What's a Nymph? | Nymphs by Association | Nymphs by Name | A List of the Nereides
What's a Nymph?
So the most obvious metaphor is the Fairy metaphor. Nymphs are like fairies in that they were unpredictable, a little scary, and often showed up in folktales. But, seeing as they are from a different culture, they are also entirely different. For one thing, the nymphs are all women. This is definitely significant in the way they were scary. One of the things you might (and should) notice is the common theme of women's sexuality = scary and women's chastity = good. Noticing that, it should not shock you that these somewhat scary spirits are at their scariest to mortal men when sex enters the picture (Hylas is a lovely example). It should also be noted without surprise that these nymphs are spirits often personifying nature. (See below for the groups of nymphs) As Sue Blundell so awesomely points out, women are often associated with nature and wildness as things beyond the control of "civilization" (need we point out that this civilization is extraordinarily patriarchal?). It is usually said that this is because of the whole XX chromosomal ability to bear children. I argue that this is merely an excuse and the real reason is that you're dealing with a patriarchal society and "wildness" and "nature" and such things are seen as Outside of Culture, just as women are. However, they also show up from time to time as the wives of heroes and (often spurned) lovers of gods. Nymphs, like all female deities, are beautiful. When they aren't inhabiting some specific part of nature, they are often the attendents of more important deities. I like nymphs. In many ways they seem far more human to me than any of the human women. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Nymphs by Association - the well-known (and more obscure) groups of Nymphs:
Nymphs by Name - the nymphs interesting enough to say something about:
Nymphs of the river Amnisus in Crete and devotees of the goddess Artemis. They cared for the goddess's sacred deer.
Nymphs of the Angridus River in Elis and they were healer nymphs of some sort. They had this grotto at the river and people with skin diseases came and bathed there and gave the nymphs gifts in the hopes that they'd get better.n
- The Dodonides, or Dododaean Nymphs, were the nymphs who brought up Zeus (or possibly a whole bunch of others). Zeus at Dodona was the site of the most ancient oracle in Greece (although it was probably attributed originally to someone else).
The Dryades were the Nymphs of the Forest, or wood nymphs. Dryades were immortal, unlike other types, like the Hamadryades, who lived in oak trees and would die when the tree they lived in died. They were the hunting companions of Artemis. The painting at left is by Richard Hescox.
Epimeliades were the Protectors of Sheep. So I suppose you could call them Sheep Nymphs.
Quite simply, sea nymphs. They show up under this name in a random play by Sophocles and in Callimachus' Hymn to Artemis (read it!), but doesn't seem to be as commonly used as the more general "nymph" or the more specific "Nereid" or "Oceanid". Haliai comes from the word for "sea" and also means "salt".
- A Hamadryad was a nymph of an oak tree. She was very connected to the tree in which she lived, and very powerful if angered. If her tree was hurt, then the hamadryad was hurt. If her tree was cut down, then the hamadryad also died. It was a hamadryad who began the whole story of the Golden Fleece by punishing the son of a man who'd thrown a knife into her tree.
The Heliades (also called the Heliadai) were the daughters (and sons) of Helios, the Sun, by both Clymene and Rhodos (each had their own set of kids, that is). The most famous of the Heliades were the sisters of Phaeton (son of Clymene). Well, when Phaethon died on that fateful chariot ride (he was too weak to control the divine horses and almost set the entire earth on fire and got zapped by Zeus with the typical lightening bolt from the blue), his sisters Aegle, Aetheria, Dioxippe, and Merope (also daughters of Clymene) wept uncontrollably for four months. After that the gods took pity on them and turned the maidens into poplar trees and changed their tears to amber. That set of Heliades ended up also receiving the name Phaethontiades. The other set of Heliades, the children of Rhodos, were named Cercaphus, Actis, Macareus, Tenages, Triopas, Candalus, Ochimus, and Electryone (the only daughter, and, according to Mr. Robert Graves, maybe identified with the Goddess of the Moon - frankly, I haven't seen any evidence for that, but you know Graves). So. In summary, Heliades = not that interesting chicks who probably could have used some good therapy more than a group of trigger happy dieties, but that's ancient Greece for you!
The Hespirides were the nymphs who guarded the Tree of the Golden Apples, as is shown in the painting at right by Edward Burne-Jones. Their father was Hesperos, or the God of the Evening Star. Their names were:
- These nymphs of debated parentage were the sisters of Hyas, who got killed by a boar. They mourned for him so much that the Gods hung them as stars in the Sky. The root of their name (and Hyas' name) is "rain" and when their constellation rose with the sun it meant stormy rainy weather. So, different authors gave them different names but the compiled list reported by Robert Graves is: Ambrosia, Eudora, Aesyle, Eidothea, Althea, Adraste, Philia, Coronis, Cleis, Phaesyle, Cleia, Phaeo, Pedile, Polyxo, Phyto, Thyene, Bacche, Macris, Nysa, Erato, Brome, and Dione. So almost all of those names should sound familiar, but probably for different reasons.
- Lamusidean Nymphs
Lamusidean Nymphs were the daughters of Lamus. They were the nurses of Dionysus, but because of Hera's deep jealousy they were driven mad. They would have chopped the baby Dionysus up, and not Hermes appeared on the scene just in time to save the baby God.
- These dryades lived in fruit trees - were fruit trees ... ah, this is getting too confusing. Moving on.
These dryades were the Nymphs of Ash Trees. They were the daughters of Gaia and of Uranus' blood. For some reason they are special, but I have not yet figured out why.
The Naiades were the nymphs of freshwater streams rivers and lakes, but were not limited to these water courses. Many Naiades could be found prancing around with Artemis, who chose 20 Naiades from Amnisus for companions. They were the daughters of rivergods. They had extremely long lifetimes, but they were not considered immortal, and were believed to have sat in on the Gods discussions on Olympus. There were 5 types of Naiades:
On the left is a detail from John W. Waterhouse's painting of Hylas and the Nymphs. That particular story is important to the Greeks as Hylas, the beautiful beloved (yes, in the sexual way) of Heracles, was sent to go get water on the island of Mysia, and the naiads there, totally taken in by his beauty, carried him off. Every year, the priests marched to a neighboring mountain and called Hylas's name three times. Someone will have to tell me if they still do this.
Pegaiai, the Nymphs of Springs
Krinaia, the Nymphs of Fountains
Potameides, the Nymphs of Rivers and Streams
Limnades or Limnatides, the Nymphs of Lakes
Eleionomai, the Nymphs of Marshes
The Napaea were the Nymphs of the Valley. In Greek nape means dell.
The Nereides were the 50 daughters of Nereus (the Sea) and Doris. The were the Nymphs of the Sea, and on the right is how one artist supposed them. One of them was Amphitrite. The stories say that it was when they went and performed a dance on the island of Naxos that Poseidon decided to claim Amphitrite as his bride. There is a list of the Nereides being formed here.
- Alternatively the Nysiades, were nymphs that lived on Mount Nysa and raised the young Dionysus after he was stashed their by Zeus after his thigh-birth. Where exactly Mount Nysa is seems unclear, but at least we have the names of the nymphs: Cisseis, Nysa, Erato, Eripha, Brome, and Polyhymno. Really I don't have any more about them, but I'm willing to bet they were pretty funky given what a freak (in a good way. Sometimes.) Dionysus grew up to be.
There were 3000 Oceanides, and they were all the Nymphs of the Ocean. Their mother was the Titaness Tethys and their father the Titan Oceanus.
Oreades were the Nymphs of the Mountains. A particularly famous one is Echo.n
- The Pleiades
There were seven Pleiades, and you can find them when you look in the sky (they are stars). Their names were:
They were the daughters of Pleione (an Oceanid) and Atlas. Pleione means "sailing queen" and so her daughters would be the "sailing ones", but the root could also be peleiades which means a flock of doves and fits perfectly. They waited on Artemis with their half-sisters the Hyades and with them were called the Atalantides, Dodonides, and Nysiades. They were pursued by Orion for seven years, and got away only when Zeus granted their prayers and changed them into doves. The picture on the right is an engraving by F. E. Fillebrown. If you want to know more about the individual Pleiades, there is more on some of them below.
Maia, "Mother" "Nurse"
Alcyone, "Queen who wards off evil [storms]"
Electra, "Amber" "Shining" "Bright"
Sterope or Asterope, "Lightening" "Twinkling" "Sun-face"
Merope "Eloquent" "Mortal" "Bee-eater"
They were Bee-Nymphs who used honey to make prophesies. The three of them raised Apollo, the god of the Oracle of Delphi. Their name is shared with the little stones that are thrown to tell the future.nNymphs by Name - the nymphs interesting enough to say something about:
Acantha was another beautiful nymph with the misfortune to be loved by someone she didn't love back. Apollo was the culprit in this case. He "loved" the nymph so much he tried to rape her. The nymph fought back, scratching the Sun God's face. As a result, the little nymph was transformed into the acanthus tree, a "sun-loving" but thorny plant.
She was the nurse, in Crete, who took care of Zeus and hung his cradle from a tree so that he wasn't in the sea, the earth, or Heaven.
This was the daughter of Asopus, a river god, and Metope (she had TONS of siblings). She was abducted by Zeus, as it every nymph eventually is, it seems, and carried off to the island of Attica (which was renamed after her for a period). There she had a son, Aeacus, and he became the monarch of the island. To make love to her, Zeus changed into a flame of fire. Later, she became a lover of Actor's and had three children by him.n
Agamede was the mother of Actor by Poseidon. She was one of the first to use herbs in healing.
Amaltheia was a nymph who nursed baby Zeus with the milk from a goat. Or, perhaps she was the goat. Both had the same name. Either way, she was responsible for the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. Zeus put the goat and the horn in the sky as constellations.n
Arethusa was one of the many water nymphs who attended Artemis. As one of the Virgin Goddesses followers, she had no interest in men. So when the river-god Alpheus pursued her, Artemis helped her out by turning her into a fountain. Alpheus, however, would not be denied, and changed himself to flow underground so that he could touch her.
In a Hymn to Artemis, Britomartis is described as the nymph Artemis loves best. She is the fawn-slaying, sharpshooting nymph of Gortyn here, but originally she was a Cretan goddess who was adopted by the Artemis cult. Anyway, the story goes that Minos, madly in love with her, chased her all over Crete. She hid in oaks and marshes, but couldn't shake him. Nine months he chased her without relenting until at last he cornered her on a cliff. She leapt off, and was caught by a fishing net and was called, from then on the Lady of the Net.
There are three important parts to this story, the first is that Callisto was very beautiful. This is lucky, considering her name means "most beautiful". The second is that, at some point, she was turned into a bear and/or killed. The third is that it had to do with Zeus and Artemis. See, Callisto was one of Artemis' nymphs (and thus not supposed to be getting down with any men), but Zeus got wise and came to her as Artemis and seduced her. (Hooray for subliminalized lesbianism!) One story says that Zeus immediately turned her into a bear to hide her from Hera, which of course didn't work, since Hera promptly got Artemis to "accidentally" shoot her. Another story says that Zeus just busted and peaced, and that Artemis found out when they were bathing at a spring and she noticed that Callisto was chubbier than she ought to be (she was pregnant - my opinion on this is that they were all bleeding at the same time and she noticed that Callisto was late, but, that's just me) and Artemis then changed her into a bear and hunted her down. Other stories say that Hera hunted her down much later and the death involved Callisto's own son from that union, Arcas. Together, she and her son are the Big Bear and the Little Bear, respectively.
I started off liking her, but now I just think that she's a bore. She was the daughter of Atlas. She is in the story of Odysseus. She takes a fancy to him, and keeps him prisoner for seven years, during which time they sleep together, although Odysseus remains loyal to Penelope (which I don't understand), and eventually Zeus orders her to set him free. She is also in the Goddesses section, because she was a goddess as well as a nymph.
This poor nymph got turned into a turtle because she refused to attend the wedding of Hera and Zeus. The gods condemned her to eternal silence because of her insulting words.
She was the daughter of Asopos the River/God that ran through the Pelopennesus. She was something like a water nymph, then, and there was a town named after her.n
Clymene was but a simple Oceanid, but for a simple Oceanid, she had a lot going on. She was the wife of the Titan Iapetus, and by him bore Atlas, Epimetheus, Prometheus, and Menoetius. In another version, she was the wife of Helios and the mother of Phaeton (who is generally accepted as Apollo's offspring, but oh well). In yet another version she was the mother of Atalanta. Some other sources say that she was the granddaughter of King Minos of Crete and mother of Palamedes. Her name means Famous Might, which is an interesting name for a Oceanid. She's interesting.
Clytie was an Oceanid, a daughter of Ocean and of Tethys. She was a victim of love. She and Helios dated for a while, then he dropped her from some other chick named Leucothoe. After that, she immediately went and told the King of Babylon, Leucothoe's pops, about the affair (non-virgins = a waste of the money it costs to raise a woman), and Pops immediately buried the chick. Now I won't say that Clytie intentionally killed the girl, but I'm positive she knew that her dad wouldn't be thrilled, and thus I'd say good move by Helios to get out of the whole relationship. Clytie, on the other hand, was a pathetic example of an early Greek stalker, and kept on keepin' on after ol' Helios. In her defense, it's not like she could just decide she didn't want to see him anymore, being the Sun and everything. Anyway, she eventually stared so long without surcease that she transformed into that sun-loving flower the "Heliotrope" (means "turned sunward"). That transformation is what got her into Ovid's Metamorphoses (a book you should certainly read if you dig this kind of myth).n
Daphne was the unfortunate Naiad pursued by Apollo. Apollo wouldn't leave her alone, despite her obvious aversion to him. She ran to her father, a river god, and begged for help. Her father did the only thing he could do and transformed her. Just as Apollo would have caught her Daphne grew bark and transformed into a laurel tree. But the God still wouldn't let her be and plucked some of her branches and made them into a wreath, saying she would be his sacred tree. Poor kid.
Echo is probably the most famous of all the nymphs. Her name and her voice live on to this day. An Oread from Mt. Kithairon, she used to run interference when Zeus would come to "play" with the other nymphs. That meant that when Hera came looking for her wayward hubby, Echo would keep her talking until everyone could make a clean get-away. Hera cursed her to lose any ability to speak for herself and to only be able to repeat the words of others. Then she fell in love with Narcissus. If you are interested in the story, check out the longer version in the Myth Pages. And while she loved Narcissus, who paid her no mind, she paid no mind to the loving attentions of the goatish nature god Pan.
Euboea was the daughter of the Asopus (river than ran through the Peloponnesus) and gave her name to an island. She also slept with Poseidon and had a baby by him named Tychius that no one knows anything about.n
Galatea was a Nereid loved by the Cyclop Polyphemus (you know, the stupid one from the Odyssey). This could be bad enough on its own, but matters were complicated because she loved a human named Acis. Acis was murdered by Polyphemus and then one of three things happened. Either she threw herself into the ocean and drowned (odd, being a Nereid), wept so much she was turned into a always-flowing fountain, or accepted Polyphemus and had a child named Galates by him.
Lethe was another Naiad, but her river was in the Underworld. The Lethe was the river of Forgetfulness and Oblivion. Lethe was a daughter of Eris. The rockin' thing about Lethe is that she stayed involved. A lot of these ladies did their own thing, but Lethe worked for a living. Well, now, I'm not sure that "living" is the right word, but anyway, the water from her river was given to those who died so that they might be freed from the lives they had lived before, that they might not miserably remember the earth and the pleasures of the mortality.
Maia, who was sort of a Goddess, has more written about her in the Minor Goddesses section. But, to make a long story short, she slept with Zeus and bore the Messenger God Hermes. She was also one of the Pleiades.
Melissa was one of the nymphic nurses of Zeus, sister to Amaltheia, but rather than feeding the baby milk, Melissa, appropriately for her name (which means honey bee) fed him honey. Or, alternatively, the bees brought honey straight to his mouth. Because of her, Melissai became the name of all the nymphs who cared for the patriarch god as a baby.
Nephele was a nymph who was the first wife of Athamas, King of Orchomenus. He dropped her for this human chica, Ino. She was very bitter and complained to Hera, after which this whole drama ensued. She was the mother of Phrixes and Helle, who she had to protect from Ino, their stepmother.
Called Oenone in Latin, this Naiad was the daughter of the rivergod Kebren. She was a Phrigian nymph who lived during the Trojan War. Now, there are two stories. She was abducted by Paris (yes, you DEFINTELY should know who Paris is) and became his first wife. Later, when he died, she hung herself. Apollodorus, however, says she married Alexandros and bore his son, Corythus. She had learned to prophesy from Rhea, and tried to convince her husband that he would be mortally wounded in Troy, but only she would be able to heal him. He ignored her, and was indeed mortally wounded. Oinone was pissed, and had no interest in helping him. Upon her summoning she refused to heal him, but later changed her mind and hurried to Troy. By the time she got there it was too late and so she threw herself on his funeral pyre. Either way, she kills herself.
Orphne was a nymph who lived in the Underworld. But though she chilled with Persephone, her hubby (Acheron, the ferry-man of the Dead) worked above ground (sort of).
Pallas, according to Apollodorus, was the childhood playmate of Athena. She was a Naiad, the daughter of the rivergod Triton, and both she and Athena were raised to love to fight. One time when they were dueling, Zeus mischievously held up the aegis. Pallas looked away for only a moment, but that was enough, and she fell and died. Athena was distraught, and made a wooden statue of her friend placing the aegis on its breast.
Pitys was a nymph who became a pine tree. She either loved Pan or was loved by him. If she loved him, then she chose Pan over Boreas, the North wind, and Boreas in a jealous rage threw her off a cliff. Gaia took pity on her and changed her into a pine tree which weeps when the wind blows through it. Alternatively, she ran away from Pan and in running away was so changed (like Syrinx and Daphne). Either way, the pine was sacred to Pan and often showed up in his costume.(*)
Rhodus was a nymph who was a daughter of Poseidon. I believe she was also called Rhode. She was the mother of the Heliadae with Helios. The island she lived on was named after her: Rhodes. Eventually the island became the home of the Pillars of Heracles and a certain very cool person named Ramsi.
Rhodope was a nymph from Thrace whose intelligence-impaired-if-enthusiastic husband compared himself and Rhodope to Zeus and Hera. I think this stupidity must have been based from the fact that he was the son of the King of Thrace (the husband's name was Haemus). Anyway, the gods were not having that, so they changed the couple into a mountain range with the same names. Rhodope into the mountain range now called Despoto, and her husband into the Balkan mountain range. There was another Rhodope who was turned into the River Nymph Styx.
Salamis was the daughter of the river Asopus and was pursued by the Sea God Poseidon. In honor of her acceptance of his suit, he named the island that he took her to after her (later a huge naval battle took place there where an awesome real Greek queen named Artemisia played a cool role). No other information is available about this chick, not even whether or not she stuck around the island or went back to her river.n
This is a rape story, but reverse the common gender roles. In this case, the Naiad Salmacis becomes enchanted with the beautiful youth Hermaphroditos, and against his will, the two are made one. Now, in English, obviously, you know that "hermaphrodite" refers to an intersexed person - someone with both male and female physical traits - but that comes from this story. See, originally, Hermaphroditos was just the mix of Hermes, the boy's father, and Aphrodite, his mother. He was perfectly normal, except for perhaps being super-hot. So he's going through the woods, thinking of anything except sex, and Salmacis sees him and is totally smitten. Smitten like a kitten with a mitten. She does everything to get him to give her a little love, but he's like "Back off, nutso!" Well, she does, but only to hide in the bushes and watch him step into her stream. And bam! She runs out and grabs him. He's fighting her off, but it's no good, she's too much woman for him. She calls out to the gods to keep them together forever, and her wish is granted very literally. Their limbs meld, our boy trying to escape the whole time. By the end, he is "weak and soft" and has, you know, woman-junk. He curses the water to make any man who steps in it as effeminate as he. Salmacis has been absorbed. There is much to be learned here about the dangers of a strong and sexual ancient Greek woman. See more on that above.
Styx was a Naiad. Her name meant literally Hateful. This may have been because her river was the one that all of the dead must pass (according to Virgil who was not Greek). Her river was the most holy and sacred, and to swear on it was the most holy oath a God could make, an honor given by Zeus because she helped the Olympian gods defeat the Giants. If an oath was about to be sworn, Iris was sent for some water to witness it, and if the oath was broken, the god could neither breathe, nor eat, nor drink for a full year - tho the water was apparently fatal to mortals. Styx was, according to Hesiod at least, even older than the gods, being the oldest child of Oceanus and Tethys (alternatively a daughter of Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx). Dark she was and is associated with powerful stories. She was a playmate (or mother, according to some) of Persephone, and the mother of Zelus (Zeal), Nike, Kratos (Power), and Bia. Styx was said to have her river outside of the Underworld by Greeks, but her water was still deadly, dangerous, and powerful. Poisonous to men and cattle, it broke through even iron (imagine the water in Tomb Raider), but Thetis knew how to use the water correctly, and it was her careful dipping of Achilles' in the dark river that made him all but invincible. The water of Styx also had a cameo in the story of Psyche, found in the Myth Pages. Another story of Styx is actually the story of a young woman named Rhodope who dedicated herself to Artemis which pissed off the sexually dangerous Aphrodite who caused her to fall in love with a young hunter with whom she did the horizontal mambo in a cave in the mountains. Artemis turned her into a spring called Styx that had the miraculous quality of determining virginity. (If they stood in the water, which would normally be up to their knees, and it came up to their neck, then they weren't virgins. I have two thoughts on this: 1) that's way better than saying you're a witch if you don't drown, and 2) it would suck to be super short if you lived near that spring.) The painting on the right is called Crossing the Styx.
Syrinx is the nymph who was pursued by Pan who, to escape him, begged the gods to save her. They took pity and turned her into reeds. Pan, following Apollo's lead, cut some of the reeds in different sizes and made a set of pipes, called the pan pipes from then on.
She was one of Apollo's lovers and the mother of one of the kings of Sicyon. That's it! The rest (if there was ever more) has been lost to history.n
Thetis was the chief Nereid for a long time, and it was she who found the baby Hephaestos and nursed him back to health after he was thrown from Olympus (if you don't get it, check out the Myth Pages). Zeus wanted her for his lover, but she rejected him (good for her!). Then, the Goddess Themis prophesied that she would bear a son mightier than his father. Hearing that, Zeus stopped being horny and started being scared, and immediately decreed that she could only marry a mortal. She did, and ended up becoming wife to Peleus, and mother of Achilles. As his mother, she tried to make him invincible. There are two versions of what she did, and why she missed his heel. If you don't know them you should check out the Myth Pages.n
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Last Updated July 16, 2011