On Nymphs

This is the sum total of all the information I wrote and collected for Wildivine on nymphs. Remember once again that all of this was written long ago and hasn’t been reviewed or revised recently. There’s an essay about nymph worship, followed by a suggestion for ritual, then ancient hymns and epigrams for the nymphs, which I took a lot of time typing up and wanted to preserve. 

Nymph Worship

Worship of the nymphs – the divinities of the natural features of the landscape – was very important in ancient Greek religion, especially in the rural areas. A shepherd or farmer might even pay more regular cult to the nymphs than he would to the Olympians, because the nymphs impacted his daily life. They lived all around him in the woods, in his pastures, they guarded the spring water his goats drank, they lived in the same caves that gave him occasional shelter. Greek pastoral poetry speaks of shepherds meeting and sometimes falling in love with nymphs, during the long hours they spent with their flocks on mountainsides. And yet, one rarely hears the nymphs mentioned in modern Hellenic circles, which is why I am writing about them here.

There are many different names for the nymphs, depending on what type they are. The word nymph itself means “bride”, although nymphs are rarely married; however they are always female – their male counterparts are the satyrs, silens, and centaurs. Dryads are nymphs of the trees, especially oaks, who are so bound together that they are born and die with their trees. (In general, nymphs are said to live extremely long lives, but are not actually immortal.) Oreades are nymphs of the mountains. Naiads belong to springs and other bodies of water, whereas nereids are nymphs of the ocean, and limnades live in lakes, marshes and swamps. Epimeliades protect sheep flocks, and leimoniades reside in flowery meadows. There are many more.

Some individual nymphs figure prominently in mythology. For example, Thetis (a nereid), the mother of Akhilles; Echo who fled from Pan; Daphne who was chased by Apollon and became his beloved laurel tree; and Maia, the mother of Hermes. In myths, the nymphs are most often in the company of (or being chased by) Pan, Hermes, Apollon and Dionysos – the rural gods. Whereas mythology tends to portray these relationships as rather unwelcome or hostile, in cult it seems these gods were worshipped side by side with the nymphs, with no animosity suggested.

An example of such were the nymphs of the Korykian Cave on Mt. Parnassos, above sacred Delphi. This cave was particularly holy, not just to the nymphs but to Pan, Hermes and perhaps Dionysos as well. The nymphs there are mentioned in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, when Apollon tells Hermes to find them, for they will teach him the skills of divination. They are portrayed as bees, and in fact the nymphs were often associated with bees elsewhere, and honey is known as an especially appropriate gift for them.

Almost everywhere the nymphs were known for their healing abilities (also often present in the waters they protect) and for their prophetic powers. Religious rites for them often included some form of simple divination, like the use of astragaloi (knucklebones). Thousands of knucklebones were found in the archaeological excavation of the Korykian Cave, and of many other nymph caves in Greece. The nymphs could also bestow this gift of prophecy on certain mortals; such a person might then become a nympholept.

The word nympholepsy has a number of connotations. One refers to an overall heightened awareness and increased verbal skills, thought to also be a gift from the nymphs, which made a man into a poet. A more negative version of nympholepsy views possession by the nymphs as an unwanted illness. Sometimes the word describes a physical rapture, an actual abduction of a person by the nymphs. Finally, a nympholept can mean a person who is exceptionally devoted in a religious sense to the nymphs, one who keeps a sanctuary for them and is inspired to prophesize.

Historically, these nympholepts occupied a marginalized role in society like many other visionary types, and yet they often created and maintained important cult sites for the nymphs that were visited by pilgrims. The nympholept sometimes had a special relationship with one particular nymph, a relationship that may have been romantic/sexual in nature. Hence, since all Greek nymphs are female, nympholepts were men.

The love of the nymphs was so strong in the Greek people that it survived the conversion to Christianity, and is the one major feature of ancient religion still practiced up to recent times. In modern rural Greece, all nymphs are now called nereids, but the myths and practices have stayed relatively unchanged over the centuries. Tales are still told of boys or men being captured by a nymph, and offerings are still made at wells and rivers and such.

However, modern Hellenic paganism has, it seems, largely overlooked this important aspect of ancient practice, to our detriment. We have focused on the gods and the cult of the city too much, and have left behind the vital spirits of nature. These spirits, or demi-gods, or whatever you want to label them – the nymphs – are present everywhere, even in cities. In Athens there were still places to worship the nymphs, usually around wells. And so there are fountains, and trees, and parks in our modern cities, plenty of places to feel the presence of the nymphs and pay them cult.

I think it is time for a revival of the cult of the nymphs in modern Hellenismos. It is so easy to begin, just leave offerings in your area at a prominent river or stream, a beautiful tree, cave, or any other natural feature. Appropriate offerings include libations (though it was said that the nymphs do not appreciate wine libations, as it casts aspersion on their own fresh water), astragaloi, honey, jewelry, shells, and votive female figurines. Next perhaps we could start to build shrines in the wilds, to honor them. And I think that some people, having endeavored to meet the nymphs more directly in their area, might even develop a more personal and intimate relationship with a specific nymph, along the lines of the ancient nympholepts.

Overall, I believe rediscovering the nymphs will greatly enrich our religion, as well as encourage us to pay the proper respect these beautiful divinities deserve.

A Theoxenia for the Nymphs

Worship of the nymphs, while important and ubiquitous in ancient Greece, has not come down to us in detail. We know where the nymphs are likely to be found (caves, springs, trees, mountains, meadows, gardens, fountains), we know some of the most common votive offerings (knucklebones, reliefs, dolls, jewelry, pottery, coins, lamps, seashells, flowers) and libations (honey, water, milk, oil, sometimes wine). But we don’t know much about the rituals themselves, and we have no complete record of a festival for the nymphs.

A couple years ago, I decided to create a few modern festivals for the nymphs. I placed them on the 27th of four lunar months, after a calendar from the deme Erchia which listed a sacrifice to the nymphs on that day. Each festival focuses on one kind of nymph, the ones I feel most connected to – limnades (marshes and lakes), dryads (trees), oreades (mountains) and naiads (springs, rivers). Of course an important part of these festivals would be going to seek out the nymphs in each of these particular areas. But what then? Aside from leaving offerings, what else could be done on a festival for the nymphs?

One of my favorite traditions from antiquity is called a theoxenia – a feast held in honor of a god or gods, to which the deity is invited and served as a special guest. A theoxenia is treated essentially as a divine dinner party. A formal invitation is made for the god. Tables are set opulently, food and drink served, music played. Sometimes there is an object, such as a small statue, at one seat to represent the god. The god’s plate is heaped high with good food, his/her cup filled with wine, and the god’s presence is felt throughout the meal.

Adapting a theoxenia festival for the nymphs would not be breaking new ground. We know that there was one held for Dionysos and the nymphs at Mytilene, called the Theodaisia. And banquets in general were considered appropriate offerings for them. But I suggest that a particularly appropriate format for a nymph theoxenia would be as an outdoor picnic.

The first step is to find a nymph-haunted place in your area. This might be an especially beautiful spot, or one where you feel inspired. It might be a prominent natural feature, such as the largest river or mountain nearby. If hosting a theoxenia for a particular type of nymph, you would need to search out their specific home – for instance, a marshy place for the limnades. Before the meal (or even a couple days before) it might be a good idea to clean up the area if there is litter – not only is this a good gesture towards the nymphs of the place, but beautifying natural areas was actually a form of devotional activity for the nymphs in ancient times too.

I like to make physical invitations for the gods or nymphs for my theoxenia. Handmade cards are good for this. Afterwards, they can be burnt as offerings, left on an indoor personal shrine, or saved with other mementos. A beautiful space can be created for the meal, using a nice picnic blanket, actual plates and cups (rather than paper or plastic), flowers, and other decorations. A full place setting should be laid out for the nymphs, including silverware, napkin, etc., and obviously also a full portion of the food and drink that is served. The menu is up to you, though I would suggest including something they might particularly like, such as honeybuns or strawberry shortcake. Pure spring water would make both a good drink and good libation liquid. (While some people say the nymphs do not accept wine libations, the ancient sources I’ve read indicate that this was only true in some areas, and I would suggest asking your local nymphs directly. I’ve found that many like a nice, dry white wine, and mead is especially nice if you can find it, since it is made from honey, one of their special foods.)

I would begin the festival with a libation and the reading of a hymn or prayer; my favorite is the Orphic Hymn to the Nymphs, which mentions several different types. Reading the invitation out loud would be a nice gesture as well. I would also suggest that during the meal, irrelevant conversation be kept to a minimum, and the guests should be aware of the presence of the nymphs around them, and act accordingly. Poetry could be read, songs sung, instruments played. Music and dance are especially pleasing to the nymphs. When everyone is ready to go home, a final libation should be poured, and the nymphs should be thanked for being your guests. Make sure not to leave any litter behind; the spot should look just as good or better than when you came. Finally, coming back to the same place repeatedly for future nymph picnics would be a good way to establish kharis with the local nymphs.

For more information on theoxenia in ancient Greece, I recommend the article “Theoxenia” by Michael. H. Jameson in Ancient Greek Cult Practice Form the Epigraphical Evidence.

Ancient Hymns to the Nymphs

Orphic Hymn to the Nymphs (trans. Athanassakis) – incense: aromatic herbs

Nymphs, daughters of great-hearted Okeanos,
you dwell inside the earth’s damp caves
and your paths are secret, O joyous and chthonic ones, nurses of Bacchos,
You nourish fruits and haunt meadows, O sprightly and pure
travelers of the winding roads who delight in caves and grottoes.
Swift, light-footed, and clothed in dew, you frequent springs;
visible and invisible, in ravines and among flowers,
you shout and frisk with Pan upon mountain sides.
Gliding down on rocks, you hum with clear voice, O mountain-haunting
sylvan maidens of the fields and streams.
O sweet-smelling virgins, clad in white, fresh as the breezes,
with goatherds, pastures and splendid fruits in your domain. You are loved by creatures of the wild.
Tender though you are, you rejoice in cold and you give sustenance and growth to many,
O playful and water-loving Hamadryad maidens.
Dwellers of Nysa, frenzied and healing goddesses who joy in spring,
together with Bacchos and Deo you bring grace to mortals.
With joyful hearts come to this hallowed sacrifice
and in the seasons of growth pour streams of salubrious rain.

Orphic Hymn to the Nereids (trans. Athanassakis) – incense: aromatic herbs

O lovely-faced and pure nymphs, daughters of Nereus who lives in the deep,
at the bottom of the sea you gambol and dance in the water.
Fifty maidens revel in the waves,
maidens riding on the backs of Tritons and delighting
in animal shapes and bodies nurtured by the sea
and in the other dwellers of the Tritons’ billowy kingdom.
Your home is the water, and you leap and whirl round the waves,
like glistening dolphins roving the roaring seas.
I call upon you to bring much prosperity to the initiates,
for you were first to show the holy rite
of sacred Bacchos and of pure Persephone,
you and mother Kalliope, and Apollon the lord.

Ancient Epigrams for the Nymphs

Old Biton of Arcady dedicated these things to rustic Pan,
and Bacchus the reveller, and the nymphs; to Pan a
newly born kid, its mother’s play-fellow, to Bacchus a branch
of vagrant ivy, to the Nymphs the varied bloom of shady
Autumn and blood-red roses in full flower. In return for
which, bless the old man’s house with abundance –
ye Nymphs, of water, Pan of milk, and Bacchus,
of grapes.

A triple gift did Biton dedicate under the greenwood tree,
to Pan a goat, roses to the Nymphs, and a thyrsus to
Bacchus. Receive with joy his gifts, ye gods, and increase,
Pan his flocks, ye Nymphs his fountain, and Bacchus
his cellar.

Ye Anigrian nymphs, daughters of the stream, ambrosial beings
that ever tread these depths with your rosy feet, all hail, and
cure Cleonymus, who set up for you under the pines
these fair images.

Hail, thou cold stream that leapest down from the
cloven rock, and ye images of the Nymphs carved by a shepherd’s hand!
Hail, ye drinking troughs and your thousand little dolls,
ye Maidens of the spring, that lie drenched in its waters. All hail! And I,
Aristocles, the wayfarer, give you this cup which I dipped in your
stream to quench my thirst.

To the Nymphs is this statue dedicated, and the
place is in their care. Yea, may it be their care that
a constant stream flow from the fountain.

To shock-headed Pan and the Nymphs of the sheepfold
did the shepherd Theodotus set this his gift here
under the hill, because, when he was sore tired
by the parching summer heat, they refreshed him,
holding out to him sweet water in their hands.

~ by Dver on February 13, 2013.

5 Responses to “On Nymphs”

  1. Very interesting. What you said about the occasional romantic/sexual relationships between men and nymphs reminds me of some comments I once read from a Siberian shaman about a spirit who lived with him as his wife. I wonder if the worship of nymphs is rooted in much older “shamanistic” religion…

    • I feel that “shamanistic religion” is a misnomer. Religions that have shamans are traditionally animistic and/or polytheistic. Shamans are just spiritual specialists, they don’t define the religion as practiced by the non-shamans of the community, if you see what I mean. It would be like calling Catholicism “priest religion”. So, I think what we’re seeing here is that in religions that recognize the spirits of nature (including ancient Greek polytheistic religion, and also all indigenous religions that utilize shamans), some people end up being drawn into intense and intimate relationships with said spirits.

      • I agree. In fact, most religions make use (at least marginally) of people who achieve altered states of consciousness, go on spirit journeys, have dreams and visions, etc. Even Catholicism does, so the lines really do become blurred. Also, if you read Jordan Paper’s THE DEITIES ARE MANY, he points out that in “shamanistic” societies, “everyone shamanizes a little.”

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