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Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs Manchester Art Gallery 1896.15.jpg
In this 1896 painting of Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse, Hylas is abducted by the Naiads, i.e. fresh water nymphs
Sub groupingNature spirit
Similar creaturesMermaid, huldra, selkie, siren
MythologyGreek mythology

A nymph (Greek: νύμφη nýmphē, Ancient: [nýmpʰɛː] Modern: [nífi]) in Greek mythology is a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform.

Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in mountainous regions and forests by springs or rivers; as Walter Burkert (Burkert 1985:III.3.3) remarks, "The idea that rivers are gods and springs divine nymphs is deeply rooted not only in poetry but in belief and ritual; the worship of these deities is limited only by the fact that they are inseparably identified with a specific locality." Other nymphs, always in the shape of young maidens, were part of the retinue of a god, such as Dionysus, Hermes, or Pan, or a goddess, generally the huntress Artemis.[1] Nymphs were the frequent target of satyrs.


The Greek word νύμφη has the primary meaning of "nubile young woman; bride, young wife" and is not associated with deities in particular. It refers to young women at the peak of sexual attractiveness, contrasting with parthenos (παρθένος) "a virgin (of any age)", and generic kore (κόρη < κόρϝα) "maiden, girl". The term is used by (human) women to address each other, so Iris addressing Helen, or Eurycleia addressing Penelope as νύμφα φίλη "dear nymph" (Il. 3.130, Od. 4.743). Reduced to νύφη, the word remains the regular Modern Greek term for "bride". In Katharevousa, it is still νύμφη, as in the refrain of the Marian hymn Agni Parthene (c. 1880), χαῖρε νύμφη ἀνύμφευτε "hail, unwedded bride".[2]

The Doric and Aeolic (Homeric) form is νύμφα. The Iliad (6.420) refers to "mountain nymphs, maidens of Zeus":

ἠδ᾽ ἐπὶ σῆμ᾽ ἔχεεν: περὶ δὲ πτελέας ἐφύτευσαν / νύμφαι ὀρεστιάδες κοῦραι Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο. [Il. 6.419f.]
"He [Achilles] heaped over him [Eetion] a barrow, and all about were elm-trees planted / by mountain-nymphs, maidens of Zeus the aegis-bearer."

The divine nymphs are called θεαὶ Νύμφαι "the nubile goddesses" in Il. 24.616. In mystical theology, the term is applied to souls seeking re-birth. The derived verb νυμφεύω means "to marry (of a woman)" (with dative), "to give in marriage (of the bride's father)" or "to marry (of the husband)" (with accusative).

The etymology of the noun νύμφη is not certain. It has been compared to Latin nubere "to wed", as derived from a word for "veil, cover", root cognate with Greek νέφος, Latin nubes ("cloud"), Greek νεφέλη, Latin nebula ("mist, vapor"), and Latin nimbus ("cloud cover"). This is not generally accepted. Beekes argues for a pre-Greek origin of the word.[citation needed] An alternative suggestion[by whom?] connects a word for "to bud, swell", from the root of German Knospe) "bud".[citation needed] This is informed by a gloss of Hesychius which gives "rose-bud" as a meaning of νύμφη.[citation needed]

Ancient Greek mythology[edit]

The Greek nymphs were spirits invariably bound to places, not unlike the Latin genius loci, and the difficulty of transferring their cult may be seen in the complicated myth that brought Arethusa to Sicily. In the works of the Greek-educated Latin poets, the nymphs gradually absorbed into their ranks the indigenous Italian divinities of springs and streams (Juturna, Egeria, Carmentis, Fontus), while the Lymphae (originally Lumpae), Italian water-goddesses, owing to the accidental similarity of their names, could be identified with the Greek Nymphae. The mythologies of classicizing Roman poets were unlikely to have affected the rites and cult of individual nymphs venerated by country people in the springs and clefts of Latium. Among the Roman literate class, their sphere of influence was restricted, and they appear almost exclusively as divinities of the watery element.

Greek folk religion[edit]

The ancient Greek belief in nymphs survived in many parts of the country into the early years of the twentieth century, when they were usually known as "nereids". At that time, John Cuthbert Lawson wrote: "...there is probably no nook or hamlet in all Greece where the womenfolk at least do not scrupulously take precautions against the thefts and malice of the nereids, while many a man may still be found to recount in all good faith stories of their beauty, passion and caprice.

"Nor is it a matter of faith only; more than once I have been in villages where certain Nereids were known by sight to several persons (so at least they averred); and there was a wonderful agreement among the witnesses in the description of their appearance and dress."[3]

Nymphs tended to frequent areas distant from humans but could be encountered by lone travelers outside the village, where their music might be heard, and the traveler could spy on their dancing or bathing in a stream or pool, either during the noon heat or in the middle of the night. They might appear in a whirlwind. Such encounters could be dangerous, bringing dumbness, besotted infatuation, madness or stroke to the unfortunate human. When parents believed their child to be nereid-struck, they would pray to Saint Artemidos.[4][5]

Modern reception[edit]

Sleeping nymph[edit]

A motif that entered European art during the Renaissance was the idea of a statue of a nymph sleeping in a grotto or spring.[6][7][8] This motif supposedly came from an Italian report of a Roman sculpture of a nymph at a fountain above the River Danube.[9] The report, and an accompanying poem supposedly on the fountain describing the sleeping nymph, are now generally concluded to be a fifteenth-century forgery, but the motif proved influential among artists and landscape gardeners for several centuries after, with copies seen at neoclassical gardens such as the grotto at Stourhead.[10][11][12]

Sexual connotations[edit]

Due to the depiction of the mythological nymphs as females who mate with men or women freely and without care, the term is often related to women who are perceived as behaving similarly. (For example, the title of the Perry Mason detective novel The Case of the Negligent Nymph (1956) by Erle Stanley Gardner is derived from this meaning of the word.)[citation needed]

The term nymphomania was created by modern psychology as referring to a "desire to engage in human sexual behavior at a level high enough to be considered clinically significant", nymphomaniac being the person suffering from such a disorder. Due to widespread use of the term among lay persons (often shortened to nympho) and stereotypes attached, professionals nowadays prefer the term hypersexuality, which can refer to males and females alike.

The word nymphet is used to identify a sexually precocious girl. The term was made famous in the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The main character, Humbert Humbert, uses the term many times, usually in reference to the title character.


As H.J. Rose states, all the names for various classes of nymphs are plural feminine adjectives agreeing with the substantive nymphai, and there was no single classification that could be seen as canonical and exhaustive. Thus, the classes of nymphs tend to overlap, which complicates the task of precise classification.

Rose mentions dryads and hamadryads as nymphs of trees generally, meliai as nymphs of ash trees, and naiads as nymphs of water, but no others specifically.[13]

The following is not the authentic Greek classification, but is intended simply as a guide:

Classification by type of dwelling
Type / Group/ Individuals Location Relations and Notes
Celestial nymphs
Aurae (breezes) also called Aetae or Pnoae[citation needed]
Asteriae (stars) mainly comprising the Atlantides (daughters of Atlas)
1. Hesperides Far West nymphs of the sunset, the West, and the evening; daughters of Atlas; also had attributes of the Hamadryads
Erytheia (or Eratheis)
Hesperia (or Hispereia)
2. Hyades (star cluster; sent rain)
3. Pleiades daughters of Atlas and Pleione; constellation; also were classed as Oreads
Maia partner of Zeus and mother of Hermes
Nephele (clouds)
Land nymphs
Alseides (groves)
Auloniades (valley pastures, glens)
Leimakides or Leimonides (meadows)
Napaeae (dells)
Oreads (mountains, grottoes), also Orodemniades
Wood and plant nymphs
Anthousai (flowers)
Dryades (trees)
Hamadryades or Hadryades
1. Daphnaeae (laurel tree)
2. Epimeliades or Epimelides (apple tree; also protected flocks) other name variants include Meliades, Maliades and Hamameliades; same as these are also the Boucolai (Pastoral Nymphs)
3. Kissiae (ivy)
4. Meliae (manna-ash tree)
Hyleoroi (watchers of woods)
Water nymphs (Hydriades or Ephydriades)
Haliae (sea and seashores)
1. Nereids (50 daughters of Nereus, the Mediterranean Sea)
Naiads or Naides (fresh water)
1. Crinaeae (fountains)
2. Eleionomae (wetlands)
3. Limnades or Limnatides (lakes)
4. Pegaeae (springs)
5. Potameides (rivers)
Tágides (Tagus River)
Oceanids daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, any water, usually salty. see List of Oceanids
Underworld nymphs
Cocytiae daughters of the river god Cocytus
Lampades torch bearers in the retinue of Hecate
Underworld nymphs:
Orphne is a representation of the darkness of the river Styx, the river of hatred, but is not to be confused with the goddess Styx-herself, but she is associated with both Styx and Nyx. She is the consort of Acheron, (the god of the river in Hades), and the mother of Ascalaphus, (the orchardist of Hades).
Leuce (white poplar tree) lover of Hades
Minthe (mint) lover of Hades, rival of Persephone
Melinoe Orphic nymph, daughter of Persephone and "Zeus disguised as Pluto".[14] Her name is a possible epithet of Hecate.
Other nymphs
Hecaterides (rustic dance) sisters of the Dactyls, mothers of the Oreads and the Satyrs
Kabeirides sisters of the Kabeiroi
Maenads or Bacchai or Bacchantes frenzied nymphs in the retinue of Dionysus
1. Lenai (wine-press)
2. Mimallones (music)
3. Naides (Naiads)
4. Thyiai or Thyiades (thyrsus bearers)
Melissae (honey bees) likely a subgroup of Oreades or Epimelides
The Muses (memory, knowledge, art)
Themeides daughters of Zeus and Themis, prophets and keepers of certain divine artifacts

The following is a list of groups of nymphs associated with this or that particular location. Nymphs in such groupings could belong to any of the classes mentioned above (Naiades, Oreades, and so on).

Location-specific groupings of nymphs
Groups and Individuals Location Relations and Notes
Aeaean Nymphs Aeaea Island handmaidens of Circe
Aegaeides Aegaeus River on the island of Scheria
Aesepides Aesepus River in Anatolia
Acheloides Achelous River
Callirhoe, second wife of Alcmaeon
Acmenes Stadium in Olympia, Elis
Amnisiades Amnisos River on the island of Crete entered the retinue of Artemis
Anigrides Anigros River in Elis believed to cure skin diseases
Asopides Asopus River in Sicyonia and Boeotia
Aegina Island of Aegina mother of Menoetius by Actor, and Aeacus by Zeus
• Asopis
• Chalcis Chalcis, Euboea regarded as the mother of the Curetes and Corybantes; perhaps the same as Combe and Euboea below
• Cleone Cleonae, Argos
Combe Island of Euboea consort of Socus and mother by him of the seven Corybantes
Corcyra Island of Corcyra mother of Phaiax by Poseidon
Euboea Island of Euboea abducted by Poseidon
• Gargaphia or Plataia or Oeroe Plataea, Boeotia carried off by Zeus
Harpina Pisa, Elis mother of Oenomaus by Ares
Ismene Ismenian spring of Thebes, Boeotia wife of Argus, eponymous king of Argus and thus, mother of Argus Panoptes and Iasus.
• Nemea Nemea, Argolis others called her the daughter of Zeus and Selene
• Ornea Ornia, Sicyon
Peirene Corinth others called her father to be Oebalus or Achelous by Poseidon she became the mother of Lecheas and Cenchrias
Salamis Island of Salamis mother of Cychreus by Poseidon
Sinope Sinope, Anatolia mother of Syrus by Apollo
• Tanagra Tanagra, Boeotia mother of Leucippus and Ephippus by Poemander
Thebe Thebes, Boeotia wife of Zethus and also said to have consorted with Zeus
• Thespeia Thespia, Boeotia abducted by Apollo
Astakides Lake Astacus, Bithynia appeared in the myth of Nicaea
Asterionides Asterion River, Argos daughters of the river god Asterion; nurses of the infant goddess Hera
Acraea ditto
Euboea ditto
• Prosymna ditto
Carian Naiades (Caria)
Nymphs of Ceos
Corycian Nymphs (Corycian Cave) Corycian cave, Delphi, Phocis daughters of the river god Pleistos
Kleodora (or Cleodora) Mt. Parnassus, Phocis mother of Parnassus by Poseidon
Corycia Corycian cave, Delphi, Phocis mother of Lycoreus by Apollo
• Daphnis
Melaina ditto mother of Delphos by Apollo
Cydnides River Cydnus in Cilicia
Cyrenaean Nymphs City of Cyrene, Libya
Cypriae Nymphs Island of Cyprus
Cyrtonian Nymphs Town of Cyrtone, Boeotia Κυρτωνιαι
Deliades Island of Delos daughters of Inopus, god of the river Inopus
Dodonides Oracle at Dodona
Erasinides Erasinos River, Argos daughters of the river god Erasinos; attendants of the goddess Britomartis.
Anchiroe ditto
• Byze ditto
Maera ditto
Melite ditto
Nymphs of the river Granicus
• Pegasis
Heliades River Eridanos daughters of Helios who were changed into trees
Himeriai Naiades Local springs at the town of Himera, Sicily
Hydaspides Hydaspers River, India nurses of infant Zagreus
Idaean Nymphs Mount Ida nurses of infant Zeus
• Ida
Inachides Inachos River, Argos daughters of the river god Inachus
Io ditto mother of Epaphus by Zeus
Amymone ditto
Philodice ditto wife of Leucippus of Messenia by whom she became the mother of Hilaeira, Phoebe and possibly Arsinoe
• Messeis ditto
• Hyperia ditto
Mycene ditto wife of Arestor and by him probably the mother of Argus Panoptes; eponym of Mycenae
Ionides Kytheros River in Elis daughters of the river god Cytherus
• Calliphaea ditto
• Iasis ditto
• Pegaea ditto
• Synallaxis ditto
Ithacian Nymphs Local springs and caves on the island of Ithaca
Ladonides Ladon River
Lamides or Lamusides Lamos River in Cilicia possible nurses of infant Dionysus
Leibethrides Mounts Helicon and Leibethrios in Boeotia; or Mount Leibethros in Thrace)
• Libethrias
• Petra
Lelegeides Lycia, Anatolia
Lycaean Nymphs Mount Lycaeus nurses of infant Zeus, perhaps a subgroup of the Oceanides
Melian Nymphs Island of Melos transformed into frogs by Zeus; not to be confused with the Meliae (ash tree nymphs
Mycalessides Mount Mycale in Caria, Anatolia
Mysian Nymphs Spring of Pegai near Lake Askanios in Bithynia who abducted Hylas
• Euneica
• Malis
• Nycheia
Naxian Nymphs Mount Drios on the island of Naxos nurses of infant Dionysus; were syncretized with the Hyades
• Cleide
• Coronis
• Philia
Neaerides Thrinacia Island daughters of Helios and Neaera, watched over Helios' cattle
Nymphaeides Nymphaeus River in Paphlagonia
Nysiads Mount Nysa nurses of infant Dionysos, identified with Hyades
Ogygian Nymphs Island of Ogygia four handmaidens of Calypso
Ortygian Nymphs Local springs of Syracuse, Sicily named for the island of Ortygia
Othreides Mount Othrys a local group of Hamadryads
Pactolides Pactolus River
Euryanassa, wife of Tantalus
Pelionides Mount Pelion nurses of the Centaurs
Phaethonides a synonym for the Heliades
Phaseides Phasis River
Rhyndacides Rhyndacus River in Mysia
Sithnides Fountain at the town of Megara
Spercheides River Spercheios one of them, Diopatra, was loved by Poseidon and the others were changed by him into trees
Sphragitides, or Cithaeronides Mount Cithaeron
Tagids, Tajids, Thaejids or Thaegids River Tagus in Portugal and Spain
Thessalides Peneus River in Thessaly
Thriae Mount Parnassos prophets and nurses of Apollo
Trojan Nymphs Local springs of Troy

The following is a selection of names of the nymphs whose class was not specified in the source texts. For lists of Naiads, Oceanids, Dryades etc. see respective articles.

Individual names of some of the nymphs
Names Location Relations and Notes
Alphesiboea India loved by Dionysus
Aora eponym of the town Aoros in Crete[15]
Areia Crete daughter of Cleochus and mother of Miletus by Apollo[16]
Astyoche one of the Danaïdes, and the mother of Chrysippus by Pelops.[17]
Axioche or Danais mother of Chrysippus by Pelops
Brettia eponym of Abrettene, Mysia[18]
Brisa brought up the god Dionysus[19]
Calybe Troy mother of Bucolion, Laomedon's bastard son
Chalcea mother of Olympus by Zeus[20]
Chania a lover of Heracles
Chariclo mother of Tiresias by Everes
Charidia mother of Alchanus by Zeus[21]
Chryse Lemnos fell in love with Philoctetes[22]
Cirrha eponym of Cirrha in Phocis[23]
Clymene mother of Tlesimenes by Parthenopaeus
Cretheis briefly mentioned in Suda[24]
Crimisa eponym of a city in Italy[25]
Deiopea one of Hera's nymphs who was promised to Aeolus
Dodone Dodona eponym of Dodona
Echemeia spelled "Ethemea" by Hyginus, consort of Merops
Eidothea Mt. Othrys mother by Eusiros of Cerambus[26]
Eunoe possible mother of Hecuba by Dymas
Eunoste Boeotia (possibly) nurse of Eunostus
Hegetoria Rhodes consort of Ochimus
Himalia mother of Cronius, Spartaios, and Cytos by Zeus
Hyale belongs to the train of Artemis
Hyllis Argos possible eponym of the tribe Hylleis and the city Hylle[27]
Idaea Crete mother of Cres[28] and Asterion[29] by Zeus
Idaea Mt. Ida, Troad mother of Teucer by Scamander
Ithome Messenia one of the nurses of Zeus
Laodice Argolis (possibly) mother of Apis by Phoroneus
Leucophryne Magnesia (possibly) priestess of Artemis Leucophryne
Linos mother of Pelops by Atlas in some accounts[30]
Lotis pursued by Priapus and was changed into a tree that bears her name
Ma nymph in the suite of Rhea who nursed Zeus
Melanippe Attica (possibly) married Itonus, son of Amphictyon.[31]
Melissa discovered and taught the use of honey; nuse of Zeus
Mendeis consort of Sithon
Menodice daughter of Orion and mother of Hylas by Theiodamas
Myrmex Attica beloved companion of Athena whom she turned into an ant[32]
Nacole eponym of Nacoleia in Phrygia[33]
Neaera Thrinacia mother of Lampetia and Phaethusa by Helios
Neaera mother of Aegle by Zeus[34]
Oeneis mother of Pan by Hermes
Oinoie mother of Sicinus by Thoas
Olbia Bithynia mother of Astacus by Poseidon
Paphia possibly the mother of Cinyras by Eurymedon
Pareia mother of four sons by Minos
Polydora one of the Danaïdes
Pyronia mother of Iasion by Minos
Psalacantha changed into a plant by Dionysus
Rhene Mount Cyllene consorted with both Hermes and Oileus
Semestra nurse of Keroessa
Sinoe Arcadia nurse of Pan
Teledice a consort of Phoroneus
Thalia Sicily (probably) mother of the Palici by Zeus
Thisbe Boeotia eponym of the town of Thisbe
Tithorea Mt. Parnassus eponym of the town of Tithorea (previously called Neon)

In non-Greek tales influenced by Greek mythology[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ But see Jennifer Larson, "Handmaidens of Artemis?", The Classical Journal 92.3 (February 1997), pp. 249–257.
  2. ^ first published in Θεοτοκάριον μικρόν, Athens (1905).
  3. ^ Lawson, John Cuthbert (1910). Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion (1st ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 131.
  4. ^ "heathen Artemis yielded her functions to her own genitive case transformed into Saint Artemidos", as Terrot Reaveley Glover phrased it in discussing the "practical polytheism in the worship of the saints", in Progress in Religion to the Christian Era 1922:107.
  5. ^ Tomkinson, John L. (2004). Haunted Greece: Nymphs, Vampires and Other Exotika (1st ed.). Athens: Anagnosis. chapter 3. ISBN 978-960-88087-0-6.
  6. ^ Stephen John Campbell (2004). The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella D'Este. Yale University Press. pp. 95–6. ISBN 978-0-300-11753-0.
  7. ^ Maryan Wynn Ainsworth; Joshua P. Waterman; Dorothy Mahon (2013). German Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350-1600. Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 95–6. ISBN 978-1-58839-487-3.
  8. ^ Jay A. Levenson; National Gallery of Art (U.S.) (1991). Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. Yale University Press. p. 260. ISBN 978-0-300-05167-4.
  9. ^ Leonard Barkan (1999). Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture. Yale University Press. pp. 237–8. ISBN 978-0-300-08911-0.
  10. ^ Elisabeth B. MacDougall (January 1994). Fountains, Statues, and Flowers: Studies in Italian Gardens of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Dumbarton Oaks. pp. 37–56. ISBN 978-0-88402-216-9.
  11. ^ Kenneth Gross (1992). The Dream of the Moving Statue. Cornell University Press. pp. 170–175. ISBN 978-0-8014-2702-2.
  12. ^ Rose, Herbert Jennings (1959). A Handbook of Greek Mythology (1st ed.). New York: E. P. Dutton. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-525-47041-0.
  13. ^ Orphic Hymn 71.
  14. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium s. v. Aōros
  15. ^ Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 1. 2
  16. ^ Robert Graves. The Greek Myths, section 110 s.v. The Children of Pelops
  17. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium s.v. Abrettēnē
  18. ^ Schol. ad Pers. Sat. i. 76.
  19. ^ Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 10.21-23
  20. ^ Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 10.21-23
  21. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae, 102
  22. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece, 10. 37. 5
  23. ^ Suda s. v. Kretheus
  24. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium s. v. Krimisa
  25. ^ Antoninus Liberalis. Metamorphoses, 22 vs Cerambus
  26. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium s. v. Hylleis
  27. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium s. v. Krētē
  28. ^ Pseudo-Clement, Recognitions 10.21-23
  29. ^ Robert Graves. The Greek Myths, section 108 s.v. Tantalus
  30. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece, 9. 1. 1
  31. ^ William Smith. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology s.v. Myrmex
  32. ^ Suda s. v. Nakoleia
  33. ^ Pausanias, 9. 35. § 1


External links[edit]