Nymphs in Greek myth came in various forms. They populated and beautified the stories of Greek heroes, descriptions of the ancient Greek landscapes, and the home of the gods. “Nymph” translates from the ancient Greek as “young girl”, as nymphs took the form of young women that were also nature spirits. “Nymphs” is also an overarching or umbrella term for many different types of nature spirits like the Dryads, the Naiads, and the Oreads.
Nymphs: The Dryad, Naiad, and Oread
“Nature is not always tricked in holiday attire, but the same scene which yesterday breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of the nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today. Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As spirits, the nymphs could reflect the moods of the nature. Have you ever walked through a forest, and felt it was cold and unappealing? Or the opposite, a forest full of sunlight that comforts the soul? The ancient Greeks identified the different atmospheres in nature with the moods of the nymphs. Dryads took residence in trees, Naiads in the rivers, and Oreads in the mountains.
Many writers, artists, and creative thinkers used the imagery of nymphs to depict moods and senses, set in the diverse scenery of nature. Anthropomorphizing nature — when one ascribes human-like attributes to nature — is a common technique to draw connections between humans and nature, and yet at the same time, it is a way to see humanity as nature itself.
Often in the modern-day, humans divide themselves from nature as something separate. However, with the increase of environmental movements, this narrative is beginning to change. We are re-evaluating our relationship and identification with nature.
The term “dryad” translates as “of the tree or oak”. These were, naturally, the spirits of trees, woodlands, oaks, pines, poplars, ash trees, and so on. There were many different types of dryads, but the rarest were the Daphnaie. If a tree nymph had a specific name — such as the Hamadryades — then that meant the spirit of the nymph was tied to the tree. If the tree were to perish, so would the dryad’s spirit. Conversely, if the tree were to blossom, the life of the dryad would be healthy and spirited, too.
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Dryads often hid from humans, but they could be playful. They enjoyed the company of Pan, the god of the Wild. Fauns and nymphs would often play together. Their wild nature came out during the revelries of Dionysius, when the wine god would bring his wild wine-infused parties through the forests, and the Dryads would be all too eager to join.
Nonnus, in his Dionysiaca, describes these revels as follows:
“They leapt about dancing on the Indian crags, along the rocky paths; then they built shelters undisturbed in the dark forest, and spent the night among the trees. […] the Hydriades (Water-Nymphs) of plant-loving Dionysos mingled with the [Hama-]dryades of the trees.
When Bakkhos (Bacchus) came near, the pipes were sounded, the raw drumskin was beaten, on either side was the noise of beaten brass and the wail of the syrinx. The whole forest trembled, the oak-trees [dryades] uttered voices and the hills danced, the Naiades sang alleluia.”
(Nonnus, Dionysiaca, 24. 123 and 148)
The word “Naiad” comes from the ancient Greek verb “naiein”, which means “to flow”. A name which is perfectly appropriate for water spirits. The Naiads took residence in the ocean, the lakes, ponds, and rivers. The freshwater naiads were more known for their light-heartedness and benevolence, whereas the salty sea nymphs were known to be more troublesome.
The nymphs were often the companions of gods, and during their youth, would be the playmates of the gods. In one myth, there was a Naiad named Pallas who was good friends with the young goddess Athena. Pallas’ home was the Lake Tritonis in Libya, which was in ancient North Africa. When Pallas and Athena were playing war-games, Pallas was accidentally killed. To remember her friend, Athena created a monument called the Palladium. This statue became a very important relic to the Trojans, who viewed the Palladium as a protection charm. If it were removed from the city, the city would fall.
Naiads could inhabit lakes, rivers, springs and fountains, and usually they would have a preference for salt or fresh water.
Daphne and the Metamorphosis
Daphne and her myth is one of the most famous metamorphosis stories: she transformed from a water-nymph into a laurel tree during her lifetime. Her story begins in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
“Daphne, the daughter of a River God
was first beloved by Phoebus, the great God
of glorious light. ‘Twas not a cause of chance
but out of Cupid’s vengeful spite that she
was fated to torment the lord of light.
For Phoebus, proud […], beheld
that impish god of Love upon a time
when he was bending his diminished bow,
and voicing his contempt in anger said;
“What, wanton boy, are mighty arms to thee,
great weapons suited to the needs of war?
The bow is only for the use of those
large deities of heaven whose strength may deal
wounds, mortal, to the savage beasts of prey;
and who courageous overcome their foes.—
[…] Content thee with the flames thy torch
enkindles (fires too subtle for my thought)
and leave to me the glory that is mine.”
Daphne and Phoebus (Apollo)
Phoebus Apollo had vainly criticized Cupid’s work with the bow, but Cupid would have his revenge… The story continues in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:
“To him, undaunted, Venus’ son replied;
“O Phoebus, thou canst conquer all the world
with thy strong bow and arrows, but with this
small arrow I shall pierce thy vaunting breast!
And by the measure that thy might exceeds
the broken powers of thy defeated foes,
so is thy glory less than mine.” No more
he said, but with his wings expanded thence
flew lightly to Parnassus, lofty peak.
There, from his quiver he plucked arrows twain,
most curiously wrought of different art;
one love exciting, one repelling love.
The dart of love was glittering, gold and sharp,
the other had a blunted tip of lead;
and with that dull lead dart he shot the Nymph,
but with the keen point of the golden dart
he pierced the bone and marrow of the God.”
And so, Daphne was cursed with a strong distaste for love, and conversely, Apollo a great desire for love! The chase began, with Apollo pursuing Daphne, a heart full of love that would not be returned. Forced to be at either extreme, this was not a reconciliatory match.
Daphne, distressed, called to her father for help. He saw Daphne in her plight, and used his power to transform Daphne into a laurel tree. Her spirit imbued the tree with life, and Apollo dubbed the laurel tree as his sacred image. From that point on, laurels would be used to crown the victor in the ancient Olympic Games, to honor and remember Daphne.
The Oreads were the nymphs of the mountains, caves and grottos, derived from the ancient Greek word “oros” which means “mountain”. They could also inhabit the trees of the mountains. The goddess of the Hunt, Artemis, is often associated with the Oreads since her favourite hunting grounds were in the mountains. Dionysius enjoyed the company of the Oreads, too.
Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae 990:
“Dionysos, who delightest to mingle with the dear choruses of the Nymphai Oreiai (Mountain Nymphs), and who repeatest, while dancing with them, the sacred hymn, Euios, Euios, Euoi! Ekho (Echo), the Nymphe of Kithairon, returns thy words, which resound beneath the dark vaults of the thick foliage and in the midst of the rocks of the forest; the ivy enlaces thy brow with its tendrils charged with flowers.”
The Oread named Echo was particularly famous in Greek myth. She angered Hera (Roman Juno) with her incessant chatting, and so had been cursed to only be able to echo others, hence her name. Sometime after this, Echo fell in love with a man named Narcissus. However, Narcissus rejected Echo, and so she retreated to watch him from the mountain trees. Narcissus was later cursed for his vanity, and he fell in love with his own reflection, having spied it in a pool. He died from the curse, too transfixed by his reflection to nourish himself.
Ovid, Metamorphoses 3. 505 :
“On the green grass he [the handsome youth Narkissos (Narcissus)] drooped his weary head, and those bright eyes that loved their master’s beauty closed in death . . . His sister Naides (Naiads) wailed and sheared their locks in mourning for their brother; the Dryades (Dryads) too wailed and sad Echo wailed in answering woe.”
Nymphs and the Divine
In Greek mythology, there were an infinite number of dryads. They embodied nature, and in the early age of the Greek civilization, there was a vast amount of nature. Roman writers such as Ovid also continued to highlight their benefits and the beauty of nature through creative works.
The following is a poem by the ancient Greek Lyric poet Sappho, is entitled the Garden of the Nymphs:
“All around through the apple boughs in blossom
Murmur cool the breezes of early summer,
And from leaves that quiver above me gently
Slumber is shaken;
Glades of poppies swoon in the drowsy languor,
Dreaming roses bend, and the oleanders
Bask and nod to drone of bees in the silent
Fervor of noontide;
Myrtle coverts hedging the open vista,
Dear to nightly frolic of Nymph and Satyr,
Yield a mossy bed for the brown and weary
Limbs of the shepherd.”
The tradition of nature writings containing allusions to the nymphs has continued throughout the literary and artistic world. Particularly in the Renaissance, artwork flourished with the theme of nature and humanity. Poems, paintings and other creative modes in the modern day have continued to enhance the longevity of the nymphs and their influence on the representation of nature.
The ancient Greeks had the beautiful idea that there was a “divine” part of in all nature. This divine energetic force breathed life into everything. The Greeks recognized the calming and therapeutic benefits of nature and sensed life within the trees, mountains, and rivers. Hence, nature was given visual embodiments: the nymphs.