Nymphs in Greek Myth

 

SophieAndersonTheHeadOfANymph

Head of a Nymph. Sophia Anderson. Source: public domain.

1. Introduction

In Classical and Greek mythology nymphs were members of a large group of mythological entities of divinities always seen in terms of myth as anthropomorphic nymphe or young women. A nymph was thus perceived as a nubile young woman who expressed female sexuality beyond the boundaries of the mythical. During the 19th century, particularly, artistic portrayal of nymphs often concentrated on the abandoned sexuality of these spirits who personified and animated the natural and the wild. Some Victorian era paintings often tended towards a voyeuristic or mildly pornographic ambience on the basis of the popular concept of the nymph.

The word nymph means bride or veiled which implies they were possessed of marriageable maidenhood. As beautiful women they were regarded as spirits of nature in human form, as dancers, musicians, as well as companions or targets of satyrs.

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Nymphs and Satyr (1873).  William Adolphe Bougereau.  Source: public domain.

Although not necessarily immortal nymphs had prophetic powers and were often, though not always, of a friendly disposition towards humans. This is shown by nymphs often being servants of the greater deities, as the rejected lovers of those gods, or the spouses of the heroes.

Greek nymphs are chthonic demi-goddesses who not only personify nature but are regularly associated with the wild. They inhabit rivers, springs, woods, groves, fields, caves, mountains and valleys which illustrates they are bound to particular places, landforms or locations. They preside over fountains, sacred wells and fresh water. In the sense they are connected with specific locales nymphs resemble the Latin genius loci.

Some nymphs are the mythical  daughters or paramours of the gods, indeed some were part of the god’s entourage, including association with superior deities such as Pan, Hermes, Dionysus, and the goddess Artemis. This indicates that nymphs and belief in them is rotted in ancient fertility ritual, being the personification of natural phenomena.

Some types of nymph function within specialised parameters where they foster their powers, which include the Naiads of water and springs; the Dryads and Hamadryads of the trees and woods; as well as the Oceanids of the seas. Some nymphs, apart from being the lovers and mothers of the gods and mythic heroes, through which such relationships they became associated with cults, including the satyrs.

It is possible that many nymphs remain as echoes in the later development of fairies within European folklore. This in legend and folktale mat been reflected in stories of enhanced longevity, immortality and super-human abilities.

Classifications of nymphs, which are not exhaustive, are usually derived from female adjectives, including land nymphs, wood nymphs and water nymphs. Other groups of nymphs encompass the underworld Lampades; the Stygians of Hades; the Nephelae of the clouds. A list would also include the Alseids; Aulouriads; Crinaeae; the Hesperides; the Meline; Oreads; Pegaeae; the Napaeae; and some include also the Muses.

2. The Nymphaeum

The Nymphaeum or nymphaion in the ancient Greek world was a monument or shrine consecrated originally to water nymphs. It was often a rural cave, grove or natural grotto with no architectural decoration.

Nymphaeum

The Nymphaeum (1878).  William Bougereau. Source: public domain.

Nymphs were originally, as demi-goddesses, the guardian spirits of the sources of water. Original nymphaeums were believed associated with and inhabited by nymphs of streams, springs and sacred wells. Several classical Greek sites claimed healing and oracular powers and were associated with baths. A nymphaeum on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland was dedicated to the local water nymph or Goddess called Coventina.

Later nymphaeums were improved with fountains, temples, plants and flowers where they functioned as sanctuaries and sacred reservoirs. Therefore natural grottoes were replaced by artificial architectural shrines. A later Hellenistic nymphaeum was the Great Nymphaeum at Ephesus.

Ephesus

The Great Nymphaeum at Ephesus.  Source: public domain.

3. Water Nymphs

The water nymphs. known as Hydriades or Ephyhydriades, are divided into three main groups. These are the Haliae of the sea and seashore and comprise the daughters of Nereus, known as Nereids.  Secondly, the Naiads or Naides of freshwaters, and the Oceanids who were the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys of normally salt water. The Naiads comprise the Crinaeae of fountains, the Elionomae of the wetlands, the Limnades or Limnatides of lakes, the Pegaeae of springs and the Potameides of rivers. The Heleads were the nymphs of the fens.

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The Water Nymph (1923).  John Collier.  Source: public domain.

Sea nymph

A Sea Nymph.  Luis Ricard Falero (1851-1896).

The Nereides or Nereids are the fifty mermaid daughters of Nereus (The Old Man of the Sea) and Doris for which reason they are also known as Dorids or ‘wet ones’. They were originally a college of moon-priestesses who officiated at magical rituals connected with fishing. They were thus animistic nymphs or priestesses of the sea who accompanied Poseidon as attendants. As female spirits of the waters they were awarded guardianship of the oceans by the gods  and aided sailors in storms. As Mediterannean nymphs the Nereids were associated with the Aegean Sea where they lived in a deep silver cave with their father Nereus.

Nereids La Lyre

The Nereids , by Adolphe La Lye.

The Nereids were also the kind and beneficent attendants of Thetis or Tethys the ‘disposer’ who was the wife of Pelues as well as mother of Galatea and Achilles. The fifty nymphs include Amphitrite (the wife of Poseidon), other well known ones include Actaea, Arethusa, Asia, Beroe, Clymene, Galatea, Doris, and Euridyce.

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Acis and Galatea (1877).  Edouard Zier.  Public domain.

Galatea was a sea-nymph or Nereid  of the Acis River in Sicily whose name means ‘she who is milk white’.

The Naiads or Naiades are animistic elemental spirits or nymphs of freshwater, of the liquid element. Etymologically the derivation of their name means ‘to flow’ or ‘running water’. These nymphs, who are distinct from the river gods, are minor deities as the daughters of the river gods. As ancient spirits of marshes, still waters, lakes, ponds and wells they are also associated with rivers, freshwater streams, fountains, and brooks where they are often the object of sacred local cults.

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The Naiads (1881). Gioacchino Pagliei.  Source: public domain.

There are five types of Naiad including the: Pegaiai or nymphs of springs; the Krinaia or nymphs of fountains; the Potameides being the nymphs of streams and rivers; the Limnades, Limnatides, or Limnads who are the nymphs of lakes, marshes and swamps, regarded as dangerous because they can mislead and lure travellers into danger by their songs; and the Eleionomai who are the nymphs of marshes.

Waterhouse_Hylas_and_the_Nymphs_Manchester_Art_Gallery_1896_15

Hylas and the Nymphs (1896).  John Waterhouse. Source: public domain.

Many Naiads are associated with dances with Artemis who has twenty of them as companions. In this sense Naiads are viewed as deities of sacred rites and marriage who, though having longevity, are not immortal and have known tendencies towards jealousy. In addition the Naiads are regarded as having a ‘fostering’ role with regard to Zeus, Poseidon and Dionysos, as well as Demeter, Aphrodite and Persephone.

Rae

Hylas and the Water Nymphs.  Henrietta Rae (1859-1928).  Public domain.

Many sites of ritual sacrifice are regarded as sacred waters having magical and healing properties. Naiads or water nymphs are indeed associated with particular springs, especially oracles situated near sacred springs, throughout Europe in ancient times. Sacred wells were common amongst the Celts.

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The River Nymph.  Frederick Lord Leighton (1830-1896).

The Anigrides are dryads of the Angridus River in Elis. Their grotto is located at the river where, as healing nymphs, their baths are visited by people with skin diseases. Similarly the Amnisiades are the nymphs of the river called Amisus in Crete. As priestesses or devotees of the goddess Artemis they tend her sacred deer.

The Haliai or Haliades were nymphs of the sea and also attendants of Dionysus. The Haliai were also known in Latin as the Nymphae Marini and Nymphae pelagi as well as the Einalii  Thalassi. They were portrayed as beautiful maidens seen riding the waves on the backs of Hippokampoi (fish-tailed horses) or Ketea (sea monsters) and dolphins. The largest group of sea nymphs were the Oceanids, Okeanids or Oceaneirai, and the daughters of Oceanus and the Titaness Tethys. Also deities of rivers they numbered 3000 in total. As deities of the sea they were made the guardians of the oceans. One such was Amphitrite the wife of Poseidon (Neptune).

JacobdeGheynII-NeptuneandAmphitrite

Neptune and Amphitrite.  Jacob de Gheyn (1565-1629).

Each Oceanid was a patroness of a specific ocean, sea, river, spring, pond, lake, pasture, flower, or cloud. Those who were designated as the nymphs of streams and fountains were: Prymno meaning ‘like a cascade which falls over an abrupt height’ an obvious reference to a waterfall; Hipppo meaning ‘like a swift current’; Plexaure or ‘like a dashing brook’; Galaxaure or ‘like the refreshing coolness of a shady stream’; Kalypso (Calypso) the rescuer of Odysseus, meaning ‘like a hidden tide’; Rhodeia

calypso

Kalypso (1869).  Karl Lehman. Public domain.

meaning ‘flowing among rose trees’; Kallirhoe or ‘like a beautiful stream’; Melolosis or ‘like a river that waters the meadows; and Telesto the ‘nymph of the cool springs’. Well known Oceanids are Acaste; Admete; Asia; Callirhoe; Metis; Nemesis; Ceto; Dione; Doris; Europe; Eurynome; Tyche; and Ianthe.

4. Wood Nymphs

Wood and plant nymphs include the flower deities called the Anthonaie and the Hyeloroi or ‘Watchers of the Woods’. The best known group are the Dryads of the trees as well as the Hamadryads or Hadryades. The Dryads or Alseids are forest wood nymphs and are the hunting companions of the goddess Artemis, who is a friend to all nymphs.

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Dryad.  Evelyn de Morgan.  Public domain.

The Dryads are reputed to enjoy cavorting with the gods Pan, Apollo, and Hermes, as the nymphs of wooded valleys, groves, woods and trees. Originally Dryads were the nymphs of oak trees. In Greek the word drys means ‘oak’ and is derived from the Indo-European for ‘tree’ or ‘wood’. Hamadryades or Hydryades are specifically the nymphs who live in oak trees and die when the tree dies or is killed. This reflects the fact that from birth a Hamadryad is bonded to a particular type of tree.

The differentiation made between Dryads and Hamadryads is an academic and scholarly one. No such distinction was made, or existed in the popular imagination. Of the Hamadryad group the Daphanaeae are the nymphs of the laurel tree. The apple tree nymphs are the Epimeliades or Epimeliades. who were also the protectors of sheep, and also known as Meliades, the Maliades who live in fruit trees, the Hamameliades, as well as the pastoral Boucolai.

hamadryad 

A Hamadryad.  John Waterhouse.  Public domain.

In addition the ivy nymphs are the Kissiae and the Meliae the nymphs of the ash tree and daughters of Uranus and Gaia. The Leuce are the nymphs of the white poplar. Individually named Hamadryads and specific trees include: Aigeiros of the black poplar; Ampelos of the vine; Balanos of the oak; Karya of the walnut or hazelnut; Kraneia of the dogwood; Morea and the mulberry; Ptelea of the elm; and Syke and the fig tree. All eight of these tree nymphs were the daughters of Oxylus and Hamadryas.;

5. Land Nymphs

Three groups of interest are the Oreads or nymphs of mountains and grottoes, along with the Alseides of groves and glens, and the Hesperides. Lesser groups are the Auloniades of the pastures, the Leimakides or Leimonides of the meadows, and the Napaeae in the glens and the mountains who are usually found in the company of Pan. Their name derives from ‘nape’ which in Greek means ‘dell’ and are found in mountain vales where herds graze. One of their favourites was Eurydike, or Euridice, who was mourned by her sisters and sung by Orpheus.

The Hesperides are usually considered to be the daughters of Atlas and Hesperis whereas other accounts say they were the daughters of Nyx and Erebus. Other genealogies have them the offspring of Atlas and Aethra, or Plione, of of Phorcos and Ceto. Even that they are the daughters of Hesperus the God of the Evening Star, and son of Atlas. As the Evening Star he is the Latin Vesper and personification of the evening.

Hesperides Leighton

The Garden of the Hesperides (1892).  Frederic Lord Leighton.  Public domain.

The Hesperides are the African sisters of the Atlantides as well as called the Western Maidens, the Daughters of Evening, the Daughters of Night, and the Sunset Goddesses. Their names vary from a group of three to seven. The initial three are Eritheia or Erytheis, Aegle, and Hesperia or Hespere. Added to these in other accounts are Arethusa, Lipara, Asterope, and Chrysothemis. Aegle means ‘dazzling light’ and Hespere is also known as Hespereusa. When the Argonauts came they were changed to poplar trees.

The Hesperides were nymphs who, along with the dragon Ladon, guarded Hera’s Tree of Golden Apples in the blissful orchard or Garden of the Hesperides. The orchard, which was possible a grove of immortality, was given to Hera by Mother Earth. Hence the Golden Apples were Hera’s Apples. The Gardens of the Hesperides were reputed to be in the western reaches of the world, on the shores of the Western Ocean, near the Atlas Mountains in Libya.

Inn the mythology of the ancient Greeks an Oread or Orestiad was a mountain nymph, who also lived in ravines and valleys. They were associated with the hunting Artemis in the mountains. Etymologically the root is from ‘opoc’ or ‘mountain’. Their variability depends upon where they live.

Many Oreads are name after specific mountain localities, hence the Peliads or Peliades of Mount Pelion, the Kithaeronian from Kitheraeon, and the Idaean or Idaeae of Mount Ida. The Kitheraeronian were also known as the Cithaeronides or Sphagitides. The nymph Echo was also found upon Mount Cithaeron.

The Idaeae of Mount Ida in Crete include the nymphs called Adrasteia, Ida, Helike, and Cynosura. Cyllene or Kyllene was the nymph of Mount Cyllene. Nomia inhabited Mount Nomia in Aracadia, and Sinae on Mount Sinae, also in Arcadia. Othreus was to be found on Mount Othrys in Malis, and Claea was on the Messenian Mount Calathion. Daphnis was the mountain nymph on Mount Parnassus. Britomartis, also known as the mountain nymph Dichtyanna, was a Cretan goddess regarded as the ‘Mother of Mountains’. A well known nymph was Echo.

Echo was a mountain nymph or Oread in the mythology of ancient Greece who was one of Zeus’s paramours. The goddess Hera suspicious of her husband’s consorting with Echo and the mountain nymphs made her mute in punishment.

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The Nymph Echo (1887).  Alexander Cabanel.  Public domain.

Echo was a daughter of the Titaness called Gaia who was thus condemned by Hera to repeating the words of others. Other versions describe her as a dancer and singer who was torn to pieces by follwers of Pan for being disdainful of the love of men. In another version she loved in unrequitedly the vain youth called Narcissus.

Other mountain nymphs are the Nyseides or Nysiades of Mount Nysa. These deities nurtured the young Dionysos and were called Cisseis, Nysa, Erato, Eripha, Brome, and Polyhymno.

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Nymphs of Nysa.  Julius LeBlanc Stewart (1855-1919).

6. Celestial Nymphs

These nymphs consisted of two major groups known as the Heliades, the Hyades, and the Pleiades. Also among their number were the lesser groups. These were called the Auriae or ‘breezes’ and also known as Aetae or Pnoae, also the Asteriae or ‘stars’ who included the daughters of Atlas known as the Atlantides, and the Nephele or ‘clouds’.

 The Heliades  or Heliadai were the offspring of Helios the sun goad and the Oceanid nymph called Clymene and Rhodos. Known as the ‘Children of the Sun’ the best well known were the sisters of Phaeton, the son of Clymene. These sisters were called Aregle, Aetheria, and Aegiate. Others often included in the list are Dioxippe, Helia, Merope, Phoebe, Phaethoura, and Lampetia. Among the children of Rhodos is often noted Electryone. It was the pity of the gods that had them turned into poplar trees and their tears to amber.

Of debated parentage they are the daughters of either of the Oceanid nymphs Pleione or Aethra. As daughters of Atlas and Aethra they are the sisters of the Pleiades. They are also sisters of the Hesperides. In some versions of the myth they are the sisters of Hyas. They are reputed to be the mentors and nurses of Dionysus which equates them with the Nysiads. Therefore they are also associated with other nurses of Dionysus such as the Lamides, the Dodonides, and the nymph Naxos.

The root of their name is the term for ‘rain’ hence their role as a sisterhood of ‘Rainy Ones’ who bring rain. They number in myth from three to fifteen or more. Robert Graves gives Ambrosia, Eudora, Aesyle, Eidothea, Althea. Adraste, Philia, Coronis, Cleis, Phaesyle, Cleia, Phaeo, Pedile, Polyxo, Phyto, Thyene, Macris, Nysa, Erato, Brome, and Dione. Other names in further sources also name Phaeote for Phaeo, Baccho, Cardia, Pytho, Niseis, Thyone, and Prodice.

hyades stars

The Hyades V-shaped star cluster.  Public domain.

Because of their mourning for Hyas they were changed into stars by the gods as the Hyades in the head of Taurus.

7. The Pleiades

The Pleiades are the seven daughters of the Oceanid or sea nymph called Pleione and the titan Atlas. Their name  is most likely derived from the word plein meaning ‘to sail’. Pleione means ‘heavenly queen’ which explains why the Pleiades are referred to as ‘the sailing ones’. Pleione was the protectress of sailing.

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Pleione as an Oceanid Nymph.  Gustav Dore.  Public domain.

Zeus, Ares, and Poseidon numbered among the Olympian deities who consorted with the Pleiades and produced many offspring. The maritime connotation of the ‘seven heavenly sisters’ is derived from the Mediterranean summer sailing season in antiquity. The Pleiades is a small but conspicuous cluster of stars in the constellation of Taurus. The constellation was known to the ancient Greeks, early Hebrews and Egyptians.

Pleiades

The Pleiades.  Source: public domain.

The Pleiades were the sisters of the Hyades and often referred to as the ‘time keepers of the night’, the ‘seven stars’, the ‘seven virgins’, or by Hesiod as the ‘Atlas born’. Together with the Atlantidides, the Dodonides, or Nysiades, were the mentors and nurses to the infant Bacchus. They are also known as ‘the weepers’. This epithet implies they weep always for the plight of their father holding up the world, or for their sisters the Hyades.

They were relentlessly pursued by Orion for seven years. For their grief Zeus metamorphosed them into stars, their catasterism, and placed them in the firmament. Seven in number and called Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra, Maia, Merope, Tayrete, and Sterope, they attended upon Artemis and served in her entourage.

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The Lost Pleiad (1884).  Bougereau

Maia was the eldest Pleiad, the mother of Hermes by Zeus, and whose name means ‘Mother’, or ‘nurse’. Alcyone (Alkyone) was the mother of Hyrieus by Poseidon, called the ‘Queen who wards off evil’, or storms. Electra, whose name means ‘Amber’, ‘shining’, or ‘bright’, was the mother of Dardanus and Iason by Zeus. Celaino meaning ‘swarthy’ was the mother of Lycus and Eurypylus by Poseidon. Taygeta the ‘long-necked’ was the mother of Lacedaemon by Zeus. Merope the ‘eloquent’, the ‘mortal’, or the ‘bee eater’, was wooed by Orion but married Sisyphus. Sterope of Asterope was the ‘lightening’, the ‘twinkling’, or ‘sun-face’, and was the mother of Oenomaus by Ares.

8.  Other nymphs

The Lampades are nymphs of the Underworld and the companions of Hecate who carry torches on her night time wanderings,  hauntings and visitations. Hecate was the goddess in Greek mythology who was deity of crossroads and witchcraft. These nymphs were a present from Zeus in recognition of Hecate’s loyalty to the Titanomachy and were believd to be the daughters of a number of Underworld gods.

The Lamusidean nymphs were nurses of Dionysus as daughters of Lamus. It was Hermes who rescued the infant Dionysus from them. The Dodanides or Dododaean nymphs were those who nurtured the infant Zeus with an acient oracle of Zeus at Dodona. The Thriai were the bee-nymphs who raised Apollo and employed honey to make prophesies.

References and sources cited

Coleman, J. A.  (2007).  The Dictionary of Mythology.  Arcturus Publishing. London.

Cotterell, A. ed.  (1999). Encyclopaedia of World Mythology.  Paragon, Bath.

Dijkstra, B.  (1986).  Idols of Perversity. OUP, Oxford.

Graves, R.  (1979).  The Greek Myths.  Vols 1 & 2.  Penguin.

Grimal, P.  (1996). Dictionary of Classical Mythology.  Blackwell, Oxford.

Leach. M. ed.  (1972).  Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend.  Funk & Wagnalls, New York.

Leeming, D.  (2005).  The Oxford Companion to World Mythology.  OUP, New York.

McKillop, J.  (1989).  Who’s Who in Mythology.  Bonanza Books, New York.

Price, S. & Kearns, E.  (2003).  The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth & Religion.  OUP, Oxford.

Shapiro, M. S. & Hendricks, R. A.  (1981).  A Dictionary of Mythologies.  Granada, London.

Smith, W.  (1873).  Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.  London.

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