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The Nymphs of Ancient Greece

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The Ancient Greek-inspired painting “Hylas and the Nymphs,” John William Waterhouse, 1896. Nymphs were important figures in ancient Greece. Credit: Public domain

For ancient Greeks, every waterway was protected by nymphs. These were invariably ageless young girls who existed even before the Olympic gods — and long before the birth of mortals.

By Patrick Garner

They were not all immortal. Some died after living for centuries. Still, they existed in a magical world between mortals and gods. Nymphs were generally harmless, too — but not always.

For a man, encountering a nymph while alone might put him in a precarious situation. The term nymphomania is derived from the word nymph. It means uncontrollable desire in a woman, and stems from a belief that some nymphs would bewitch innocent young men, becoming their lovers and never releasing them.

Nymphs were everywhere in ancient Greece

These graceful young girls not only populated waters, they were found throughout nature. For instance, every tree in every sacred grove was believed to owe its life source to the nymph who lived there.

Wherever Greeks ventured into nature, they were conscious of these beings. Villagers were aware that they were watched, measured and evaluated by intelligent beings who were wild and unpredictable.

Usually nymphs were invisible, but thousands of Greeks in ancient times reported seeing them. Nymphs seemed to be everywhere in ancient Greece. They presided over all natural phenomena, including clouds, caves, meadows and the rocky beaches found all over Greece.

They cared for all the fauna and flora in their domain. Plants thrived under their watch and deer drank fearlessly from their springs. As nature spirits they were associated with several of the Olympic gods, including Zeus, Hermes, Artemis, Poseidon, Demeter and Dionysos.

The most famous of Artemis’ nymphs were the Pleiades, seven sisters who were immortalized by Zeus when he turned them into the Pleiades constellation. The Pleiades were originally mountain nymphs, but there were many families.

One of the early ones was the Meliads, who lived in ash trees. The sons of these nymphs —all bronze age warriors — reveled in killing. Even Zeus found their fierceness tiresome and eventually destroyed them in a flood.

Other tree nymphs included the Dryades and the Hamadryades. The Dryades lived in groves, woods and deep mountain forests. One of them was a lovely nymph named Daphne. She protected laurel trees and met an ironic and terrible end. The god Apollo saw her and instantly fell madly in love, chasing her through the woods.

Daphne’s father, who was a local river god, tried to save her. He was able to turn her into a laurel tree as Apollo grabbed at her legs. Daphne became the very tree she had once protected. Even Apollo could not undo what her father had done. Nor could her father turn her back into a nymph.

In her honor, Apollo created laurels — the wreaths placed on the victor’s head in many of the ancient Panhellenic games and today’s Boston Marathon. There was also another family of Dryade called the Hamadryade. Hama in Greek means to girdle or be bound to something. These nymphs were bound for life to a specific tree.

It was believed that the tree and the nymph were born as one, and her life and the tree’s were the same. If the tree died, so did the nymph, and vice versa. If a Greek were to enter a sacred grove and cut down such a tree, blood would flow from where the tree was struck.

Famous offspring

Nymphs were charged with protecting the earth, but their influence went beyond the environment. A sea nymph named Thetis was the mother of the famous warrior, Achilles.

To make him invulnerable she dipped baby Achilles in the river Styx. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but where she held him by one heel, he remained dry and unprotected.

He was later killed in the Trojan War by an arrow shot by Paris that struck that very spot. This is the origin of our phrase about vulnerability, “to have an Achilles heel.”

Powerful nymphs in ancient Greece

Some nymphs had awesome powers, which earned them the title of goddess. Two of the best known were Circe and the sea nymph Kalypso. Each helped the mortal Greek warrior Odysseus overcome seemingly impossible barriers to return home following the Trojan War.

By many accounts, Circe had one child by Odysseus and Kalypso bore him two as he lingered for seven years on her magical island. Nymphs also played a unique role among the divinities. Some were the lovers of male Olympians.

Others served the huntress Artemis, who protected them as long as they remained chaste.

Still other nymphs seduced mortals. The water nymphs were well known for seizing an attractive male if he came too close to a sacred spring. As a result, many young men were terrified of nymphs.

Greek mothers warned repeatedly that if a young man were seduced by one of these wild things, he might never return home. The story of Narcissus — the young man who fell in love with his own image in a stream — is an example of an unhappy encounter with a nymph. He was so taken by his own reflection that he rejected the beautiful nymph.

He was so self-obsessed that he was unable to love another person, and she ended up broken-hearted. The nymph was named Echo, and even today, if you listen closely next to a stream in the deep woods, you may hear her repeating the last words she heard him speak before he turned away. “Oh beautiful boy, I love you in vain.”

That was a long time ago, of course, and Greek mothers have now changed the nature of their warnings to their sons — however, that doesn’t mean they’ve dropped the one about nymphs.

Patrick Garner is the author of three novels about Greek gods in the contemporary world. Nymphs play an immense role in them. One of them—Timessa—is transformed into the all-powerful goddess from the beginning of time. See Amazon. He is also the creator and narrator of the breakout podcast Garner’s Greek Mythology, with listeners in 148 countries.

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