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Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs Manchester Art Gallery 1896.15.jpg
In this 1896 painting of Hylas and the Nymphs by John William Waterhouse, Hylas is abducted by the Naiads, i.e. fresh water nymphs
Grouping Mythological
Sub grouping Nature spirit
Similar creatures Mermaid, huldra, selkie, siren
Mythology Greek mythology
Country Greece
Habitat Various

A nymph (Greek: νύμφη, nýmphē [nýmpʰɛː]) in Greek mythology is a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform.

Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in mountainous regions and forests by springs or rivers; as Walter Burkert (Burkert 1985:III.3.3) remarks, "The idea that rivers are gods and springs divine nymphs is deeply rooted not only in poetry but in belief and ritual; the worship of these deities is limited only by the fact that they are inseparably identified with a specific locality." Other nymphs, always in the shape of young maidens, were part of the retinue of a god, such as Dionysus, Hermes, or Pan, or a goddess, generally the huntress Artemis.[1] Nymphs were the frequent target of satyrs.


The Greek word νύμφη has the primary meaning of "nubile young woman; bride, young wife" and is not associated with deities in particular. It refers to young women at the peak of sexual attractiveness, contrasting with parthenos (παρθένος) "a virgin (of any age)", and generic kore (κόρη < κόρϝα) "maiden, girl". The term is used by (human) women to address each other, so Iris addressing Helen, or Eurycleia addressing Penelope as νύμφα φίλη "dear nymph" (Il. 3.130, Od. 4.743). Reduced to νύφη, the word remains the regular Modern Greek term for "bride". In Katharevousa, it is still νύμφη, as in the refrain of the Marian hymn Agni Parthene (c. 1880), χαῖρε νύμφη ἀνύμφευτε "hail, unwedded bride".[2]

The Doric and Aeolic (Homeric) form is νύμφα. The Iliad (6.420) refers to "mountain nymphs, maidens of Zeus":

ἠδ᾽ ἐπὶ σῆμ᾽ ἔχεεν: περὶ δὲ πτελέας ἐφύτευσαν / νύμφαι ὀρεστιάδες κοῦραι Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο. [Il. 6.419f.]
"He [Achilles] heaped over him [Eetion] a barrow, and all about were elm-trees planted / by mountain-nymphs, maidens of Zeus the aegis-bearer."

The divine nymphs are called θεαὶ Νύμφαι "the nubile goddesses" in Il. 24.616. In mystical theology, the term is applied to souls seeking re-birth. The derived verb νυμφεύω means "to marry (of a woman)" (with dative), "to give in marriage (of the bride's father)" or "to marry (of the husband)" (with accusative).

The etymology of the noun νύμφη is not certain. It has been compared to Latin nubere "to wed", as derived from a word for "veil, cover", root cognate with Greek νέφος, Latin nubes "cloud", Greek . νεφέλη,, Latin nebula "mist, vapor", Latin nimbus "cloud cover". This is not generally accepted. Beekes argues for a pre-Greek origin of the word.[citation needed] An alternative suggestion[by whom?] connects a word for "to bud, swell", from the root of German Knospe) "bud".[citation needed] This is informed by a gloss of Hesychius which gives "rose-bud" as a meaning of νύμφη.[citation needed]

Ancient Greek mythology[edit]

The Greek nymphs were spirits invariably bound to places, not unlike the Latin genius loci, and the difficulty of transferring their cult may be seen in the complicated myth that brought Arethusa to Sicily. In the works of the Greek-educated Latin poets, the nymphs gradually absorbed into their ranks the indigenous Italian divinities of springs and streams (Juturna, Egeria, Carmentis, Fontus), while the Lymphae (originally Lumpae), Italian water-goddesses, owing to the accidental similarity of their names, could be identified with the Greek Nymphae. The mythologies of classicizing Roman poets were unlikely to have affected the rites and cult of individual nymphs venerated by country people in the springs and clefts of Latium. Among the Roman literate class, their sphere of influence was restricted, and they appear almost exclusively as divinities of the watery element.

Greek folk religion[edit]

The ancient Greek belief in nymphs survived in many parts of the country into the early years of the twentieth century, when they were usually known as "nereids". At that time, John Cuthbert Lawson wrote: "...there is probably no nook or hamlet in all Greece where the womenfolk at least do not scrupulously take precautions against the thefts and malice of the nereids, while many a man may still be found to recount in all good faith stories of their beauty, passion and caprice.

"Nor is it a matter of faith only; more than once I have been in villages where certain Nereids were known by sight to several persons (so at least they averred); and there was a wonderful agreement among the witnesses in the description of their appearance and dress."[3]

Nymphs tended to frequent areas distant from humans but could be encountered by lone travelers outside the village, where their music might be heard, and the traveler could spy on their dancing or bathing in a stream or pool, either during the noon heat or in the middle of the night. They might appear in a whirlwind. Such encounters could be dangerous, bringing dumbness, besotted infatuation, madness or stroke to the unfortunate human. When parents believed their child to be nereid-struck, they would pray to Saint Artemidos.[4][5]

Modern reception[edit]

A Sleeping Nymph Watched by a Shepherd by Angelica Kauffman, about 1780, (V&A Museum no. 23-1886)

Sleeping nymph[edit]

The statue of a sleeping nymph in a grotto at Stourhead, England.

A motif that entered European art during the Renaissance was the idea of a statue of a nymph sleeping in a grotto or spring.[6][7][8] This motif supposedly came from an Italian report of a Roman sculpture of a nymph at a fountain above the River Danube.[9] The report, and an accompanying poem supposedly on the fountain describing the sleeping nymph, are now generally concluded to be a fifteenth-century forgery, but the motif proved influential among artists and landscape gardeners for several centuries after, with copies seen at neoclassical gardens such as the grotto at Stourhead.[10][11][12]

Sexual connotations[edit]

Due to the depiction of the mythological nymphs as females who mate with men or women freely and without care, the term is often related to women who are perceived as behaving similarly. (For example, the title of the Perry Mason detective novel The Case of the Negligent Nymph (1956) by Erle Stanley Gardner is derived from this meaning of the word.)[citation needed]

The term nymphomania was created by modern psychology as referring to a "desire to engage in human sexual behavior at a level high enough to be considered clinically significant", nymphomaniac being the person suffering from such a disorder. Due to widespread use of the term among lay persons (often shortened to nympho) and stereotypes attached, professionals nowadays prefer the term hypersexuality, which can refer to males and females alike.

The word nymphet is used to identify a sexually precocious girl. The term was made famous in the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The main character, Humbert Humbert, uses the term many times, usually in reference to the title character.[citation needed]


As H.J. Rose states, all the names for various classes of nymphs are plural feminine adjectives agreeing with the substantive nymphai, and there was no single classification that could be seen as canonical and exhaustive. Thus, the classes of nymphs tend to overlap, which complicates the task of precise classification.

Rose mentions dryads and hamadryads as nymphs of trees generally, meliai as nymphs of ash trees, and naiads as nymphs of water, but no others specifically.[13]

Classification by type of dwelling[edit]

The following is not the authentic Greek classification, but is intended simply as a guide:

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, The Souls of Acheron (1898).
Public sex between a nymph and Satyr. A sketch of Agostino Carracci.
  • Other nymphs
    • Hecaterides (rustic dance) – sisters of the Dactyls, mothers of the Oreads and the Satyrs
    • Kabeirides – sisters of the Kabeiroi
    • Maenads or Bacchai or Bacchantes – frenzied nymphs in the retinue of Dionysus
      • Lenai (wine-press)
      • Mimallones (music)
      • Naides (Naiads)
      • Thyiai or Thyiades (thyrsus bearers)
    • Melissae (honey bees), likely a subgroup of Oreades or Epimelides
    • The Muses (memory, knowledge, art)
    • Themeides – daughters of Zeus and Themis, prophets and keepers of certain divine artifacts

Location-specific groupings of nymphs[edit]

The following is a list of groups of nymphs associated with this or that particular location. Nymphs in such groupings could belong to any of the classes mentioned above (Naiades, Oreades, and so on).

Hylas and nymphs from a mosaic in Roman Gaul (3rd century)

Individual names of some of the nymphs[edit]

Echo, an Oread (mountain nymph) watches Narcissus in this 1903 painting of Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse.

The following is a selection of names of the nymphs whose class was not specified in the source texts. For lists of Naiads, Oceanids, Dryades etc. see respective articles.

In non-Greek tales influenced by Greek mythology[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ But see Jennifer Larson, "Handmaidens of Artemis?", The Classical Journal 92.3 (February 1997), pp. 249–257.
  2. ^ first published in Θεοτοκάριον μικρόν, Athens (1905).
  3. ^ Lawson, John Cuthbert (1910). Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion (1st ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 131. 
  4. ^ "heathen Artemis yielded her functions to her own genitive case transformed into Saint Artemidos", as Terrot Reaveley Glover phrased it in discussing the "practical polytheism in the worship of the saints", in Progress in Religion to the Christian Era 1922:107.
  5. ^ Tomkinson, John L. (2004). Haunted Greece: Nymphs, Vampires and Other Exotika (1st ed.). Athens: Anagnosis. chapter 3. ISBN 960-88087-0-7. 
  6. ^ Stephen John Campbell (2004). The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella D'Este. Yale University Press. pp. 95–6. ISBN 0-300-11753-1. 
  7. ^ Maryan Wynn Ainsworth; Joshua P. Waterman; Dorothy Mahon (2013). German Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350-1600. Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 95–6. ISBN 978-1-58839-487-3. 
  8. ^ Jay A. Levenson; National Gallery of Art (U.S.) (1991). Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. Yale University Press. p. 260. ISBN 978-0-300-05167-4. 
  9. ^ Leonard Barkan (1999). Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture. Yale University Press. pp. 237–8. ISBN 978-0-300-08911-0. 
  10. ^ Elisabeth B. MacDougall (January 1994). Fountains, Statues, and Flowers: Studies in Italian Gardens of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Dumbarton Oaks. pp. 37–56. ISBN 978-0-88402-216-9. 
  11. ^ Kenneth Gross (1992). The Dream of the Moving Statue. Cornell University Press. pp. 170–175. ISBN 0-8014-2702-9. 
  12. ^ Rose, Herbert Jennings (1959). A Handbook of Greek Mythology (1st ed.). New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. p. 173. ISBN 0-525-47041-7. 
  13. ^ Orphic Hymn 71.
  14. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium s. v. Aōros
  15. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium s.v. Abrettēnē
  16. ^ Pausanias, Description of Greece, 10. 37. 5
  17. ^ Suda s. v. Kretheus
  18. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium s. v. Krimisa
  19. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium s. v. Hylleis
  20. ^ Suda s. v. Nakoleia


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