by Sarah Kate Istra Winter
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.