Micah Gould

Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, and Lore

by Jennifer Larson

Chapter 3: Gods, Goddesses, and Nymphs


I. Nymphs and the Rustic Gods

a. 3 types of relationships between nymphs and pastoral/rural gods

i. sexual, familial, and choragic:

b. Silens, nymphs, and Dionysus

i. Silens (silenoi) or satyrs (saturoi) are mythical horse-man hybrids different from centaurs ii. Silens and nymphs were natural companions for one another

1. both were boisterous and promiscuous

2. may have descended from same phylogeny

3. Euripides' Cyclops enforces close relationship between nymphs and silens and between both groups and Dionysus

iii. Silens and nymphs not originally associated with Dionysus

1. sect of Dionysiac silens and nymphs became part of god's regular entourage

2. Dionysus reared by the nymphs of Nysa (tithenai=nurses)

3. Dionysus does not appear in conjunction with nymphs and silens on earliest vase description

4. 6th century vase paintings: silens' companions acquire Dionysiac attributes such as ivy crowns, fawn/panther garments

­ perhaps meanads, female Dionysian followers?

iv. Attitude of nymphs towards silens changes in red-figure

iconography ­ begin spurning their advances

II. Nymphs and the Pastoral Gods

a. Pastoral and choral themes often combined in context with nymphs

i. Nymphs mainly act as a chorus dancing along to music of male choreographers ­ Hermes, Apollo, and Pan

b. Relationship between Dionysus and nymphs was chaste (nurse and her charge), nymphs and choral leaders related in sexual manner

i. Hermes as nymphs' regular sexual partner in Hymns to Aphrodite

ii. Apollo and Pan were usually unsuccessful lovers

c. Potential for nymphs to be subordinate to the dominant gods with whom they were linked

i. Pan's cult cave installed in the Akropolis after the Battle of Marathon

ii. First associated with nymphs in Attic caves

iii. Nymphs pre-date Pan

1. Attic cave sites not created for Pan

2. Pan grafted onto the tradition of nymph worship in caves

d. Pan began to accompany and supersede Apollo and Hermes as Nymphs' partner

i. 4th century Attic votive relief: Hermes and Pan equal

ii. afterwards Hermes excluded from round dance of Pan and


III. Acheloos and the Rivers

a. Acheloos: longest river in Greece

i. Association with nymphs is of great antiquity

ii. As water deities nymphs are often said to be his daughters

iii. Widely honored in conjunction with the nymphs and other gods

b. Characteristics of rivers

i. Local river is usually preferred as man's birthplace; heroes and rivers

ii. Rivers as male deities with physical and sexual vigor of a bull

iii. Acheloos portrayed in reliefs with Hermes, Pan and nymphs

1. Depicted as either as the front half of a human faced bull or as a mask-like face against a wall; (protome)

IV. Nymphs, Goddesses, and the Female Life Cycle

a. Education and reconciliation of girls to their role as a woman

1. gender roles ­maturation rituals

2. puberty, marriage pool ­ joined chorus or made dedication

3. marriage ­ sacrifices and nuptial bath

4. birth of 1st child ­ ritual bath

b. Jurisdiction of Goddesses

i. These areas of female life governed by goddesses: Hera, Artemis, Persephone

1. each area relied on individual combination of deities

2. nymphs played an important part in all areas b/c of association with water

ii. "nymphs in various contexts could represent the wild prepubertal girl, the chaste chorus member, the bride before and after consummation, and even the mother, whereas the sexual and familial identities of the major goddesses were firmly fixed"

V. Dolls and Female Socialization

a. Dolls in Attic reliefs

i. Clothed, seated figures, full-length nude figures, nude figures truncated at the shoulders and thighs

ii. Reilly ­ nude figures "anatomical votives", not toys b. Larson believes such strict votive-toy distinction is unnecessary

i. Scenes show girls in conventional play context

ii. Domestic scenes, not special ritual occasions

iii. Interchangeable uses: votives as dolls, dolls as votives

c. No strict dividing line between toys and votives but rather a spectrum

i. Similarity of the two due to a common craftsmen

d. Nudity does not rule out their use as dolls

i. Socializing function served equally by votive or doll

ii. Full length nude figures resemble ancient version of Barbie

e. Dolls in Literary References

i. Poet Erinna refers to two girls playing with dolls;

ii. other terms for doll

f. Dressing dolls

i. Common pastime for girls

ii. Also served socializing function

1. ornamentation (kosmesis) of the doll corresponds to value placed on conventional measure of female beauty

iii. dressing of dolls analogous to ritual ornamentation of cult images by older girls and women g. Dolls as Musicians/Chorus members

i. Articulated terra cotta dolls with castanets or tambourines

ii. other dolls functioned as dancing marionettes

iii. reflects the mythic ideal of the dancing, musical nymph and

the young girl's eventual entry into a chorus

VI. Handmaidens of Artemis?

a. Nymphs traditionally pictured as a band of beautiful chaste virgins surrounding Artemis ­ Homer's Odyssey

b. This became the definitive picture of the goddess

c. Hellenistic and Roman depictions of Artemis introduce idea that nymphs are her maidservants

i. Callimachus' Hymn to Artemis ii. Ovid's version of the Aktaion myth

d. Association of Artemis and nymphs is also limited in the sphere of cult

i. Nymphs not a part of the cults of Artemis Agrotera or Limnaia

ii. Nymphs not included in sacrifices to Artemis

iii. Artemis not normally honored in nymph cults

iv. Artemis linked unambiguously to the nymphs only in the Peloponnese

e. Ritual bathing at Kyrene another possible link

i. Newly married and pregnant women required to "go down to

Artemis" at the nymphaion and bathe

ii. no explicit link, but suggestive

f. Chastity of Artemis' nymphs vs. general notion of nymphs as Hermes' lovers

i. Role of dancing changes when Artemis is present

ii. Becomes associated with courtship and sexual initiation

g. Nymphs have two function in relation to Artemis

i. Serve as a divine escort

ii. Serve as mythopoetic representatives of the Greek maiden at adolescence

h. Larson suggests Artemis may be an uber-nymph who began as a local nymphs and then became differentiated from the rest

i. Sacred Space

i. Development of sacred space in temple life drew the worship of Artemis from the country into the city setting

ii. Nymphic cults require no necessary associations with the city

iii. Thus Larson says the cultic separation of Artemis and nymphs was inevitable from early times

j. Conclusion:

i. Artemisian nymphs are a subgroup of nymphs "whose function is to act as a mythic paradigm of the community's adolescent, marriageable girls" and who "had their origin in the institution of maiden choruses to the goddess, which were imaginatively transformed into divine choruses in epic."

VII. Nymphe and the Prenuptial Bath

a. Prenuptial bath was a rite of passage which focused upon one member of the group

b. Many examples of bathing goddesses in myth

c. Primary purpose of maiden's bath is fecundating

d. Nymphs were also depicted in bathing settings

e. Plutarch's mention of a girl's proteleia to the nymphs at the spring Kissoessa at Boiotia

i. Proteleia was a ceremony which, like the prenuptial bath, preceded the wedding banquet and consummation of the marriage

f. Loutrophoros

i. A long-necked vase used to carry the prenuptial bathwater; primary symbol of the prenuptial bath in Attica

ii. loutrophoroi were dedicated to the gods, particularly, the nymphs

g. Shrine of Nymphe

i. Votives deposited there since the seventh century

ii. Unlike other Attic nymph shrines because it focuses on one nymph and it has no association with a special natural feature

iii. Nymphe should probably be thought of as a personification of the Bride similar to Hera Nympheuomene

VIII. Hera and the Nymphs: Boiotia, Argolis, Paestum

a. "Hera and the nymphs share an important field of influence: the marriage of young girls and the attendant concerns of fertility and childbirth"

b. The Daidala i. A Boeotian festival which involved the bathing and dressing in bridal gear of a roughly carved log or plank which was then placed in a cart with a bridesmaid and then carried from the river Asopos to the top of Kitheiron where it was burned with other sacrifices

ii. Roots in etiological myth

c. Hera's cult underwent a major change about 600

i. The wild nature of the goddess was tamed paralleling the idea of marriage as the acculturation of the female

d. Daidala myth reflects Hera's new role as Zeus wife and subordinate

i. Her concern becomes the assertion and preservation of wives' rights

1. Husbands could only have one wife at a time now 2. wife's social status and legitimacy preserved

ii. focus of Hera's cult becomes her image as the Bride or Nymphe

e. Hera's ritual begging

i. Concerned with marriage, fertility, and childbirth

ii. In Hesiod, the daughters of Proitos were punished for their rejection of Hera by a skin disease

f. Bathing statues of Hera and Athena played an important cultic role in Argive

i. Athena important to young girls association with the polis

ii. Hera important in the realm of fertility, marriage and birth

1. Mythic baths of the goddesses were reenacted by the women of Argive in prenuptial baths, postpartum, purifying baths, and other purifications

g. Hera's Hypogaeum

i. In Paestum, an important cult center for Hera, an underground shrine or hypogaeum was built

ii. The structure was completely sealed off with no doors or windows

iii. Only clue as to its purpose was a vase found outside on which was inscribed "I am sacred to the numphe"

iv. Assumption of nymphic cult poses problems

v. contents of shrine also ambiguous

vi. the most likely explanation is that the structure was built as an offering to either Kore or Hera in the guise of Nymphe or Bride

IX. Other Goddesses

a. Terra cotta figures from the Caruso nymph grotto in Lokroi Epizephyroi

i. Depict seated females, nude except for a polos, or crown

ii. molded in to a sitting or kneeling position with their arms at their side

b. Caruso terra cottas are similar to dolls of previous two centuries in Corinth and Attica who are nude, except for a polos

c. Most likely interpretation is that the figures are nuptial dedications given to the nymphs on the occasion of the ritual bath before marriage

d. Unknown if they were actually played with, but Larson believes similarity to dolls is significant


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