A Theoxenia for the Nymphs
by Sarah Kate Istra Winter
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.