According to myth, Naples traces its origins back to a siren named Parthenope born on the hilltop of Pizzofalcone. 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 letting them retain their female faces and human voices. Interestingly, the Italian word sirena today does not mean siren or bird, but “mermaid” – a creature of the sea.
Beyond the legends and linguistics – 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.
After Greek colonizers founded Cuma, they ventured down to the Bay of Naples where they settled in a city, which they named “Parthenope.” Soon, they founded an additional city attached to Parthenope, which they called Neapolis or the New City. Could Parthenope have been buried somewhere among the Greek foundations of 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 Partenope. Another possible location is the Castel dell’Ovo and so her ghost would know the location of Virgil’s Egg. While the castle we see today was built by the Normans, the Greeks from Cuma first settled this small island.
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.
Places To See: You can take an entire day to search for Parthenope in the city of Naples. First, walk behind Piazza del Plebiscito up Via Gennaro Serra and take a left on Via Egiziaca a Pizzofalcone. Walk up a steep hill and you’ll see the Pizzofalcone rock. There’s also a fine view of Naples.
Return to Piazza del Plebiscito and make your way down to the sea to walk along Via Partenope. Along this way, you’ll see the Castel dell’Ovo. You can also walk along the promenade and find the Villa Communale, a public park, at the end of this street.
Next, make your way to the historical center of Naples, passing Piazza Dante and going up Via Port’Alba (with its clutch of booksellers) until you reach Piazza Bellini and the ancient Greek foundations.
Finally, if you have a car, drive to Via Coroglio and take a stroll at the island of Nisida.