The nymphs in Greek public consciousness began as a deity figure whose power and recognition lay somewhere between that of an Olympian goddess and a mortal heroine. As will be explored further in this piece, the fluid image of the nymph changed drastically throughout history, seen initially as the helpful but mysterious nature-spirits, but then, over the span of hundreds of years, twisted into threatening and dangerous omens. Outlined below is a glimpse into the world of these wondrous beings, from their dwellings to their capabilities, from their funerary participation to their preferred demonstrations of devotion. Read on, and enter the world of these beautiful and elusive deities, but caution: as many believe that laying eyes upon these beings will curse the seer into perpetual madness and misfortune.
A Caution for Defining the Nymphs
The term ‘nymph’ originates from the Greek word numphi, which either refers to a minor female deity that inhabited the various locations in the wild, or, alternatively, to a sexually mature woman or bride. The diversity of this term may, therefore, pose the threat of ambiguity when studying ancient sources in search of the nymphs. There are, however, several hints that scholars have discerned in order to gain certainty that sources are discussing one type of numphi, or the other. For example, if the entity in question is described as the offspring of a god (commonly Zeus, Ge, or other river gods), it is likely that they are the ancient deity, rather than a young mortal woman. Another hint that may commonly prove useful, is by studying the suffix of the name of the woman in the story. Many mythological nymphs possessed a name ending in the suffix -rhoe, which is a Greek term that can be used to describe the movement of water, and therefore eludes to the presence of a water nymph.
Nymphs are depicted within vivid and untamed visions of nature, as opposed to domestic or urban spheres. The most common geographical landscape that Greek nymphs were, and arguably still are, associated with, is bodies of fresh water. They were often so closely tied with springs, rivers, and lakes that they may have been seen as personifications of them. Another reason for this association was likely due to the nymphs’ role of providing fresh water for surrounding communities. Due to their association with fresh water, nymphs were also frequently associated with the ability to heal and nurse individuals back to health.
Nymphs were also commonly associated with mountainous regions. In both ancient and modern Greece, it is customary not to define a mountain by its height or steepness, but rather by its opposition to a plain, or flat surface. In the most well-known world religions, mountains are viewed as religiously important more often than not, likely due to their physical increased height, and close proximity to the heavens. In ancient Greek religion, it was common for mountains to be viewed as the meeting place of gods and mortals, and therefore a location where the rigid laws of society, such as gender roles, or class distinctions, may undergo a reversal, or even a complete breakdown.
Lastly, nymphs were also commonly associated with caves, especially those that were located on mountains, and near lakes, springs or rivers. Throughout Greek mythology, caves have often been presented as deity birthplaces, places of intercourse, or even the location where a heroic infant is first born and exposed to the world.
As many know, due to the etymological descent of the Greek nymphs, they possessed a sensual and even overtly sexual aura which was specific to their own divine species, save for one exceptionally stimulating and steamy famous goddess: Aphrodite. Since ancient Greek and Roman societies often treasured modesty and chastity, it is fascinating to consider the striking similarities between these nature deities, and one of the most famous goddesses of the entire Olympian pantheon. Jennifer Larson, author of Greek Nymph, Myth, Cult, Lore, suggests that these similarities are due to the fact that both divinities are worshiped in nature, often in ‘gardens, and the fertile, moist parts of the landscape were associated with female anatomy in a metaphor that is probably universal,’ (Larson, 2001, p. 12).
Although the residences of nymphs are sometimes described as unruly, or naturally wild, the language used to describe them, as well as the archaeological record, reveals that there was also comfort and pleasantness associated with them. They were described as cool and airy, often with furniture-like rock surfaces, and frequently a dance floor for the nymphs themselves. The residences are also described as having two entrances, one of which was intended to be used for the mortals, and the other of which was to be used by gods and goddesses.
These environments were not only special due to their divergence from usual worship localities, but also because their location was dictated, first and foremost, by nature. Oftentimes, the trek to and through the nymphs’ abodes may have been treacherous, therefore meaning that the effort one displayed to connect with the deities made the voyage into a religiously significant pilgrimage. Despite the potentially difficult journey to the area of nymph worship, the nymphs’ residences themselves remained a peaceful and welcoming oasis, not only demonstrated by accounts of the experience of worshippers, but also by welcome inscriptions that have been found near caves, such as the one below.
“Welcome visitors, every male and female,
men and women, boys and girls,
to a place holy to the Nymphs and Pan and Hermes,
lord Apollo and Herakles and his companions [fern.],
the cave of Chiron, and of Asklepios and Hygeia.
Theirs is the pace, and all the sacred things in it,
growing things and tablets and dedications and many gifts.
The Nymphs made Pantalkes a gendeman
they who walk these places; and made him overseer.
He tended these plants and shaped things with his hands
and in return they gave abundance for all his days.
Herakles gave him strength, excellence and power
with which he smote the stones and made a way up.
Apollo and his son Hermes give
health and prosperous living through the whole age;
Pan gave laughter and good cheer and righteous unrestraint;
Chiron gave him to be wise and a poet.
but go up with good fortunes. Let all sacrifice,
pray, and enjoy yourselves. Forgetfulness of all cares
is here, and a share of good things, and victory in strife.”
(Pantalkes, 4th century, cave inscription, Connor)
The earliest known discussion of the nymphs’ lifespan is in a Hesiodic fragment from the eighth century before the common era. This fragment states that, even though they are members of the Greek divine pantheon, they do not possess absolute immortality. Since nymphs are inextricably tangled with their surroundings, many believed that because springs could dry up, and trees could die, the lives of nymphs could come to an end as well. In this fragment, Hesiod vaguely outlines their lifespans, in a way that only makes clear the fact that nymphs are, in fact, capable of death:
“A chattering crow lives out nine generations of mature men, but a stag’s life is four times a crow’s, and a raven’s life makes three stags old while the phoenix outlives nine ravens. But we, the rich-haired nymphs, daughters of aigis-bearing Zeus, outlive ten phoenixes.”
(Hesiod, 8th century, Fragment 304, Larson)
Nymphs are also mentioned by Homer, who wrote the detailed account entitled Hymn to Aphrodite. This account discusses the death of a nymph when the tree that she is associated with dies, which ties nymphs and nature even more inextricably close together. This description of a simultaneous death is highly reminiscent of female tree spirits, which were well-recognized among various early pre-historic Indoeuropean groups, which may be a testament to how old the idea of a nature deity, such as a nymph, may actually be.
Greek nymphs were believed to possess powers of divination and were even described as prophetic or oracular. Evidence of their accuracy or precision with regards to consultations is scarce, and many scholars believe that visitations for the purpose of prophecy were made by those who could not afford a consultation with more well-known oracles, such as Apollo.
The nymphs were also believed by some to be capable of bestowing certain powers upon mortals. A state described as ‘nympholepsy’ refers to the ‘heightening of awareness and elevated verbal skills believed to result from the nymphs’ influence on a susceptible individual,’ (Larson, 2001, p. 16). This person, or nympholept, would be in a state that some described as ‘madness’, but was not necessarily so unstable that surrounding individuals thought psychological assistance or support would be required. In other words, at this time, this state was somewhat desirable and was seen as a symbol of extreme worship of the power of the nymphs’, as well as their resulting recognition of this devotion.
Along with their supernatural powers, the nymphs possessed skills that rendered them useful in the maternal sphere on a deified level. They were often known to participate in caring for young infants and children, as well as those approaching adulthood, and therefore the stage at which a Greek citizen was to make themselves into a utility of the state: either a warrior or a wife. Most famously, nymphs were recognized as having helped to nurture several Olympian gods when they were young, such as Zeus, Dionysus, and Aineias.
In Homer’s book 6 of the Bad, Eetion, the heroic father of Andromache, is killed by Achilles, and his body is then burned and buried. The mountain nymphs, feeling sorrow for the passing of this great man, are said by Homer to have planted elm trees all around the grave as a symbol of respect and renewal.
The theme of nymphatic commemoration of the dead through the installation of new trees or flowers is commonly recreated, such as in the funerary epigrams in honour of Homer and Hesiod, written by Alcaeus of Messene. These epigrams create a vision of the nymphs as having direct physical contact with the bodies of Homer and Hesiod, and as being their primary mourners.
“In the shady grove of Lokris, the nymphs washed the body of Hesiod from their own springs, and heaped up his grave.”
(Alcaeus of Messene, 3rd century, Anth. Pal. 7.55. 1-3, Larson)
Vehicles for Worship
We have an idea of how nymphs were typically worshiped from both votive reliefs as well as written accounts. ‘Votive reliefs that depict cave sanctuaries usually include an altar, either a carved block of stone, or a rustic pile of small boulders. Literary evidence suggests that other furnishings, such as seats or beds, might have been provided, or that natural formations were viewed as furnishings,’ (Larson, 2001, p. 231).
Worshippers were often depicted with raised arms, likely in reverent gestures intended to warmly greet the nymphs upon entering their abode. Offerings were often made by devotees, usually in the form of perishable food and drink items such as fruit, animal parts, milk, oil, water and wine. Animal sacrifices were also made, most frequently inside the caves of the nymphs, to act as a material demonstration of their devotion.
Signet Worship Rings
At the Korykian cave, a huge number of signet rings have been found, demonstrating that they may have had some kind of symbolic authority. The rings that were found were made of bronze or lead, meaning that they were more cheaply made than if they had been made of gold, which adds to the theory that the nymphs were visited by individuals of a lower socioeconomic status than those who would have visited more well-known oracles. The rings show a wide range of iconography, however most of these depictions had little to do with the nymphs themselves, so it is thought that it was the dedications of the rings that pleased the nymphs, as opposed to the manufacturing of them with one particular group of nymphs in mind.
Adding to this theory is the name of the nymphs at Sphragidion -referred to as the Sphragitic nymphs. This category of deity derives from the word sphragis, which means seal, or signet ring. It is widely believed that these rings were used to imprint on documents in order to guarantee their genuineness.
Other than perishable items and the signet rings discussed above, dedications of other types were also customarily made to the Greek nymphs. An anonymous epigram communicates clearly that xesmata, or carved images, were dedicated to the nymphs. We also become aware from several paintings that dolls and doll-like votives were left in water basins at the residences of the nymphs, likened by Larson to how modern readers may throw coins into ponds or wishing wells. One particular famous painting of Athena depicts her washing one of the water basins, at the bottom of which several doll-votives lay.
Nymphs and Mortal Men
It is clear from the etymological nature of the term ‘nymph’, which, as discussed above, eludes to the sexual maturity of a maiden or bride, that these beings held some sort of sexual significance. The nymphs were seen as sexually desirable, but ‘free of the familial restrictions applied to mortal women and could therefore rarely be fully domesticated,’ (Larson, 2001, p. 5).
Mythology suggests, such as in Homer’s Iliad, that nymphs were capable of pursuing sexual relationships with mortal men. They were generally depicted as the sexual aggressor in these scenarios, which could sometimes be viewed as dangerous, such as in the cases of Daphnis, who was said to have been turned to stone by a jealous nymph. There is no evidence of how common this was believed to have taken place, however, Kalypso, a character in the Odyssey, states that relationships of this nature were often frowned upon by the gods. This was potentially due to the power imbalance between a female deity and a mortal man, or, a sign of his failure to marry a Greek woman and produce the typical family that would have been economically and militaristically useful for Greek society. In the majority of cases where the nymphs bore children to mortal men, the offspring were male, and therefore could not inherit their mothers’ status of nymph even if they were able. Despite this, nymphatic offspring were often heavily associated with topography in the same way that their mothers were.
Another reason that men may have hesitated to engage in these affairs may have been due to the nymphs’ elevated status, and their resulting immunity to punishment or violence. In other words, their hypersexual or suggestive acts could not be regulated by Greek society in the same way that mortal women would have been monitored. In a similar way, Greek nymphs, due both to their supernatural powers and their elusiveness, were not vulnerable to the violence or threats of mortal men like mortal Greek female citizens would have been. These factors propose an interesting theoretical glimpse into what may occur when gendered power dynamics are reversed. When the male power is no longer the infallible common denominator of Greek relationships, the affair was viewed as unstable, dangerous and was frowned upon. What may not be considered is the fact that ordinary relationships where men held power and could make threats of violence at any time were equally as ‘dangerous’ and ‘unstable’ for women, yet these relationships were still considered the norm that all females were expected to engage in.
On the other hand, however, nymphatic sexual encounters with mortal men also benefitted one significant area of society. Well-known nymphs were often included in genealogies as the earliest ancestor, which not only tied Greek families together as residents entitled to citizenship, but also provided descendants with an infallible claim to both the land on which the nymph is said to live, as well as all of its resources.
During the Hellenistic period, as the population grew more urbanised and elite, an increase in the pastoral genre of literature and art was tangible, likely because it provided an escape for city residents who felt disconnected from or overwhelmed by their surroundings. Some have even proposed that these reasons are also why the nymphs, who symbolised nature, were so popular among individuals in a city setting.
Most well-known for literature of this genre is Theocritus, who was one of the first individuals to gather rural themes and motifs into a distinct genre. Apollonius’ poem ‘Argonautica’ is an important piece belonging to this genre, and is highly instrumental in understanding the themes that would commonly pertain to nymphs. The poem includes local genealogies, as well as the erotic abduction of Hylas by the nymphs, depicted in the image above. Literature of this kind also brought the technique of pathetic fallacy into the forefront of poetry, a method which consisted of the portrayal of nature as sharing a wide emotional range with humans.
In modern Western connotations of the word ‘nymph’, there are many complicating factors that may both confuse, as well as illuminate certain aspects of the original Greek nymph. For example, the term ‘nymphomaniac’ is an archaic term for an individual who suffers from a sexual drive that is considered abnormally high. This family of words has perhaps been taken from the term ‘nymphet’, which was coined by Vladimir Nabokov in his novel ‘Lolita’. Nabokov used this term to reference a young girl who was considered overly sexually precocious or suggestive. The term ‘nymph’ can also refer to an immature insect having not yet completed metamorphosis, which may have been etymologically derived from the ancient connotations of youth, and having one’s whole life ahead of them.
Belief in the mythological nymphs persists in Greek consciousness even into modernity. In the 3rd century of the common era, a renewed interest in nymphs moved to the forefront. However, the ways that important themes regarding the nymphs are viewed undergoes a subtle but important shift. Nympholepsy is no longer interpreted as a desired, or even accepted madness, but rather as a dangerous attack that would inevitably surpass the boundaries of normalcy. ‘In the postclassical period, possession by the nymphs began to be seen as an abnormal and dangerous state hardly distinguishable from illness, and this idea is the direct precursor of the dear, prominent in modern Greek folklore, of being beaten or stricken by the nymphs,’ (Larson, 2001, p. 16). It is not completely known why this shift took place, but it is widely thought that the shift occurred during the Byzantine period, during the influx of Christianity. During the enlightenment, this ‘possession’ begins to be associated with pathological states that caused isolation, stigma, and even perpetual illness.
There is a figure in more modern Greek mythology known as the nerdides, which is comparable to the nymph. The nerdides are a group belonging to the larger category known as ‘exotica’, a term which also houses goblins and vampires. The influence of Christian Orthodoxy is visible in this category as well, since these beings are believed to exist alongside saints, angels, and demons. The nerdida, which becomes almost synonymous with the modern nymph, seems to embody darkness with the same intensity to which the Classical and Hellenistic nymph embodied light. Although the nerdida still occupies the form of a young and beautiful woman, she is said to be allied with the devil and causes misfortune, disease and even death. She is also believed to haunt springs, caves, and mountains in a similar, but juxtaposed way that the ancient nymphs would create cool and pleasant sanctuaries out of these very same surroundings. After her slow, multi-century-long shift from the nymph to the nerdida, this once beautiful and mystical figure became an omen: an apparition so strongly ominous that upon a single glance, one could descend perpetually into madness.
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Hylas Saint-Romain-en Gal, 3rd century BCE, Vassil [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/44/Hylas_Saint-Romain-en_Gal_07_2011.jpg
Satyr and Nymphe, Miguel Hermoso, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia, Commonshttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b3/S%C3%A1tiro_y_ninfa..JPG
A Fluvial Goddess, Nevit Dilmen, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commonshttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/Antep_1250564.jpg
Marble Votive Tablet of the Three Nymphs, Scroch, [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commonshttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/64/Marble_votive_tablet_of_the_Three_nymphs.jpg
Votive Relief, Konstantinos Stampoulis [CC BY-SA 3.0 gr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/gr/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8a/AGMA_Votive_Relief_7303.jpg
Nymph of Athens, G.dallorto (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/3374_-_Athens_-_Sto%C3%A0_of_Attalus_-_Nymph_-_Photo_by_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto%2C_Nov_9_2009.jpg
Statue of Aphrodite [marble sculpture], (2nd century BCE), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.
Hermes of Praxiteles (340-330 BC), Dennis Jarvis, retrieved from Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/archer10/2215739519/in/photolist-4nNfav-8xVfj9-9EAFyi-4n85t4-a9V4zj-3bn9tb-9FVWQN-JZXPFt-3hVR7j-4n85Rt-jGpQrz-3bn7fY-3fZ8Bt-4UgzmH-3hPSF4-5dXUyq-7WPG7K-9EDE8N-7WTN4y-3hQJxB-3bhDT2-3bn8ow-9EAM3t-a9SgLF-4gNtyq-5WAWcG-fFCvLw-HSXWK-9Fwu1X-86dqLQ-c4RkTG-9LkCow-62XDnz-2HC4uY-4cv4sL-9EDC11-i94RzL-qfQ78-8xVgE9-6nSJDr-5a3kCV-dTQ5j7-3gJRrz-6ezzox-8KGGV4-7WPTAz-9EBFyr-9FT1qP-9EDLah-9EDxcA/
Dionysus and a Nymph [Glass Cameo], (1st century BCE – 3rd century CE), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.
Pierre-Auguste Cot (1873), Springtime [oil painting], Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.
Flausa123 (2012), The Korykian Cave [photograph], Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACorykian_Cave%2C_interior_aspect_from_cave_entrance.JPG