The Nereids: The Fifty Goddesses of the Sea
The Nereids were one of the many types of water Nymphs in Greek mythology. As the goddesses of the sea, they were especially important to the coastal communities, islands, and sailors of the ancient world.
The daughters of an ancient god, the fifty Nereids also occupied a place of honor as the sisters-in-law of the king of the seas.
Like all nymphs they enjoyed dancing and games, but were usually said to be more well-behaved and reasonable than their landlocked kin.
Some Nereids rose to power, others were more obscure, but as a group they held an important place in the Greek world.
The Nereids were named for being the daughters of Nereus, one of the ancient gods sometimes called the Old Man of the Sea.
Their father was the eldest son of Gaia and her own son Pontus, a primordial god of the sea.
Both Nereus and Proteus, who is sometimes called his brother, were identified as the shape-shifting god of the sea. The Old Man of the Sea, as his name suggests, probably predated the Olympian pantheon.
The mother of the Nereids was Doris, one of the 3,000 Oceanids. Her parents were Oceanus and Tethys, the primordial gods of fresh water.
The Nereids, therefore, had a strong aquatic genealogy. They were both the children of a primal ocean deity and second-generation water nymphs.
The two most well-known Nereids were Amphitrite and Thetis.
Amphitrite was usually described as the most beautiful of the fifty sisters. Poseidon saw her dancing with her sisters and wished to make her his wife.
She did not wish to be married though, so she fled from Poseidon and took refuge in the waters of her grandfather, Oceanus. In the Titan’s underwater palace at the furthest ends of his river, she thought she could escape from the sea god.
She was eventually spotted, however, by the dolphin god Delphin. He immediately swam to Poseidon to report Amphitrite’s hiding place.
In some versions of Amphitrite’s marriage story, Poseidon took her by force and married her against her will. Other stories claimed that Delphin reasoned with the young goddess, reassuring her of Poseidon’s good intentions, and persuaded her to marry Poseidon willingly.
Her marriage to Poseidon made Amphitrite the queen of the seas. She was usually depicted as very similar to her sisters, however, with the exception of a crown upon her head.
Amphitrite gave birth to the sea god Triton and three daughters, but was best remembered as the mother of creatures instead of gods. All dolphins, seals, fish, and shellfish were her children.
Like all the Nereids, Amphitrite was known for her kind demeanor. Unlike the goddesses of Olympus, this even extended to the children her husband had with other women.
With King Minos of Crete refused to believe that Theseus was the son of the sea god, he tossed a gold ring into the sea and taunted the young hero to go after it. Theseus did so, without even saying a prayer to his father to ask for protection.
Amphitrite and her sisters offered that protection instead. Her children, the dolphins, guided Theseus to Poseidon’s underwater palace and presented him with royal gifts in addition to the ring.
While Amphitrite was the queen of all the sees, her sister Thetis was usually shown as the leader of the Nereids themselves. Thetis appeared often in the myths of many gods and heroes.
She was once loved by Zeus, but he did not marry her because of a prophecy that his son with her would one day overthrow his father. Having overthrown his own father for the throne, Zeus married Hera instead to avoid the same fate.
She became foster mother to Hera’s son Hephaestus when he was thrown from Mount Olympus. When Dionysus was in danger, she hid him in a bed of seaweed until he was safe again.
Thetis would eventually be married to a human man. She initially refused Peleus, changing forms as her father was known to do in an attempt to escape him, but eventually relented and succumbed to his proposal.
The wedding of Thetis was a monumental event on Mount Olympus, remembered most for the war it started. When Eris, the goddess of discord, was not invited she sent the golden apple that caused a feud between Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite.
The judgement of Paris, meant to end the bickering between the goddesses, instead resulted in the elopement of Helen and Paris and the start of the Trojan War.
Her role in starting the war, however, was less memorable than the son who took part in it.
Thetis was the mother of Achilles, one of the great heroes of that conflict.
A prophecy foretold that the son of Thetis would either have a long and uneventful life or a short but glorious one. The nereid did everything in her power to make sure Achilles had a long life.
According to legend, when Achilles was born Thetis attempted to burn away his mortal half with fire. When Peleus discovered her he ended the ritual, believing she was harming the child, leaving Achilles with a single weak point on his heel.
When the Trojan War began, she attempted to hide her son by disguising him as a boy. When he was discovered by Odysseus, she asked Hepheastus to make him a shield to protect him as much as possible.
Throughout the war Thetis advised her son and consoled him over his lost comrades. When he defiled the body of the Trojan hero Hector, only Thetis could convince him to return it.
Sadly for Thetis, Achilles would have a short and glorious life. At the end of the war he was killed by Paris, shot with an arrow in the single weak part of his heel that remained fully mortal.
After the death of her son, Thetis was shown once again in the company of her sisters. When they interacted with later heroes, she was often their leader.
As kind-hearted water nymphs, the Nereids were often shown as the protectors of sailors and fishermen.
Individual nymphs were often credited with saving men from shipwrecks and currents. When an entire ship was at stake, though, the Nereids banded together.
During Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, Hera asked Thetis to help the Argo navigate the treacherous Wandering Rocks. Not only did the nymphs oblige, but they seemed to have fun doing so.
Thetis herself took control of the rudder, stearing the ship. Her sisters lept through the waves, churning up the water.
It appeared to the sailors that they were simply jumping alongside the boat, as dolphins often did, for sport. It became clear, however, that they and their waves were keeping the Argo safe.
But just as they were about to strike the Rocks, the Sea-nymphs, holding their skirts up over their white knees, began to run along on top of the reefs and breaking waves following each other at intervals on either side of the ship. Argo, caught in the current, was tossed to right and left. Angry seas rose up all round her and crashed down on the Rocks which at one moment soared into the air like peaks, and at the next, sticking fast at the bottom of the sea, were submerged by the raging waters. But the Nereides, passing the ship from hand to hand and side to side, kept her scudding through the air on top of the waves. It was like that game that young girls play beside a sandy beach, when they roll their skirts up to their waists on either side and toss a ball round to one another, throwing it high in the air so that it never touches the ground.
-Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. 757 ff (trans. Rieu)
In this depiction of the voyage of the Argo, the Nereids are depicted as prototypical nymphs. They came to the aid of those in need, but demonstrated a childish joy in doing so.
Aside from Amphitrite and Thetis, there were a few other Nereids who played a significant role in various legends. These included:
- Arethusa – In later myths, she was a Nereid who was transformed into an underground stream by Artemis to help her escape from a lustful river god.
- Calypso – The nymph of the island of Ogygia who held Odysseus for seven years was sometimes specified to be a Nereid.
- Galene – Hesiod named her as the goddess of calm seas. Later writers also spelled her name as Galatea.
- Clymene – Many nymphs of different types were named Clymene, but it may have been the Nereid who was the mother of the goddess Mnemosyne by Zeus.
- Psamathe – She was the goddess of sandy beaches. She married the prophetic sea god Proteus. She also had an affair with King Aeacus and became the mother of Phocus.
- Dynamene and Pherusa – They were named by Hesiod as being responsible for great ocean swells.
While the Nereids were usually shown as kind and enjoying entertainments, they could also be vengeful and angry goddesses. No one learned this lesson better than the human princess Andromeda.
The queen of Aethiopia, Cassiopeia, had angered the Nereids by challenging their beauty. She had claimed that either she or her daughter, depending on the source, was more beautiful than any of the fifty sea nymphs.
This was an insult that many goddesses had faced, and despite their usually calm demeanor the Nereids were no less insulted than others had been before them. They demanded justice for the insult done to them.
Poseidon was married to a Nereid, so he felt their anger even more justified. He handled the revenge himself.
First he sent a great flood tide to cover the land. Into the waters he sent a Cetus, a great sea monster, to attack the people of Aethiopia.
The floors destroyed crops and buildings, and left behind more water for the Cetus to swim in. It was able to attack not just the shore, but far inland as well.
King Cepheus was told that the only way to end the attack and save his kingdom was to sacrifice his own daughter to the monster.
Andromeda was stripped naked and tied to the rocks along the seashore. As the Cetus approached, it seemed certain that the young princess would die.
At that moment, however, the hero Perseus happened to be passing by on his return trip from slaying the Gorgon Medusa. When he saw the princess about to be killed, he immediately raced to her rescue.
Perseus had been allowed to borrow the winged sandals of Hermes, giving him the ability to fly at incredible speed. He attacked the monster and killed it before it was able to harm Andromeda.
One legend said that after the fight he laid the Gorgon’s head on a bed a seaweed, which immediately turned to stone. The Nereids gathered around at the spectacle and repeated the magic, making coral as hard as stone.
Perseus and Andromeda fell in love and her father agreed to let them be married. She had previously been betrothed to her uncle, though, who argued that since Andromeda had survived her ordeal he had the right to claim her.
King Cepheus remarked that it was not his fault or that of Perseus that Andromeda would not be his wife. The couple had only met because of the anger of the Nereids.
As minor goddesses, the nymphs rarely had temples dedicated in their honor. They might be included in images of the major gods, but they were too numerous and minor to inspire great devotion.
In rural areas the water and tree spirits were sometimes worshipped in small local traditions, often holdovers from ancient pre-Greek culture. By and large, though the nymphs were respected but not worshipped.
The Nereids, however, inspired a different level of devotion than the other types of nymphs.
As goddesses of the Mediterannean, they were protectors of sailors and those on the shore. They could also help fishermen improve their catch and keep predatory beasts at bay.
Sailing was a dangerous proposition in the ancient world and the risk of a shipwreck was high. The Nereids could help keep the ship safe, or help men thrown into the water reach the shore safely.
Sailors and coastal Greeks, therefore, paid more attention to the Nereids than many inland people did to their local nature spirits.
The Nereids had no great temples or cult centers, but there are many descriptions of their altars and shrines in coastal communities.
As nature goddesses, the nymphs did not have great temples of marble and gold. A description of an altar to the nymphs by the seaside in the 1st century AD was of a simple timber beneath a natural grove, tended to by a fisherman who tended his nets on the site.
In conclusion, the Nereids were one of the many types of nymphs, or female nature deities, in Greek mythology. They were the daughters of the ancient sea god Nereus and had dominion over the salty water of the Mediterranean Sea.
The most notable Nereids were Thetis and Amphitrite.
Amphitrite was the wife of Poseidon. She became the queen of the sea and the mother of all marine life.
Thetis was often in the company of the gods, but was married to a mortal man. Their wedding inadvertently began the Trojan War, in which her mortal son Achilles was killed.
The fifty Nereids were known for their kind nature, which was often shown in the aid they gave sailors and fishermen. People along the coast erected simple shrines to pray for the favor of the Nereids.
They could also be petty and angry, however. When Cassiopeia insulted their beauty, they had Poseidon flood the land, send a sea monster, and nearly sacrifice a princess to appease them.
Like all nymphs in Greek mythology the Nereids could be both friendly benefactors of humans and terrible enemies.