, and in his grief invoked his mother Gaea, she received him to her bosom, and on the spot where she received him, she caused the river bearing his name to gush forth. Other accounts about the origin of the river and its name are given by Stephanus of Byzantium, Strabo (x. p. 450), and Plutarch. (De Flum. 22.) Achelous the god was a competitor with Heracles in the suit for Deïaneim, and fought with him for the bride. Achelous was conquered in the contest, but as he possessed the power of assuming various forms, he metamorphosed himself first into a serpent and then into a bull. But in this form too he was conquered by Heracles, and deprived of one of his horns, which however he recovered by giving up the horn of Amalthea. (Ov. Met. ix. 8, &c.; Apollod. i. 8. § 1, ii. 7. § 5.) Sophocles (Trachin. 9, &c.) makes Deïaneira relate these occurrences in a somewhat different manner. According to Ovid (Met. ix. 87), the Naiads changed the horn which Heracles took from Achelous into the horn of plenty. When Theseus returned home from the Calydonian chase he was invited and hospitably received by Achelous, who related to him in what manner he had created the islands called Echinades. (Ov. Met. viii. 547, &c.) The numerous wives and descendants of Achelous are spoken of in separate articles. Strabo (x. p. 458) proposes a very ingenious interpretation of the legends about Achelous, all of which according to him arose from the nature of the river itself. It resembled a bull's voice in the noise of the water; its windings and its reaches gave rise to the story about his forming himself into a serpent and about his horns ; the formation of islands at the mouth of the river requires no explanation. His conquest by Heracles lastly refers to the embankments by which Heracles confined the river to its bed and thus gained large tracts of land for cultivation, which are expressed by the horn of plenty. (Compare Voss, Mytholog. Briefe, lxxii.) Others derive the legends about Achelous from Egypt, and describe him as a second Nilus. But however this may be, he was from the earliest times considered to be a great divinity throughout Greece (Hom. Il. xxi. 194), and was invoked in prayers, sacrifices, on taking oaths, &c. (Ephorus ap. Macrob. v. 18), and the Dodonean Zeus usually added to each oracle he gave, the command to offer sacrifices to Achelous. (Ephonis, l. c.) This wide extent of the worship of Achelous also accounts for his being regarded as the representative of sweet water in general, that is, as the source of all nourishment. (Virg. Georg. i. 9, with the note of Voss.) The contest of Achelous with Heracles was represented on the throne of Amyclae (Paus. iii. 18. § 9), and in the treasury of the Megarians at Olympia there was a statue of him made by Dontas of cedar-wood and gold. (Paus. vi. 19. § 9.) On several coins of Acarnania the god is represented as a bull with the head of an old man. (Comp. Philostr.Imag. n. 4.)


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