Not only do many Hellenic polytheists today not honor their nymphs or local land-spirits on a regular basis but I’ve heard from plenty of folks that they don’t feel them or see them and wouldn’t even begin to know how to. Although I find this a little sad (because nymphs are so awesome!) and frankly incomprehensible (because they’re such a big part of my spiritual path it’s like trying to imagine a world without music) it’s not really all that surprising to me. Leaving aside the whole issue of how modern man tends to be disconnected from his environment and oblivious to its life-cycles – including far too many pagans and polytheists, if you ask me – the biggest stumbling-block to having an awareness of nymphs, let alone cultivating a relationship with them, has got to be our preconceived notions about what nymphs are like.
I’ll be honest – this is something I had to get over as well. Like a lot of people I originally assumed that nymphs were these lovely, slim-ankled maidens being chased by lusty satyrs through the woods or darkly seductive ingénues who waited at the bottom of lakes for dim-witted but handsome shepherds to come by so that they could lure them down to a premature watery death. After all, that’s how poets and painters have presented them for centuries. And yes, sometimes that’s even how they’ll reveal themselves to a person – though it isn’t the only or even the most common way that they appear.
Usually it’s much more subtle than that. A rustling of leaves or sudden motion caught out of the corner of your eye; the faint echo of footfalls, whispered voices or sounds that could be distant music; light playing on the surface of the water or a pile of leaves; a strong scent filling your nostrils. Sometimes you’ll have a kinesthetic response: the hair rises on your body, you feel a phantom touch on your arm or cheek or you get a tingling sensation at your scalp or the back of your neck. Sometimes there is nothing more definite than an overwhelming and undeniable sense of presence. You are suddenly aware that you are not alone, that something somewhere nearby is watching you, that it has a personality and that personality is very different from your own.
Of course this is not the only way that they reveal themselves to us. I’ve gotten to the point where I can recognize particular spirits distinct from all the rest; I have communicated with some directly and had visionary experiences of them as well; and they have even shown me forms that resemble our own. But they aren’t human and we should always keep that in mind when dealing with them. They are strange and wild creatures who have their own peculiar morality. In fact, they can be very dangerous at times, even for those whom they like. Their mood changes swiftly and unpredictably – after I have done what I came for I am always quick to leave their dwelling. You cannot domesticate a nymph: wildness is a fundamental part of their being.
That’s why if you want to know them you’ve got to go to the wild places. You must approach them on
their terms. You cannot learn about them in safety, skimming through old books or listening to what other people tell you about them. Such tools can be a fine way to start the journey but they’ll only take you so far. Eventually you have to put all that aside and plunge headlong into the wild – for that is where they are found. Before you can meet them you have to meet the places where they live.
Unfortunately we city-dwellers are often uncomfortable in such wild places. The stillness of the forest is uncanny. We are used to the roar of cars, the cacophony of voices, music and advertizing, the monotonous blur of concrete, glass, and billboards rushing by us. But in the wild everything seems so much quieter, slower. The stillness can be strange at first – and uncomfortable as there is now no background noise to blot out the thoughts racing through your head except for the occasional birdcall or rustling of the leaves. But look a little closer. There is a whole other world beneath the surface.
Look at the trees all around you. No, really look. Don’t just see them as an undifferentiated mass of green and brown – but seek out the particulars. The thousand separate shades of green, the infinite variation of individual leaves and stunning moss patterns, the grass and flowers and mulch that gives sustenance to the forest. Look at the spiders hanging in the branches, the insects crawling over a leaf, the birds singing in the distance: a whole world of which you are not normally aware and yet are still an integral part of. Kneel down. Feel the mud and damp soil beneath your fingers. Really feel it. Yes, it is dirty and gross – but this is the source of life. Pick up a rock and notice its heft in your fingers. Is it rough and jagged or has it been worn smooth? What color is it? Not brown or grey – that’s what your eye sees when it’s not really looking – but what sort of veins and shading does it have, what patterns have the dirt-smudges formed, can you make out the flecks of red and blue that are only visible when you tilt it towards the sun? Now stand up and take a deep breath. What do you smell and taste on the air? The soil, the decomposing leaves, the moss, the dampness. What else? What else?
Spend as long as you can in the wild place, really experiencing everything about it that you are able to. Let the sensation of it wash over you, fill you, awaken the spirit within you. Let the awareness of its numinous power and beauty come to you as it will: in its own time, in its own way. Don’t try to force it. Don’t let your expectations distract you. Be present, be aware, and if you’re not getting it, just give it more time. It’ll happen. Maybe not the way you were thinking it would. Maybe something else, something small and inconsequential stands out for you and not some majestic vision of Mother Nature’s awesomeness … that’s okay. Go with it. See where it leads. See what this wild place has to show you in particular.
And once you are able to recognize that you will have begun developing the faculties that allow you to perceive the nymphs who are the spirits that animate the place. And once you’re able to see them, well, that’s when things start to get really interesting! But I’ll leave that for another time, and instead close with one of my favorite passages from antiquity, a letter written by the great Stoic philosopher Seneca:
If you have ever come on a dense wood of ancient trees that have risen to an exceptional height, shutting out all sight of the sky with one thick screen of branches upon another, the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, your sense of wonderment at finding so deep and unbroken a gloom out of doors will persuade you of the presence of a deity. Any cave in which the rocks have been eroded deep into the mountain resting on it, its hollowing out into a cavern of impressive extent not produced by the labours of men but the result of the processes of nature, will strike into your soul some kind of inkling of the divine. We venerate the source of important streams; places where a mighty river bursts suddenly from hiding are provided with altars; hot springs are objects of worship; the darkness or unfathomable depth of pools has made their waters sacred.