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Alternate Names

Oceanids, Nereids, Dryads, Naiads

Appears In

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Pausanias's Description of Greece



Character Overview

In Greek mythology , nymphs were minor female deities, or goddesses, associated with nature. Typically pictured as beautiful girls or young women, they could live for a very long time but were not immortal (able to live forever). Most nymphs were the daughters of Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), the leader of the gods, or of other gods. They generally had gentle natures and acted with kindness toward humans. Some stories, however, tell of nymphs who lured unsuspecting mortals to their deaths.

Different kinds of nymphs were associated with particular parts of the natural world. The Oceanids (pronounced oh-SEE-uh-nidz) were sea nymphs, daughters of the sea god Oceanus (pronounced oh-SEE-uh-nuhs). One of the Oceanids married the sea god Nereus (pronounced NEER-ee-uhs) and their daughters became the Nereids (pronounced NEER-ee-idz), nymphs who lived in both freshwater and saltwater. Another group of water nymphs, the Naiads, were freshwater spirits associated with fountains, streams, rivers, and other forms of running water. Forest nymphs were divided into Dryads (pronounced DRYE-adz), originally linked specifically with oak trees but later known as nymphs of woods and forests in general, and the Hamadryads (pronounced ham-uh-DRYE-adz), who dwelled inside particular trees and perished when the trees died. Other types of nymphs included the mountain nymphs known as Oreads (pronounced OR-ee-adz), the nymphs of ash trees called Meliae (pronounced MEE-lee-ee), and Limoniads (pronounced lee-MOH-nee-adz), or meadow nymphs.

Nymphs rarely had a central role in Greek myths. Usually they played supporting parts as the companions of gods and satyrs (creatures that are half human and half goat). The goddess Artemis (pronounced AHR-tuh-miss), for example, often had nymphs attending her when she went hunting. Nymphs also became the lovers or wives of gods or heroes. The Dryad Eurydice (pronounced yoo-RID-uh-see) married the poet and musician Orpheus (pronounced OR-fee-uhs). After Eurydice died from a snakebite, Orpheus tried to retrieve her from the underworld , or land of the dead, but failed to meet the conditions set for her return.

Another nymph who gained mythic status as a wife was Oenone (pronounced ee-NOH-nee). Married to Paris, prince of Troy, Oenone predicted that if Paris left on a journey to Greece, the trip would be disastrous for Troy. During that trip, Paris eloped with Helen , the wife of the Spartan king, setting in motion the events that led to the Trojan War and the eventual destruction of Troy. When Paris lay wounded from fighting, Oenone refused to help him, even though she had the gift of healing. Eventually she relented and rushed to Troy to save her husband, but she arrived too late. Upon discovering that Paris had died, Oenone killed herself.

Nymphs in Context

In contrast to the most famous gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons (or collections of recognized gods), nymphs were generally associated with very specific locations. Small communities each had their own groups of nymphs that were recognized, and just as certain gods were linked with professions, these nymphs were an important part of the community's identity. For the ancient Greeks, physical beauty was extremely important; it was considered to be a reflection of a person's mind and spirit. If a community was associated with a group of beautiful goddesses, that community would surely enjoy a special reputation among travelers. This purpose had little to do with the larger body of Greek or Roman mythology , and because of that, myths about nymphs continued in more remote Greek communities well into the twentieth century—nearly two thousand years after most Greek mythology had fallen out of fashion.

Key Themes and Symbols

Above all, nymphs were considered symbols of beauty and femininity. This is illustrated by the number of gods and men that fall in love with them on sight or have love affairs with them, including Odysseus (pronounced oh-DIS-ee-uhs) and Orpheus. Another theme present in the tales of nymphs is the close association of females with nature. All nymphs are said to be female and all represent different aspects of nature, such as trees, streams, mountains, and meadows. The nymphs themselves are symbolized by these objects. A hamadrya, for example, is said to live in a specific tree, and, if that tree is harmed, the nymph perishes also. In this way, it can be said that nymphs symbolize the beauty and fragile state of the natural world.

Nymphs in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Though the idea of nymphs in general has endured in art and literature, only a few specific nymphs have remained well-known. Eurydice is perhaps the most famous, appearing in paintings, operas, and even films. Echo was another nymph famous for her love of the vain Narcissus (pronounced nar-SIS-us), a myth often captured in art and literature. The Muses are also nymphs and are popular in their own right as the goddesses who inspire creativity. More often, however, nymphs are portrayed less specifically, with many authors and artists depicting nameless nymphs of a certain type, such as dryads or nereids. Dryads have remained the best known of the nymphs and have appeared in literary works such as C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia and the poems of Sylvia Plath. They have also appeared in numerous video games, including the Warcraft, Dungeon Siege, and Castlevania series, and are considered a race in the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. Nereids have also appeared as characters in many video games, and in modern times the term “nereid” is commonly used to represent all nymphs, regardless of their origins.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

In ancient times, it was believed that a person who cut down a tree that housed a nymph would be punished by the gods. In modern times, some environmentalists chain themselves to trees or take up residence in long-lived trees in an effort to protect them from destruction by lumber or construction crews. Do you think the myths of tree-dwelling nymphs may have been an ancient form of environmentalism? Why or why not?

SEE ALSO Echo; Eurydice