From seductive sirens who lured sailors to their death to mad scientists who conducted experiments on their servants, the ghosts of Naples are ever present in the modern city.
NAPLES—Naples has been my city of escape and refuge for much of the 22 years I have lived in Italy. I rarely send people to Naples without me. I’d rather take them myself to make sure they aren’t distracted by the pandemonium or sidetracked trying to figure out where Elena Ferrante lived.
Visiting Naples should instead be like going to see an old friend whose company you enjoy but whom you feel no obligation to constantly talk to. The cadence of its chaos is at once soothing and exhilarating. Neapolitan opera, architecture, and art are experiences unto themselves, as is the city’s struggle with the Camorra, as the local mafia is known, and the population’s perseverance both because of and in spite of it. But there is much more to this exotic city than its obvious charm.
It’s easy to just check off the extensive list of castles and royal palaces and feel that you have conquered the city. But the most alluring side of Naples is one you can’t see at all, in the ghosts that haunt many of its picturesque alleyways and open spaces.
One in particular is Parthenope, a seductive siren after which Naples is nicknamed. According to myths and legends, the volcanoes of southern Italy were created by Demeter, the goddess of harvest and earth’s fertility. She made them erupt with fire to help the sirens of the sea find their way after she granted them wings in a feeble attempt to locate her missing daughter Persephone, whom she birthed after a night of passion with Zeus, and who had been kidnapped by Pluto, king of the underworld. One of the Persephone’s sister sirens was Parthenope, a particularly seductive creature who still symbolizes the intersection between beauty, danger, attraction, and repulsion.
Parthenope and the other sirens used their seductive song to lure sailors to the coastal rocks where sea nymphs would then drown them. When the sea captain Ulysses, as depicted in Homer’s Odyssey, foiled the temptation of the siren’s sweet song by blocking his sailors’ ears with wax and tying himself to his ship’s mast, Parthenope killed herself in despair. Her body washed up on a tiny peninsula off what is now the city center called Megaride which is where romantics believe Naples was founded.
The 12th century Castel dell’Ovo (Castle of the Egg) now stands on the site where Parthenope’s body washed up, which is why the city’s nickname is Parthenope. The 12th Century castle is so named because the Roman poet Virgil is said to have buried an egg there as a tribute to the siren. If the egg were ever to break, the legend goes, the castle would crumble into ruins and Naples would be destroyed.
The castle (and Naples) is still standing, and the little outcropping still marks a perfect starting point to get acquainted with the city. There isn’t much to see inside, but the views from the panoramic terrace are the best vantage point to look at the Naples waterfront and skyline, or look out to Mt. Vesuvius, which often belches a threatening stream of smoke.