Greek Roman

Nymphs play a major role in Greek myth, religion, and folklore.19 They are associated with the sea, rivers and springs, trees, caves, and mountains.

The sea nymphs, the Nereids, are a class apart; the others are less clearly differentiated. In early epic there are references to Naiad nymphs, that is, nymphs of flowing water (Il. 6. 21 f., Od. 13. 356, al., cf. 17. 240), tree nymphs (Meliai, Hes. Th. 187), and mountain nymphs (Il. 6. 420, 'Hes.' fr. 10a. 17, cf. Th. 130). The divine assembly in Il. 20. 4 ff. is attended by all the nymphs 'who inhabit the fair groves and the river waters and the grassy meadows'. Circe (herself called a nymph) is attended by female servants who 'come from springs and groves and holy rivers' (Od. 10. 350 f.). Hesiod includes two catalogues of nymphs in his Theogony; one is of the Nereids (240-64), the other is of the daughters of Oceanus, 'who nurture men on earth with the lord Apollo and the Rivers . . . widely scattered they haunt the earth and the

17 Sikojev (1985), 15-24, 40-2; G. Dumézil, Le livre des héros (Paris 1965), 14, 'Au siècle dernier, le samedi qui suit Pâques, les jeunes filles célébraient sur le bord des rivières le culte gracieux des filles de Donbettyr, assurant ainsi aux maisons et aux écuries les vertus que recèle l'essence puissante des eaux.'

19 H. Herter, RE xvii. 1527-81; Jennifer Larson, Greek Nymphs (Oxford 2001); Fâtima Diez Platas in J. C. Bermejo Barrera and F. D. P., Lecturas del mito griego (Madrid 2002), 169-328. On the Nymphs (NepaaïSes) in modern Greek folklore see Bernhard Schmidt, Das Volksleben der Neugriechen (Leipzig 1871), 98-131; J. C. Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion (Cambridge 1910), 130-73.

depths of the waters everywhere alike, shining goddess-children' (346-66). Elsewhere nymphs are identified as daughters of particular rivers such as the Achelous or Asopus.

Mountain nymphs have an intimate connection with mountain trees. They cause them to grow (Il. 6. 419 f.), or, according to the poet of the Hymn to Aphrodite, they themselves are born and die with the trees (260-72; cf. Pind. fr. 165, Call. Hymn. 4. 82-5). So they are not immortal, but they enjoy very long lives. In a Hesiodic fragment it is reckoned that the crow lives nine human generations, the stag four times as long as a crow, the raven three times as long as a stag, the date-palm nine times as long as a raven, and the Nymphs ten times as long as the date-palm.20 A similar concept is found in the Buddhist Jaatakas: there is a deity living in the tree and closely identified with it. The deity of a tree that has stood and been revered for sixty thousand years sees that his end is approaching when the tree is about to be felled.21

The Nymphs are outstandingly beautiful, and typically occupy themselves with singing and dancing (Od. 6. 105-8, 122 f., 12. 318; Hymn. Aphr. 261; Hymn. Pan. 3, 19-21; Cypria fr. 6. 6). Just as in the Mahabhorata, a man encountering an exceptionally beautiful female may suspect her of being a goddess or a nymph: 'Hail, Lady, whichever of the blessed ones you are that arrive at this dwelling, Artemis or Leto or golden Aphrodite . . . or perhaps you are one of the Graces ... or one of the Nymphs who haunt the fair groves and the waters of rivers and the grassy meads' (Hymn. Aphr. 92-9). A century ago Greek brides were praised as being 'as lovely as a Nerais', or as singing or dancing like one.22

It was the water nymphs in particular who were honoured with cults. They were on the whole considered friendly and beneficent, promoting fertility and growth, nurturing the young. But they could carry off children or handsome youths for themselves, or afflict a person with a frenzy that might be perceived either as inspiration or insanity. One so possessed was vvp^^X^nros 'Nymph-seized', in Latin lymphatus, lymphaticus (Varro, De lingua Latina 7. 87; Festus p. 107. 17 L.).

There are many stories of sexual unions between nymphs and mortal men, resulting in the birth of a child or twins, or the origin of a whole family. Sometimes it is herdsmen alone in the countryside who have such encounters (Il. 6. 21-6, 14. 444 f.), sometimes others (20. 384; 'Hes.' fr. 235, al.), but in any case it is the rural nymphs, those of mountains and streams, who are generally involved. The Aeacidae, on the other hand, were descended from

20 'Hes.' fr. 304. J. C. Lawson heard an abbreviated version of this piece of popular wisdom from 'an unlettered peasant in Arcadia' (as n. 19, 156-8). On the Nymphs' longevity cf. H. Herter, RE xvii. 1530.

21 Oldenberg (1917), 262 f. 22 Lawson (as n. 19), 133.

Aeacus' liaison with a Nereid, Psamathe, while her sister Thetis, not from choice but by Zeus' ordinance, was joined to Peleus in holy matrimony. She did not stay with him, however, after giving birth to Achilles. Such couplings are never stable.23

The cult of the Greek Nymphs, together with the name, spread to Italy at an early date, and their mythology and ideology were happily absorbed by the Roman poets. We must be cautious, therefore, in using Latin documents as evidence for native Italian conceptions. There were certainly individual goddesses of springs such as Numa's lover Egeria, to whom pregnant women sacrificed for an easy delivery (Festus p. 67. 25 L.), and Iuturna, stagnis quae fluminibusque sonoris praesidet (Virg. Aen. 12. 139 f.). Egeria is associated with the group called the Camenae, identified by poets with the Greek Muses but in reality the divinities of a spring, meadow, and grove below the Mons Caelius. Here we seem to have genuine Italic nymphs.

Another name is Silvanae, the feminine plural corresponding to Silvanus, god of the forest. Most of the dedications to them, however, come not from Italy but from Pannonia,24 and they may represent Illyrian rather than Italian nymphs.

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