Who Are the Nymphs in Greek Mythology?

Full color painting of water nymphs frolicking.

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Nymphs (Greek plural nymphai) are mythological nature spirits who appear as beautiful young women. Etymologically, the word ​nymph is related to the Greek word for bride.

Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite:

[The mountain nymphs] rank neither with mortals nor with immortals: long indeed do they live, eating heavenly food and treading the lovely dance among the immortals, and with them the Sileni and the sharp-eyed Slayer of Argus mate in the depths of pleasant caves.

Nurturing

Nymphs are often shown as lovers of gods and heroes, or as their mothers. They can be nurturing:

  • Thetis, not only a Nereid but the mother of Achilles, also helped Zeus and Dionysus when they were in trouble.
  • Nymphs of Nysa tended to Dionysus when he was young.
  • When Hephaestus was tossed off Olympus by a parent (either Hera or Zeus) and landed in Lemnos, Eurynome and Thetis, two Nereids, tended him.

This nurturing quality may be one way nymphs are distinguished from Dionysus' maenad followers, according to Guy Hedreen in "The Journal of Hellenic Studies."

Playful

Nymphs cavort with satyrs, particularly in depictions of Dionysus. Apollo and Dionysus are their leaders.

Personifications

Not uncommonly, some nymphs share their names with the places they inhabited. For example, one of these eponymous nymphs is Aegina. Rivers and their personifications often share names. Examples of associated natural bodies and divine spirits aren't limited to Greek mythology. Tiberinus was god of the Tiber River in Rome, and Sarasvati was a goddess and river in India.

Not Quite Goddesses

Nymphs are often referred to as goddesses, and some are immortal. Although they are naturally long-lived, many nymphs can die. Nymphs can cause metamorphoses. This is the Greek word for changing shape, usually into plants or animals, as in the novel by Kafka and the book of mythology by Ovid. Metamorphosis also works the other way around, so that human women can be changed into nymphs.

[B]ut at their birth pines or high-topped oaks spring up with them upon the fruitful earth, beautiful, flourishing trees, towering high upon the lofty mountains (and men call them holy places of the immortals, and never mortal lops them with the axe); but when the fate of death is near at hand, first those lovely trees wither where they stand, and the bark shrivels away about them, and the twigs fall down, and at last the life of the nymph and of the tree leave the light of the sun together.

Famous Nymphs

  • Amalthea (of cornucopia fame)
  • Anna Perenna (known in connection with another Ides of March holiday)
  • Arethusa (a follower of Artemis who sacrificed much for her chastity)
  • Calypso (nymph-goddess who entertained Odysseus)
  • Creusa (daughter of Gaia and the river god Peneus)
  • Echo (whose name we hear in certain repetitions)
  • Egeria (cared for Athens' founder-hero, Theseus' son Hippolyte; she taught the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius)
  • Harmonia (mated with Ares to produce the Amazons; Harmonia's necklace features in the story of Cadmus of Thebes)
  • Syrinx (a wind instrument and an attribute of Pan)
  • Thetis (connected with Achilles and Hephaestus)
  • Thousa (mother of Polyphemus, the cyclops in the Odyssey who eats several of Odysseus' companions when they were uninvited houseguests)

Types of Nymphs

Nymphs are divided into types:

  • Acheloids (from the river Achelous)
  • Alseids (groves)
  • Dryads (forests)
  • Hamadryads (trees)*
  • Hydriads (water)
  • Leimoniads (meadows)
  • Meliads (ash trees)
  • Naiads (springs and rivers)
  • Napaea (valleys)
  • Nereid (the Mediterranean)
  • Oceanids (the sea)
  • Oreads (mountains)

*The children of Hamadryas, from "Deipnosophists" ("Philosopher's Banquet," by Athenaeus, written in the 3rd century AD):

  1. Aegeirus (the poplar)
  2. Ampelus (the vine)
  3. Balanus (the acorn-bearing oak)
  4. Carya (the nut-tree)
  5. Craneus (the cornel-tree)
  6. Orea (the ash)
  7. Ptelea (the elm)
  8. Suke (the fig-tree)

Sources

Alexander, Timothy Jay. "A Beginner's Guide to Hellenismos." Paperback, 1st Edition, Lulu Press, Inc, June 7, 2007.

Athenaeus. Delphi Complete Works of Athenaeus, Illustrated, Delphi Ancient Classics Book 83, Kindle Edition, 1 edition, Delphi Classics, October 17, 2017.

Hedreen, Guy. "Silens, nymphs, and maenads." Journal of Hellenic Studies 114:47-69, The PhilPapers Foundation, 1994.

Homer. "The Homeric Hymns." Epic Cycle, Homerica, Bartleby, 1993.

Kafka, Franz. "Metamorphosis." Classical Books, Paperback, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, December 22, 2016.

Ovid. "Ovid's Metamorphoses Books 1-5." Revised Edition, William S. Anderson (Editor), Revised edition, University of Oklahoma Press, January 15, 1998.