Nymphs: The Many Nature Spirits of Ancient Greece
The nymphs were minor goddesses of nature. Unlike most deities, they were almost always tied to a specific place or feature of the landscape.
Nymphs represented aspects of the natural world like bodies of water, islands, trees, or mountains. Almost everything in the landscape could have a goddess that called it sacred.
In the Greek view of the world nymphs could be found almost everywhere. They were generally very shy of people, however, so they were rarely seen by mortal humans.
They were less shy with the other gods, though. Nymphs were often wives and lovers of more powerful gods and sometimes human kings.
As goddesses, most nymphs had some supernatural abilities. While not always immortal, they generally lived far longer than humans.
There were many specific types of nymphs in the Greek imagination, but they all had one thing in common: Nymphs were universally considered to have the forms of beautiful women in time prime of youth.
Nymphs were everywhere in ancient Greece, and there were as many types as there were things to be seen in nature.
Some of these nymphs weren’t part of the land, they were the land itself.
Alseides, for example, were a type of nymph mentioned in the works of Homer. They were the spirits of groves and glens.
The related Auloniad nymphs were found in pastures. They were closely associated with the rustic gods, particularly Pan as the god of shepherds.
Napaeae were nymphs of dells and Leimonides were nymphs of meadows.
These very specific types of land nymphs were not widely attested to in the works of Greek writers and artists. There are no details as to how many there were and very few are named individually in myths.
The nymphs of the land could not compare to the water nymphs in popularity or in number.
Because the Greeks believed all the waters of the world were connected, there was sometimes overlap between the different types of water nymphs. An Oceanid could travel to an inland well or a Naiad could make her way to an isolated island.
Most, however, stayed close to home and were identified by the type of water they were born into. It was not unusual, though, for a single character to be referred to as a different type of water nymph in different sources.
The wife of Poseidon, for example, was a nymph named Amphitrite. She was usually described as a Nereid, but sometimes called an Oceanid.
The Oceanids were the most numerous of the water nymphs. The Titan Oceanus was said to have had three thousand daughters.
They were sisters of the river gods and had domain over all fresh water. This included not only the lakes and streams of earth, but also the water that formed clouds and fell from the sky.
The Naiads were another group of nymphs of fresh water. They resided in streams, pools, fountains, and natural wells all over the Greek landscape.
Naiads were often described as the daughters of the river gods, making them the younger nieces of the Oceanids. A single river could have dozens or even hundreds of naiads who accompanied their father as the personifications of every feeder stream, current, and curve in his larger river.
The Naiads were unique in that they were often found living much closer to humans than the rest of their kin. The wells and springs that provided water to towns and even great cities had their own nymphs who lived side by side with the human population.
The differences between the Oceanids and Naiads were subtle and the two types were often indistinguishable unless one knew the identity of their father.
Another important group of water nymphs in the Greek world was the Nereids. There were fifty named Nereids, daughters of the primordial sea god Nereus.
They were the goddesses of saltwater, which in the Greek world specifically referred to the Mediterranean sea.
While the dangers of the sea were embodied in fearsome monsters, the Nereids represented everything that was beautiful and beneficial about the sea. They were helpful to sailors and fishermen and were sometimes described as the most kind and well-behaved of all the nymphs.
While there were minor nymphs of wetlands, the Elionomae, marshes and swamps were not the homes of water nymphs. They lived where the water was clean and full of life.
The murky swamps and bogs were home to much older, more sinister forces. Humans and nymphs alike were warned to avoid places where the water was not clear and pure.
The Greek word drys meant “oak” and the term Dryad initially only applied to those nymphs who were spirits of oak trees. In time, however, the word came to be broadly applied to all tree nymphs regardless of the specific type of tree they inhabited.
There were other plant nymphs as well. The Anthousai, for example, were flower nymphs and the Ampeloi were nymphs of grape vines. The Dryads far outnumbered the other plant nymphs, however, and are among the most famous nature spirits in ancient mythology.
The Hamadryads, or oak tree nymphs, were known for being the most sedentary of their kind. They were tired to the trees that gave them life and rarely, if ever, strayed more than a few feet away from their oak.
This made traversing the forest a potentially dangerous prospect for Greek people. Logging, especially, could only be done with assurances that none of the trees being destroyed were inhabited by a living Dryad.
Even walking through the forest could incite the ire of the nymphs that lived there. A single broken branch or muddied stream could be taken as an insult to the Dryad or Naiad who called it home.
It was equally dangerous to interrupt these nymphs when they were dancing with the rustic gods or bathing with Artemis. The Roman poet Ovid described some of the fears faced when walking through the forests of his country:
I entered a forbidden wood, and the Nymphae (Nymphs) and half-goat god [Faunus-Pan] bolted from my sight. If any knife has robbed a grove of a shady bough to give ailing sheep a basket of leaves: forgive my offense. Do not fault me for sheltering my flock from the hail in a rustic shrine, nor harm me for disturbing the pools. Pardon, Nymphae, trampling hooves for muddying your stream . . . placate the gods dispersed through every grove. Keep from our sight the Dryades and Diana’s [Artemis’] bath and Faunus [Pan] lying in the fields at noon.
-Ovid, Fasti 4. 751 ff (trans.Boyle)
Other Dryads were revered as the ancestors of mankind. The Meliae, or ash tree nymphs, married the men of the Silver Age before the first human woman was created.
The Oreads came to be revered as both Dryads and land nymphs. The conifers that they lived in only grew on mountains, so the Dryads came to be associated with the mountains themselves as well as the trees that grew there.
The Dryads were unique in that one could become a Dryad without having been born a nymph at all.
There are two types of stories in which women were magically transformed into trees. They were either trying to escape the lustful advances of a man or god, or they were so overcome by emotion that the gods took pity on them and made them trees to spare them further anguish.
The most famous case was that of Daphne, a water nymph who was pursued by Apollo. She was transferred into a laurel tree to escape him, and her leaves became one of his most sacred symbols.
A few nymphs were hard to classify into the broader categories shared by their sisters.
These spirits were rustic goddesses, but often occupied a much different space than those typically assigned to nymphs. They are generally treated as nymphs, although their domains were very different.
These hard to categorize minor goddesses included:
- The Hecaterides – Often called the mothers of the satyrs, they were the goddesses of rustic dances. They were frequent companions of both their sons and Dionysus.
- The Maenads – Many nymphs joined the festivities of Dionysus. When the entered the wild frenzy he brought about they were known as Maenads instead of their usual forms.
- The Lenai – These were goddesses of the wine-press. Although their role was not based in nature, they were grouped among the nymphs because of their connection to Dionysus and the rustic gods.
- The Cabeirides – Little is known of these seldom-mentioned nymphs. They are thought to be the sisters of the Cabeiri, a group of minor chthonic deities native to Samothrace.
- The Melissae – These were the nymphs of hives and beekeeping. They were thought to reside in and watch over their hives just as other nymphs watched over trees and bodies of water.
- The Epimelides – These were apple orchard nymphs, but they were also considered the protectors of sheep and goats.
These unusual types of nymphs illustrate how fluid and changeable the word was.
Although they did not fit into the broader categories of nymphs, they still fit the definition of female rustic spirits in some way. Some took on different roles depending on circumstances, such as in the retinue of Dionysus.
The categories of nymphs were changeable and indefinite. A Naiad could be transformed into a Dryad or an Oread could become a Maenad under the frenzy of revelry.
Unlike the satyrs, the female goddesses of nature could take many forms depending on the circumstances they found themselves in.
Some nymphs were not bound to the earth at all. The celestial types of nymphs inhabited the air and the skies.
There were two major groups of celestial nymphs. The Aurae were air nymphs who lived on gentle breezes, while the Asteriae were nymphs of the stars.
The Aurae were sometimes embodied in one minor goddess, Aura. The goddess of the breezes was most well-known for being assaulted by Dionysus at the request of Artemis.
Aura was described in her myths as a nymph, although she did not seem to fit into any recognized category of natural goddesses. Because nymphs were always classified in groups, the Aurae were the entire type named after her although she was the only one specifically mentioned.
The Aurae were separate from the winds, which were personified by either four gods or four swift horses. While the winds could be strong and even violent, the Aurae were gentle and refreshing.
The Asteriae, like the Maenids or certain Dryads, began their lives as different types.
There were three sisterhoods of Asteriae, each belonging to a different constellation. They had been born as terrestrial nymphs but had been moved to the stars.
The Hyades were most likely once Oceanids. They were thought to bring rain because the appearance of their constellation marked the beginning of the rainy season in Greece.
The Pleiades were either Oreads or, like their mother, a type of water nymph. They are sometimes called Atalantes after their father, the Titan Atlas.
The Seven Sisters, as they are popularly referred to, were recurring characters in Greek mythology. Along with other nymphs, they served as nurses to the infant Dionysus after the death of his mother.
Several became lovers of the Olympian gods. Most famously, Maia was the mother of Hermes.
The sisters were pursued once by the giant Orion, who sought to take advantage of the fact that their father was holding up the dome of the sky and could not protect them.
When the sisters threw themselves from a cliff to avoid being captures, Zeus turned them into birds to save their lives. In honor of their services to the gods and to appease their father, he further transformed them into stars to be held above Atlas’s head.
The Pleiades were an important star cluster for marking the seasons in the Greek world. They were eternally followed by the constellation Orion, but never captured by him.
The Hesperides were often named among the star nymphs, although they were more commonly said to have been spirits of the sunset.
Another group of daughters of Atlas, they were Dryads who were assigned to guard the golden apple tree of Hera in the far west. As Dryads they lived in their garden and tended to the tree they guarded, but they also brought bright golden light to the western horizon at sunset.
The Hesperides featured prominently in the story of Heracles. When he was sent to pluck an apple from the tree they guarded, he got assistance from their Titan father to complete the task.
While most Dryads were associated with Dionysus or Artemis, the Hesperides were loyal to Hera. The tree they watched over had been a gift to the queen of Olympus from Gaia and they were fierce defenders of the immortality-granting apples that grew on it.
Like the celestial nymphs, those of the underworld often fit into the usual water and plant groupings. They were distinguished, though, by their association with the realm of Hades.
There was only one group among the nymphs who resided in the land of the dead. The Lampades were torch bearers in the retinue of the goddess of witchcraft, Hecate.
According to legend, the service of the Lampades was a gift to Hecate from Zeus for services she performed in the Titanomachy. They lit the goddess’s way both in the underworld and during her travels at night.
The Lampades were, unlike most nymphs, sinister spirits. It was said that anyone touched by the light of their torches would be driven mad.
There were Naiads in the underworld as well. Styx personified the river that bore her name and was usually considered a more powerful goddess than most nymphs, but the lesser Orphne represented the darkness of the river’s waters.
They were the only nymphs who were native to the underworld. They were said to be the daughters of underworld gods or of the rivers that flowed there.
The other chthonic nymphs went to the underworld individually, leaving the groups they had belonged to on the surface.
Leuce, a poplar tree Dryad for example, was abducted by Hades. She lived out the rest of her long life in the darkness of the underworld.
Minthe, mint, was also a lover of Hades. She went to the underworld willingly to be with him however, until she was transformed into a smaller plant for taunting Demeter.
The nymphs were the female nature spirits of Greek mythology. Unlike the raucous and uncivilized satyrs, they were usually seen as graceful and beautiful.
This made them especially attractive to both gods and men. Many of the nymphs named in classical mythology were the lovers and wives of kings and gods, becoming the mothers of great men and demigods.
The nymphs were almost always seen as part of a group. Sometimes this was a specific group of sisters, like the Pleiades, but it could also be as a broader race.
While the word nymph referred to nature spirits as a whole, there were many specific types of nymphs.
Land nymphs were rarely mentioned but were said to watch over groves, pastures, meadows, and glens.
The most numerous nymphs were those of the water. They were divided both by the type of water they lived in and by which marine god had fathered them.
There were three thousand Oceanids who personified fresh water, along with countess younger Naiads. The fifty Nereids controlled the salty waters of the seas.
Another numerous group were the Dryads. They were nymphs of the trees, although plant nymphs also included certain flowers.
Every type of tree found in Greece had its own species of Dryad. They made the forests sacred spaces that had to be treated with caution and respect.
Both Dryads and celestial nymphs could be created by the will of the gods. Nymphs of other types and mortal women alike were transformed into trees or stars, most often to protect them from danger.
A few nymphs even lived in the underworld. The Lampades, Hecate’s attendants, were native to that realm but other individual nymphs went there as lovers of Hades.
Any nymphs could be changed through association with Dionysus, however. In their frenzy, they became Maenads, separate from their former type.
The nymphs are best remembered for their beauty, grace, and associations with greater gods but in the Greek imagination they were present everywhere in the world.