While mythology features many nymphs whose stories were well-known throughout the ancient world, others were not as famous. They were local legends that never spread far past their places of origin.
Often, these goddesses are only attested to from a single source. Sometimes their stories survive, but in other cases all we have is their name.
One nymph that we have relatively little information about was Nomia. Her legend was based in Arcadia, one of the most isolated regions of the Greek world.
While little is known of Nomia herself, a description of one piece of art may shed light on her role in Arcadian mythology and history. The little-known nymph may have actually played a role in one of the region’s most famous stories.
While the stories of some nymphs and minor deities were known throughout Greece, others were local legends. One of these was the story of Nomia.
Nomia’s name is known primarily thanks to Pausanias, the Greek travel writer of the 2nd century AD. In his Description of Greece, he detailed many of the local beliefs of the Greek world as well as the sights he saw.
Pausanias claimed that Nomia’s story was a myth of Arcadia, the mountainous region in the center of the Peloponnesian Peninsula.
The people of Arcadia believed that Mount Nomia, in the southwest of their region, was named after a nymph who lived there. They sometimes gave this name to a whole range of mountains along their border.
Pausanias did not give any clear version of Nomia’s story. It is possible that he was told the nymph’s name but never learned of a specific myth associated with her.
He did, however, describe a work of art that he was told depicted Nomia.
He claimed that the painting was the work of Polygnotos, an artist from the 5th century BC. He did not see this painting in Arcadia, however, but later in his trip when he traveled to Delphi.
Familiar with the Arcadian character, Pausanias recognized her name. He said that the painting showed the nymph in the Underworld.
There, she was accompanied by Callisto, who sat on a bearskin. Her feet were in Nomia’s lap.
In Greek mythology, Callisto was an Arcadian princess. Her father was King Lycaon, for whom the region’s oldest city was named.
Callisto was a hunting companion of Artemis until she was seduced by Zeus. When the virginal goddess learned that the princess had broken her vow of virginity and was pregnant with Zeus’s child, she turned her fury on Callisto.
Artemis turned the girl into a bear. Her son Arcas, who gave his name to the entire region, was raised by his grandfather.
As a grown man, Arcas was on a hunt when he came across an enormous she-bear. He nearly killed the animal, not knowing that it was his mother, but the gods interceded.
Callisto and Arcas were placed in the stars as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the two bear constellations. Their story became one of the most well-known Arcadian legends.
Some historians have suggested that the painting described by Pausanias may fill in a missing piece of Callisto’s legend. Most sources do not give a name for her mother, but the close association between Nomia and the princess in the painting might mean that the artist was showing Nomia as Callisto’s mother.
This would make Nomia fit into a well-established pattern in Greek mythology.
Many of the named nymphs in Greek legends married human kings instead of gods. Nephele married Athamas of Boeotia, Thetis was the wife of Peleus, and Clio married a king of Sparta.
In these stories, the children of nymphs and kings were born as mortals. Like other demi-gods, however, they had some traits that came from their divine lineage.
This meant that the nymphs’ sons were great heroes or kings. Their daughters were often women of exceptional beauty and grace.
This would fit the character of Callisto in the legend. She was a devoted follower of Artemis, but her beauty was great enough to attract the attention of Zeus.
The pose in which Pausanias described the two in the painting was usually used to show an intimate family relationship. It could be that the artist was showing Nomia comforting her daughter after death.
Pausanias also pointed out when describing the painting that nymphs had incredibly long lives but were not necessarily immortal. The artist may have imagined a scene in which Nomia and her daughter were reunited after the nymph’s death.
The people of Arcadia may have believed that Nomia, the nymph of a mountain in their region, had married their legendary founding king. Their daughter Callisto was a tragic figure whose own semi-divine son was a great hero of the region.
Pausanias, however, also cast doubt on how parts of this story may have developed.
While the Arcadians said that the mountain was named for a local nymph, the travel writer had a much simpler explanation. Nomia may have been the name of a nymph, but it was also the Greek word for “pasture.”
Pausanias pointed out that Mount Nomia was home to a sanctuary to Pan Nomios, “Pan of the Pastures.” The rustic god was often connected to shepherds and meadows.
Pausanias believed that the mountain was named for the pasture land on and around it, not a nymph.
Both could have been true. Nymphs in Greek culture were often named for features of the landscape and nearby places, so Nomia could have been a pasture nymph of the area.
Pausanias also noted that Lycosura, named for Callisto’s father, was thought to be the oldest city in Greece. Due to its relative isolation, being mountainous and removed from the coast, historians believe that many of the myths from Arcadia may also have been among the oldest in the area.
Nomia may have been a name for a nature goddess that was worshiped in Arcadia from its earliest times. The rustic nature of nymphs, her connection to Pan, and her possible link to the region’s founding myths all point to her once being an important nature goddess in the region.
Nomia’s story, then, could be a very ancient one. Her connection to the pastures of Arcadia and its founding legends might not have spread beyond Arcadia, but in the region they could have been central to the region’s mythical history.
Nomia was a nymph from Greek mythology. Her story appears to have been limited to the region of Arcadia and mostly unknown in the rest of Greece.
The travel writer Pausanias mentioned Nomia twice in his Description of Greece. When he visited Arcadia, he said that the local believed that nearby Mount Nomia had been named for the nymph.
Elsewhere, he described a painting from the 5th century BC that depicted Nomia. She was shown with Callisto, the legendary Arcadian princess, in the Underworld.
Some have suggested based on this that Nomia may have been Callisto’s mother, who is unnamed in most versions of her story. In this case, she would have been the wife of one of the region’s first kings and the grandmother of Arcas, the hero for which it was named.
Pausanias himself doubted the existence of the nymph at all, however. While he acknowledged that Arcadia and its myths were ancient, he believed the simpler explanation for the name of Mount Nomia was that it was taken from the word for “pasture.”
Like other nymphs, Nomia may have once been a nature goddess who was associated with either the mountain or the pastures near it. While her story has not survived, her link to Callisto could have meant that she was an important figure in the native beliefs of Greece’s most isolated region.