Category: Ancient Learning > Deities

1 What is a Nymph?

In the literal sense of the ancient Greek word, a nymphē is a bride. But already in the Homeric poems, it has a different sense besides, referring to feminine beings who are greater than human, like “the nymph, lady Calypso, a divine one (dia) among the goddesses” (Odyssey 1.14). At one point, Odysseus wonders whether he is hearing the voices of Nymphs or humans (Odyssey 6.123–125). The same distinction can also be seen in the fact that Latin writers translate the word as spōnsa when a human bride is meant, but in other cases as nympha.

But there are two Latin words that come from the Greek, not just nympha (‘Nymph’) but also lympha (‘freshwater, spring water’). This reflects a strong association between Nymphs and freshwater in Greek; compare the expression “mixing the blood of Bacchius with the fresh-flowing tears of the Nymphs” from the Greek poet Timotheus (cited in Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 11.13), meaning to mix wine with fresh spring water.

But where does this association come from? Let us first recall the passage of the Odyssey that has already been mentioned, where Odysseus asks himself whether he is hearing Nymphs. An ancient commentator explains that, “because he is in the wilderness, he has come upon this idea, that they are really Nymphs” (Scholia on Odyssey 6.123), “the Nymphs who possess (or ‘inhabit’) the towering peaks of the mountains, the springs of the rivers and the grassy meadows,” as Odysseus himself says (Odyssey 6.123–124). The last phrase, “grassy meadows,” is glossed as “wet places” by a scholiast (Scholia on Odyssey 6.124).

So, we know that Nymphs dwell in watery spaces (if not only there). An ancient grammarian also makes this point with great clarity while explaining a passage where Odysseus prays to a river, “Hear, o lord, whoever you are,” etc. (Odyssey 5.445). The scholiast comments: “He prays to the river, because each (river) has a daemon. He (=Homer) also knows (i.e., refers to) goddesses in the springs (krēnai), whom he calls Nymphs: ‘Fontal Nymphs (Nymphai krēnaiai), daughters of Zeus’ [Odyssey 17.240]; and other, ‘Orestiad (‘mountain-’) Nymphs, daughters of Zeus’ [Iliad 6.420]. Thus, Homer considers all things to be filled with divine powers” (Scholia on Odyssey 5.445; this scholium apparently stems from Porphyry).

But it is not merely that the Nymphs live in and near water; they are actually “the particular powers of freshwaters” (Porphyry, On Cult Statues). More precisely, “springs and streams belong to the Hydriad (‘water-’) Nymphs” and are ruled by them (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs 18), and these “Nymphs of streams” or “companions of the streams” are called Naiads (naïades/nēïades or naïdes/nēïdes, Scholia on Odyssey 13.104). The word I translate ‘companion’ more literally means ‘raised together’, reflecting the idea that a given Naiad and her stream are intrinsically tied to each other.

I have now slipped from speaking about Nymphs to speaking about Naiad Nymphs in particular, although arguably, Nymph is the overarching genus and Naiads are one kind (or ‘species’) of Nymph: “Nymph […] is the general (genikon) name; for some Nymphs are called Naïds after streams (namata), and others differently” (D-Scholia on Iliad 6.21); “Naïds are a kind (eidos) of Nymphs” (ibid. 6.22). But things are really not so neat. In On Cult Statues, for instance, Porphyry contrasts Nymphs, the powers of freshwaters, against Nereïds, the powers of sea waters – whereas elsewhere, Nereïds themselves are treated as a group of Nymphs. In short, while we moderns may desire a neat taxonomy of Nymphs, the ancients do not oblige us. Every Greco-Roman list of the kinds of Nymphs is different, and they cannot be simply added up or reduced to a common system.

To give one example, the Naïds, whom we have already encountered as the nymphs set over freshwater streams, are in another place interpreted as mountain “Hamadryads”: “Naïd (nēïs): either from ‘streams’ (namata), or from the wood for ships (nēïa); for they say that the Nymphs called Naids live in wooded mountains” (Scholia on Iliad 6.22).

The status of Nymphs in relation to other Greater Beings (kreittones) is also ambiguous. Sometimes they are regarded as “aerial living beings, […] the so-called long-lived Nymphs” (Olympiodorus, On Aristotle’s Meteoroloy, p. 301). At other times, as we saw, they are called goddesses, which would make them immortal rather than long-lived.

Even the Neoplatonists, who developed the most systematic accounts of the divine beings, do not have a clear idea of where to place the Nymphs. Proclus seems to treat them as a unique (and the lowest) rank of beings below gods and above humans when he refers to the “angelic, daemonic, heroic, nymphic and suchlike” beings that are subordinate to each god (Proclus, On the Cratylus 180). Of these, “some Nymphs are connected by nature to trees, others to springs, others to deer or serpents” (ibid.). Elsewhere, he uses them as an example of the “lowest” Greater Beings, while at the same time calling them “daemonic”; but this tells us nothing, because both terms are often used loosely.

The passage runs as follows: “It is not surprising if the lowest of the genera that eternally follow the gods – who are close to the troubles of mortals, have desires and affects, and live their life among these beings – take joy in the safety of those over whom they exercise providence, but shrink back and are displeased when they perish, and so change in their affects. Some poet says: ‘The Nymphs lament when there are no leaves in the trees, / but the Nymphs are glad again when rain nourishes the trees’. For all things are divine in the gods, but partial/particularized and daemonic in our more divided guardians” (Proclus, On the Republic, vol. 1, p. 125–126).

Hermias, by contrast, is unsure whether these “divine souls greater (kreittones) than human ones” (Hermias, On the Phaedrus, p. 55) “have the status (hypostasis) of certain heroines (hērōissai), or daemonids (‘feminine daemons’, daimonides), or even more divine classes”. He is only certain that they are the “rulers of genesis, and on this account, are said to live around waters, because moisture belongs to genesis” (ibid., p. 55) – another instance of all Nymphs being associated with water, but now metaphorically, because there is no genesis (‘fertility, birth, mortal life’) without moisture. Of these Nymphs, “some set irrationality (i.e., non-rational beings) in motion, others govern nature, others again bodies, certain of them being called Naïds, Hamadryads or Orestiads” (ibid., p. 62; it is unclear whether these three names are instances of each respective domain or general examples).

2 Worshipping Nymphs

Basic offerings for the Nymphs

According to an oracle of Apollon, the offering for Nymphs should be to pour a libation of honey and wine. At Athens, however, they are said to have received sober (nēphalia) sacrifices, that is, wineless ones (Scholia on Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus 100). The choice of whether to use wine perhaps depends on the character of the ritual, raucous and Dionysiac or sober.

But such rules, in any case, are for formal ceremonies; whereas a continuous devotional relationship to the goddesses is cultivated through more varied gifts, depending on what the seasons yield. For instance, in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe – a novel in which the Nymphs and their worship play a central role, and which I strongly recommend to anyone with more than a passing interest in the goddesses – the protagonists offer bunches of grapes and twigs of vine as “first fruits (aparkhē) of the vintage” (Daphnis and Chloe 2.2.4), together with dancing, music and singing (ibid. 2.2.6).

While this would be an annual affair, other seasonal offerings are done on a more regular basis. For instance, as different flowers come into bloom, they make garlands of and crown the images of the Nymphs. On one occasion, early in spring, they make wreaths of violet, narcissus and pimpernel, place them on the cult statues, offer fresh goat and sheep’s milk, and play the Pan pipe (ibid. 3.12).

When there is no such occasion, Daphnis and Chloe still visit the little cave sanctuary of the Nymphs at the beginning of every day, prostrate themselves before their images, and bring them something: “a flower, a fruit, a green leaf or a libation of milk” (ibid. 2.2.5).

Of course, few of us now live in an environment that is much like the idealized pastoral setting of Longus’ romantic novel, and alienated as we are from the production of animal and plant products – and inhumane as industrial livestock farming in particular often is –, the same substances can have very different resonances. Adaptation of some kind is inevitable.

[Work in Progress – Hermias p. 97]

3 Different kinds of Nymphs in alphabetic order

Despite what I have said above about the lack of a clear taxonomy, it is possible to describe different kinds of Nymphs – as long as one remains aware that the different terms have overlapping, sometimes contradictory meanings.


Hesychius glosses agriades as nymphai. The name means ‘wild’, so may well be a term for Nymphs in general, rather than a specific group.


“The Nymphs inhabiting the woods (alsē) are called Alseïtids. Those set over trees, Hamadryads. Those who dwell in streams of water, Naïds and Hydriads (‘of water’), and of these, some are Krenids (‘of springs’), others Epipotamids (‘over rivers’). Those set over cattle, Epimelids (‘over sheep’). Those set over mountains, Orestiads (‘of mountains’). And as many others there are like these. Also, similarly, those set over marshes, Heleionomoi (‘inhabitants of marshes’)” (Scholia on Iliad 20.8).

This appears to be the only use of alsēïtides; Apollonius further mentions nymphai alseïdes (Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 1.1066). It would appear that these words mean about the same thing as ‘Dryads’.


In an epigram by the poet Theodoridas, antriades nymphai are mentioned (Greek Anthology 6.224), that is, ‘cave Nymphs’. But caves are generally sacred to Nymphs, or at any rate to Naïd Nymphs (Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs; Longus, Daphnis and Chloe).

The lexicographer Phrynichus explains the word as follows: “Antriads are the nymphs who live in caves, as those who live in streams are Naïds, those in mountains Orestiads, those in trees Hamadryads – for they used to call all trees dryes – and those around cattle (lit. ‘four-footed’) Epimelids, because the ancients call all cattle mēla.”

Bacchae / Bacchants


Dryads / Hamadryads

Dryads, in brief, are “the Nymphs of trees” (Brevis Expositio on Vergil’s Georgics 1.11), named after the Greek word drys, which usually means ‘oak’, but also ‘tree’ in general, which is the relevant sense here.

(Although sometimes they are associated strictly with oaks: “By Nymphs he means Dryads, Oreads, Potamids or Napaeae; Dryads are those which delight in oaks, Oreads in mountains, Potamids in rivers, Napaeae in bushes and flowers”, Lactantius Placidus on Statius’ Thebaid 4.254.)

Hamadryad Nymphs, on the other hand, means not ‘of the tree’, but ‘together with the tree’. The difference between them and Dryads is not self-explanatory, but let us begin with the fact that Servius lists them separately: “The Nymphs are called Oreads, those of the woods Dryads, those who are born with the woods Amadryads, those of springs Napaeae or Naïds, and those of the sea, Nereïds” (On the Aeneid 1.500; the loss of the initial H in Amadryads probably reflects late antique pronunciation).

Elsewhere in Servius, we find a more complete explanation: “Hamadryads are Nymphs who are born with trees and die with them, like the one whom Erysichthon killed: when he was cutting the tree, a voice erupted from inside, and blood, as Ovid teaches. Dryads, however, are those who dwell among (‘between’) trees” (Servius, On the Eclogues 10.62).

(To this, the augmented version adds: “Oreads, those in the mountains; and Perimelid Nymphs are named after sheep, Naïds after rivers, Limonids after meadows, Curotrophae after the nourishment [alimonia, gr. trophē] of children [infantes, gr. kouroi]”.)

A little more detail about Hamadryads is found in a parallel scholium: “Amadryads are born and die with trees; which is why blood often oozes from a cut tree. For as Ovid says, when Erysichthon was cutting a tree, first blood flowed from it, and then a cry followed” (Servius, On the Aeneid 3.34).

[Work in Progress : Anth. Gr. 4.3, 6.176, 9.664,668,823, 11.194.
Longus, Himerius, Philostratus, Antoninus Liberalis, Alciphron, PsApollodorus
Pausanias, Athenaeus, Plutarch
Etymologica, Hesychius, Photius, Aelius Dionysius
Apollonius+Σ, ΣHomer, ΣLycophron; Oppianus + Eutecnius, Nonnus!
Eustathius Od. 1.9,385, 2.326; Il. 2.350, 3.303
Orphic Hymns
Clement, (?) Cyrillus, various works
Philagrius, Servius G. 4.534, Historia Augusta? (Druids?), Lact.Plac.
Vergil, Ovid, Propertius, Statius, Siculus?
Isidore, Prudentius, Sidonius
Later Latin poets!

Also Driad-?]

Epimelids (Perimelids)
Heleionomoi (Heleioi)
Hydriads (Ephydriads)
Krenids (Krenaiai)

Kourotrophai (Curotrophae)
Limonids (Limoniads)
Naiads (Naïds)
Melids (Meliads)
Meliae (Meliai)

Nepaeae (Nepaiai)

Oreads (Oreiads, Orestiads)

Orestiads are “nymphs inhabiting mountains” (Festus s.v.).

[Work in Progress : Oreads : Nonnus, Latin sources
Orestiads : gr


Known only from Hesychius, Lexicon s.v. Ὀροδεμνιάδες: “Orodemniads: Nymphs, and bees. From oroi (‘mountains’) and demnia (‘bedsteads’); because they sleep there. Others (say the word is derived) from orodamnoi, which are twigs.”

Potamids (Epipotamids)

Potamid (‘river-’) Nymphs are mentioned only by Lactantius Placidus (On Statius’ Thebaid 4.254), Epipotamids (‘over the river’) in the D-Scholia on Iliad 20.8. The meaning is clear enough, but the rarity of the word may due to the fact that rivers were more typically imagined as (being or having) male gods/daemons.