Readings for reflection: the Nymphai

Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 31
Tellers of stories say that in the land of the Messapians near the so-called Sacred Rocks there appeared the choral troupe of the Nymphai Epimelides. Young Messapians left their flocks to view them. They declared they themselves could dance better. What they said irritated the Nymphai and rivalry arose increasingly over their dancing. Because the youths did not know that they were competing with deities, they danced as they would in a contest with mortals of their own age. Their manner of dancing, being that of shepherds, was without art, while that of the Nymphai was entirely dedicated to beauty. In their dancing they surpassed the youths and they said to them: “Young men, did you want to compete against the Nymphai Epimelides? So, you foolish fellows, now that you have been beaten, you will be punished.” The youths, as they stood by the sanctuary of the Nymphai, were changed into trees. Even today one hears at night the sound of groans coming from the trunks. The place is called that of the Nymphai and the Youths

Apollodoros, Bibliotheka 3.26-29
Kadmos had as daughters Autonoe, Ino, Semele and Agaue … Zeus fell in love with Semele and slept with her, promising her anything she wanted, and keeping it all from Hera. But Semele was deceived by Hera into asking Zeus to come to her as he came to Hera during their courtship. So Zeus, unable to refuse, arrived in her bridal chamber in a chariot with lightning flashes and thunder, and sent a thunderbolt at her. Semele died of fright, and Zeus grabbed from the fire her six-month aborted baby, which he sewed into his thigh. After Semele’s death the remaining daughters of Kadmos circulated the story that she had slept with a mortal, thereafter accusing Zeus, and because of this had been killed by a thunderbolt. At the proper time Zeus loosened the stitches and gave birth to Dionysos, whom he entrusted to Hermes. Hermes took him to Ino and Athamas, and persuaded them to bring him up as a girl. Incensed, Hera inflicted madness on them, so that that Athamas stalked and slew his elder son Learkhos on the conviction that he was a dear, while Ino threw Melikertes into a basin of boiling water, and then, carrying both the basin and the corpse of the boy, she jumped to the bottom of the sea. Now she is called Leukothea, and her son is Palaimon: these names they receive from those who sail, for they help sailors beset by storms. As for Zeus, he escaped Hera’s anger by changing Dionysos into a baby goat. Hermes took him to the Nymphai of Asian Nysa, whom Zeus in later times places among the stars and named the Hyades.

Scholiast on Apollonios Rhodios’ Argonautika 2.1271
For those who arrived in a foreign land the custom was to sacrifice to the local gods and heroes.

Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika 4.1128
Makris was the daughter of Aristaios, the honey-loving shepherd who discovered the secret of the bees and the riches that the olive yields in payment for our toil. It was Makris, who in Abantian Euboia, took the infant Dionysos to her bosom and moistened his parched lips with honey, when Hermes had rescued him from the flames and brought him to her. But Hera saw this and in her anger banished her from Euboia. So Makris came to the remote Phaiakian land, where she lived in the sacred cave and brought abundance to the people.

Apollonios Rhodios, Argonautika 4.1408–1418
The women instantly turned to dust and earth there on the spot. Orpheus recognized the divine portent and for his comrades’ sake sought to comfort the nymphs with prayers. “O goddesses beautiful and kind, be gracious, O queens whether you are counted among the heavenly goddesses or those under the earth, or are called solitary nymphs, come, O nymphs, holy offspring of Ocean, and appear before our longing eyes and show us either some flow of water from a rock or some sacred stream gushing from the ground, goddesses, with which we may relieve our endlessly burning thirst.”

Aubrey de Sélincourt, The World of Herodotus pp. 186-187
Place, and the asssociations of place, had for a Greek a deeper meaning than they can possibly have in our nore diffused and undifferentiated world, where a man can move a hundred, or a thousand, miles and still feel himself at home. But the Greek was rooted in his little community; there it lay, on some lonely hill, perhaps, or in the corner of some deserted inlet of the coast, isolated and alone, the symbol to him of everything he held dear, his only protection, such as it was, against wild nature, and the enemy who might at any moment be at the gates. Every stone of it was sacred, every yard of its surrounding fields and olive-groves and scanty pasture. He knew it all, and loved it all, as he loved his own house; it was his intimate possession, haunted and blessed by its own guardian spirits and gods. And because it was in perpetual peril, he only loved it the more. I have said something in a previous chapter about the adjectives which Greek poets found it natural to apply to their towns and islands—adjectives which to us seem more suitable for a lover to apply to his beloved.

Diodoros Sikeleiotes, Library of History 4.79.6 – 4.80.1-4
And at a later time, after the capture of Troy, when Meriones the Cretan came to shore in Sicily, they welcomed, because of their kinship to them, the Cretans who landed with him and shared with them their citizenship; and using as their base a well-fortified city and having subdued certain of the neighbouring peoples, they secured for themselves a fairly large territory. And growing steadily stronger all the while they built a temple to the Mothers and accorded these goddesses unusual honours, adorning their temple with many votive offerings. The cult of these goddesses, so men say, they moved from their home in Crete, since the Cretans also hold these goddesses in special honour.

The account which the myths preserve of the Mothers runs like this: They nurtured Zeus of old without the knowledge of his father Kronos, in return for which Zeus translated them into the heavens and designated them as a constellation which he named the Bears. And Aratus agrees with this account when he states in his poem on the stars:

Turned backwards then upon their shoulders are
The Bears; if true it be that they from Crete
Into the heavens mounted by the will
Of mighty Zeus, for that when he was babe
In fragrant Dicton near th’ Idaean mount
They set him in a cave and nurtured him
A year, the while Curetes Dictaean
Practised deceit on Kronos.

There is no reason why we should omit to mention the sanctity of these goddesses and the renown which they enjoy among mankind. They are honoured, indeed, not only by the inhabitants of this city, but certain of the neighbouring peoples also glorify these goddesses with magnificent sacrifices and every other kind of honour. Some cities were indeed commanded by oracles from the Pythian god to honour the goddesses, being assured that in this way the lives of their private citizens would be blessed with good fortune and their cities would flourish.

Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.84.1-4
At this time we shall endeavour to set forth what the myths relate concerning Daphnis. There are in Sicily, namely, the Heraean Mountains, which, men say, are naturally well suited, by reason of the beauty and nature and special character of the region round about, to relaxation and enjoyment in the summer season. For they possess many springs of exceptionally sweet water and are full of trees of every description. On them also is a multitude of great oak-trees which bear fruit of extraordinary size, since it is twice as large as any that grows in other lands. And they possess as well some of the cultivated fruits, which have sprung up of their own accord, since the vine is found there in profusion and tree-fruits in quantities beyond telling. Consequently the area once supported a Carthaginian army when it was facing starvation, the mountains supplying tens of thousands of soldiers with sources of food for their unfailing sustenance. It was in this region, where there were glens filled with trees and meet for a god and a grove consecrated to the nymphs, that, as the myths relate, he who was known as Daphnis was born, a son of Hermes and a Nymph, and he, because of the sweet bay (daphnê) which grew there in such profusion and so thick, was given the name Daphnis. He was reared by Nymphs, and since he possessed very many herds of cattle and gave great attention to their care, he was for this reason called by the name Bucolus or “Neatherd.” And being endowed with an unusual gift of song, he invented the bucolic or pastoral poem and the bucolic song which continues to be so popular throughout Sicily to the present day. The myths add that Daphnis accompanied Artemis in her hunting, serving the goddess in an acceptable manner, and that with his shepherd’s pipe and singing of pastoral songs he pleased her exceedingly. The story is also told that one of the Nymphs became enamoured of him and prophesied to him that if he lay with any other woman he would be deprived of his sight; and indeed, when once he had been made drunken by a daughter of a king and had lain with her, he was deprived of his sight in accordance with the prophecy delivered by the Nymph.

Hermias, Commentary on the Phaedrus of Plato
Nymphs are goddesses who preside over regeneration, and are ministrant to Dionysos, the offspring of Semele. Hence they dwell near water, that is, they are conversant with generation. But Dionysos supplies the regeneration of the whole sensible world.

Hesiod, The Precepts of Chiron Fragment 3
A chattering crow lives out nine generations of aged men, but a stag’s life is four times a crow’s and a raven’s life makes three stags old, while the Phoenix outlives nine ravens, but we, the rich-haired Nymphai, daughters of Zeus the aegis-holder, outlive ten Phoenixes.

Hesiod, Theogony 147-187
Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Gaia received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Gigantes with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphai whom they call Meliai all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew the maiden Aphrodite.

Homeric Hymn 26 to Dionysos
The rich-haired Nymphai received him in their bosoms from the lord his father and fostered and nurtured him carefully in the dells of Nysa, where by the will of his father he grew up in a sweet-smelling cave, being reckoned among the immortals. But when the goddesses had brought him up, a god oft hymned, then began he to wander continually through the woody coombes, thickly wreathed with ivy and laurel. And the Nymphai followed in his train with him for their leader; and the boundless forest was filled with their outcry.

Scholiast on Homer’s Iliad 18.486
Zeus gave Dionysos, born from his thigh, to be nursed by the Dodonian nymphs, Ambrosia, Koronis, Eudore, Dione, Phaisyle, Polyxos, Phaio. Having nursed Dionysos, they went around with him, bestowing the vine invention by the god upon humankind. And Lykourgos chased Dionysos as far as the sea, but Zeus pitied them and turned them into stars. The story is in Pherekydes.

Leonidas of Tarentum, Greek Anthology 7.715
Far from Italy and from my fatherland of Taras I lie;
this to me is more bitter than death.
This kind of wandering life is lifeless,
but the Muses have looked kindly upon me,
and so instead of pains I have what is sweet.
The name of Leonidas will not dim:
the gifts of the Muses will herald me for all time.

Leonidas of Tarentum, Greek Anthology 9.326
Greetings, chilly stream that leaps down from the cleft rock
And you wooden images of the Nymphs carved by a shepherd
And you drinking troughs from the springs,
and in the water these little ornaments of yours,
maidens, thousands of them, drenched.
Hail. I, Aristocles, this sojourner, give you this present
With which I quenched my thirst, dipping it in your waters.

Bonnie MacLachlan, Kore as Nymph, not Daughter: Persephone in a Locrian Cave
As in the Grotta Caruso, we have in Syracuse the collocation of death, nymphs and theater. We also have water: today, the water still flows from a spring through the alcove of the central cave. Before the construction of the Syracusan theater the niches in the rocks (some artificial and some natural) afforded places for votive deposits to the nymphs who provided fresh water. Even earlier, the pre-Greek population used these niches for burials. When Paolo Orsi excavated the nymphaeum in 1900 he found female busts, nymph-plaques with three small heads, a relief of Pan and a silen mask: the nymphs here were poised to play. The collocation of theaters with springs, fountains and nymphaea is remarkably common in the Greek Mediterranean world: examples are found in Sicily at Agrigento, Akrai, Morgantina, Segesta, Tindari and Taormina. And the collocation in various sites of votive artifacts representing Demeter/Persephone with comic figures and masks is no less striking. Perhaps the most impressive collection to date was unearthed on the island of Lipari, off the north shore of Sicily. (These are described by Bernabò Brea in Menandro e il teatro Greco nelle terracotta liparese, 1981.) Here, in the necropolis known as Contrada Diana, was a Koreion. Busts of Persephone were found in the Koreion together with silens. From tombs in the necropolis came a stunning and precious collection of terracotta masks, of characters from Attic tragedy and satyr plays, from Middle Comedy, phlyax plays, and New Comedy. Lipari was clearly devoted to the theater in the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.E., and the theatrical life appears to have been continued after death. In many tombs were found eggs, a universal symbol of death and renewal. Eggs also appear to have been tied to the phlyax theater. On a Lucanian crater from the 4th century a phlyax player holds up a platter with five eggs (P. Claudio Sestieri, Dioniso 7 [1940] 191-95). In another Campanian crater a phlyax player converses with Dionysos; the god holds his thyrsos, the actor a torch in his right hand and an egg in his left (Gennaro Pesce, Dioniso 7 [1939] 162-65). This is a clear collocation of the chthonic and the playful.

Nonnos, Dionysiaka 9. 28 ff
Hermes gave him to the daughters of Lamos, river Nymphai – the son of Zeus, the vineplanter. They received Bakchos into their arms; and each of them dropt the milky juice of her breast without pressing into his mouth … The consort of Zeus beheld the babe, and suffered torments. Through the wrath of resentful Hera, the daughters of Lamos were maddened by the lash of that divine mischiefmaker. In the house they attacked the servants, in threeways they carved up the wayfaring man with alienslaying knife. Indeed they would have chopt up little Bakchos, a baby still, piecemeal in the distracted flood of their vagabond madness, had not Hermes come on wing and stolen Bakchos again with a robber’s untracked footsteps.

Oppian, Cynegetica 4. 230
Ino, scion of Agenor, reared the infant Bakchos and first gave her breast to the son of Zeus, and Autonoe likewise and Agaue joined in nursing him, but not in the baleful halls of Athamas, but on the mountain which at that time men called by the name Meros (Thigh). For greatly fearing the mighty spouse of Zeus and dreading the tyrant Pentheus, son of Echion, they laid the holy child in a coffer of pine and covered it with fawn-skins and wreathed it with clusters of the vine, in a grotto where round the child they danced the mystic dance and beat drums and clashed cymbals in their hands, to veil the cries of the infant. It was around that hidden ark that they first showed forth their mysteries, and with them the Aionian women secretly took part in the rites. And they arrayed a gathering of their faithful companion to journey from that mountain out of the Boiotian land. For now, now was it fated that a land, which before was wild, should cultivate the vine at the instance of Dionysos who delivers from sorry. Then the holy choir took up the secret coffer and wreathed it and set it on the back of an ass. And they came unto the shores of Euripos, where they found a seafaring old man with his sons, and all together they besought the fishermen that they might cross the water in their boats. Then the old man had compassion on them and received on board the holy women. And lo! On the benches of his boat flowered the lush bindweed and flooming vine and ivy wreathed the stern. Now would the fishermen, cowering in god-sent terror, have dived into the sea, but ere that the boat came to land. And to Euboia the women came, carrying the god, and to the abode of Aristaios, who dwelt in a cave on the top of a mountain at Karyai and who instructed the life of country-dwelling men in countless things; he was the first to establish the flock of sheep; he first pressed the fruit of the oily wild olive, first curdled the milk with rennet making cheese, and brought the gentle bees from the oak and shut them up in hives. He at that time received the infant Dionysos from the coffer of Ino and reared him in his cave and nursed him with the help of the Dryades and the Nymphai that have bees in their keeping and the maidens of Euboia and the Aionian women. And, when Dionysos was now come to boyhood, he played with the other children; he would cut a fennel stalk and smite the hard rocks, and from their wounds they poured for the god sweet liquor. Otherwhiles he rent rams, skins and all, and clove them piecemeal and cast the dead bodies on the ground; and again with his hands he neatly put their limbs together, and immediately they were alive and browsed on the green pasture. And now he was attended by holy companies, and over all the earth were spread the gifts of Dionysos, son of Thyone, and everywhere he went about showing forth his excellence to men.

Ovid, Fasti 6. 319
Coroneted Cybele, with her crown of turrets, invites the eternal gods to her feast. She invites, too, Satyrs and Nymphs, the Spirits of the Wild; Silenus is present, uninvited. It’s not allowed and too long to narrate the Gods’ banquet: night was consumed with much wine. Some blindly stroll shadowy Ida’s dells, or lie down and rest their bodies in the soft grass. Others play or are clasped by sleep; or link their arms and thump the green earth in triple quick step.

Pindar’s Dithyramb Herakles the Bold
Wise are they that know what manner of festival of Bromios
the Ouranidai hold in their halls, hard by the sceptre of Zeus.
In the adorable presence of the mighty Mother of the Gods,
the prelude is the whirling of timbrels;
there is also the ringing of rattles,
and the torch that blazeth beneath the glowing pine-trees.
There, too, are the loudly sounding laments of the Naides,
and there the frenzied shouts of dancers are aroused,
with the thong that tosseth the neck on high;
there too hath been brandished
the almighty fire-breathing thunderbolt of Zeus,
and the spear of Enyalios,
while the war-like aegis of Pallas resoundeth
with the hissings of countless serpents.
Meanwhile, lightly cometh the lone huntress Artemis,
who in Bacchic revels hath yoked the brood of savage lions for Bromios,
who is enchanted even by the dancing herds of wild beasts.

Plutarch, Life of Lysander 28.4
The spring called Kissousa (of the ivy) on Mt Kithairon; here, as the story goes, his nurses bathed the infant Dionysos after his birth for the water has the color and sparkle of wine, is clear, and very pleasant to the taste.

Seneca, Epistles
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.

Timaeus, Histories 22
It was customary in Sicily to make a sacrifice from house to house in honour of the Nymphs, and for men to spend the night around their statues when quite drunk, and to dance around the Goddesses.