The name of a numerous class of inferior female divinities, though they are designated by the title of Olympian, are called to meetings of the gods in Olympus, and described as the daughters of Zeus. But they were believed to dwell on earth in groves, on the summits of mountains, in rivers, streams, glens, and grottoes. (Hom. Od. vi. 123, &c., xii. 318, Il. xx. 8, xxiv. 615.)
Homer further describes them as presiding over game, accompanying Artemis, dancing with her, weaving in their grottoes purple garments. and kindly watching over the fate of mortals. (Od. vi. 105, ix. 154, xiii. 107, 356, xvii. 243, Il. vi. 420, 616.)
Men offer up sacrifices either to them alone, or in conjunction with other gods, such as Hermes. (Od. xiii. 350, xvii. 211, 240, xiv. 435.) From the places which they inhabit, they are called agronomoi (Od. vi. 105), orestiades (Il. vi. 420), and nêïades (Od. xiii. 104).
All nymphs, whose number is almost infinite, may be divided into two great classes. The first class embraces those who must be regarded as a kind of inferior divinities, recognised in the worship of nature.
The early Greeks saw in all the phenomena of ordinary nature some manifestation of the deity; springs, rivers, grottoes, trees, and mountains, all seemed to them fraught with life; and all were only the visible embodiments of so many divine agents.
The salutary and beneficent powers of nature were thus personified, and regarded as so many divinities; and the sensations produced on man in the contemplation of nature, such as awe, terror, joy, delight, were ascribed to the agency of the various divinities of nature.
The second class of nymphs is personifications of tribes, races, and states, such as Cyrene, and many others.
The nymphs of the first class must again be sublatter divided into various species, according to the different parts of nature of which they are the representatives.
1. Nymphs of the watery element. Here we first mention the nymphs of the ocean, Ôkeaninai or Ôkeanides, numphai hagiai, who are regarded as the daughters of Oceanus (Hes. Theog. 346, &c., 364; Aeschyl. Prom.; Callim. Hymn. in Dian. 13; Apollon. Rhod. iv. 1414; Soph. Philoct. 1470); and next the nymphs of the Mediterranean or inner sea, who are regarded as the daughters of Nereus, whence they are called Nereides (Nêreïdes; Hes. Theog. 240, &c.).
The rivers were represented by the Potameides (Poramêïdes), who, as local divinities, were named after their rivers, as Acheloides, Anigrides, Ismenides, Amnisiades, Pactolides. (Apollon. Rhod. iii. 1219; Virg. Aen. viii. 70; Paus. v. 5. § 6, i. 31. § 2; Callim. Hymn. in Dian. 15; Ov. Met. vi. 16; Steph. Byz. s.v. Amnisos.)
But the nymphs of fresh water, whether of rivers, lakes, brooks, or wells, are also designated by the general name Naiades, Nêïdes, though they have in addition their specific names, as Krênaiai, Pêgaiai, Hegeionimoi, Limnatides, or Limnades. (Hom. Od. xvii. 240; Apollon. Rhod. iii. 1219; Theocrit. v. 17; Orph. Hymn. 50. 6, Argon. 644.)
Even the rivers of the lower regions are described as having their nymphs; hence, Nymphae infernae paludis and Avernales. (Ov. Met. v. 540, Fast. ii. 610.)
Many of these presided over waters or springs which were believed to inspire those that drank of them, and hence the nymphs themselves were thought to be endowed with prophetic or oracular power, and to inspire men with the same, and to confer upon them the gift of poetry. (Paus. iv. 27. § 2, ix. 3. § 5, 34. § 3; Plut. Aristid. 11; Theocrit. vii. 92; comp. MUSAE.) Inspired soothsayers or priests are therethe fore sometimes called numphogêptoi. (Plat. Phaedr. p. 421, e.)
Their powers, however, vary with those of the springs over which they preside; some were thus regarded as having the power of restoring sick persons to health (Pind. Ol. xii. 26; Paus. v. 5. § 6, vi. 22. § 4); and as water is necessary to feed all vegetation as well as all living beings, the water nymphs (Hydriades) were also worshipped along with Dionysus and Demeter as giving life and blessings to all created beings, and this attribute is expressed by a variety of epithets, such as karpotrophoi, aipolikai, nomiai, kourotrophoi, &c.
As their influence was thus exercised in all departments of nature, they frequently appear in connection with higher divinities, as, for example, with Apollo, the prophetic god and the protector of herds and flocks (Apollon. Rhod. iv. 1218); with Artemis, the huntress and the protectress of game, for she herself was originally an Arcadian nymph (Apollon. Rhod. i. 1225, iii. 881; Paus. iii. 10. § 8); with Hermes, the fructifying god of flocks (Hom. Hymn. in Aphrod. 262); with Dionysus (Orph. Hymn. 52; Horat. Carm. i. 1. 31, ii. 19. 3); with Pan, the Seileni and Satyrs, whom they join in their Bacchic revels and dances.
- Nymphs of mountains and grottoes, are called Orodemniades and Oreiades but sometimes also by names derived from the particular mountains they inhabited, as Kithairônides, Pêliades, Korukiai, &c. (Theocrit. vii. 137; Virg. Aen. i. 168, 500; Paus. v. 5. § 6, ix. 3. § 5, x. 32. § 5; Apollon. Rhod. i. 550, ii. 711; Ov. Her. xx. 221; Virg. Eclog. vi. 56.)
- Nymphs of forests, groves, and glens, were believed sometimes to appear to and frighten solitary travellers. They are designated by the names Alsêïdes, Holêôroi, Aulôniades, and Napaiai. (Apollon. Rhod. i. 1066, 1227; Orph. Hymn. 50. 7; Theocrit. xiii. 44; Ov. Met. xv. 490; Virg. Georg. iv. 535.)
- Nymphs of trees, were believed to die together with the trees which had been their abode, and with which they had come into existence. They were called Dryades, Hamadruades or Hadryades, from drys, which signifies not only an oak, but any wild-growing lofty tree; for the nymphs of fruit trees were called Mêlides, Mêliades, Epimêlides, or Hamamêlides. They seem to be of Arcadian origin, and never appear together with any of the great gods. (Paus. viii. 4. § 2; Apollon. Rhod. ii. 477, &c.; Anton. Lib. 31, 32; Hom. Hymn. in Ven. 259, &c.)
The second class of nymphs, who were connected with certain races or localities (Numphai chthoniai, Apollon. Rhod. ii. 504), usually have a name derived from the places with which they are associated, as Nysiades, Dodonides, Lemniae. (Ov. Fast. iii. 769, Met. v. 412, ix. 651; Apollod. iii. 4. § 3; Schol. ad Pind. Ol. xiii. 74.)
The sacrifices offered to nymphs usually consisted of goats, lambs, milk, and oil, but never of wine. (Theocrit. v. 12, 53, 139, 149; Serv. ad Virg. Georg. iv. 380, Eclog. v. 74.) They were worshipped and honoured with sanctuaries in many parts of Greece, especially near springs, groves, and grottoes, as, for example, near a spring at Cyrtone (Paus. ix. 24. § 4), in Attica (i. 31. § 2),at Olympia (v. 15. § 4, vi. 22. § 4), at Megara (i. 40. § 1), between Sicyon and Phlius (ii. 11. § 3), and other places. Nymphs are represented in works of art as beautiful maidens, either quite naked or only half-covered. Later poets sometimes describe them as having sea-coloured hair. (Ov. Met. v. 432.)