April Kersten

Greek Nymphs: Myth, Cult, Lore

by Jennifer Larson

Chapter 4: 121-159


I. Things to Keep in Mind.

II. "Mythic genealogies were always laden with serious political and social significance and were subject to manipulation from the earliest times."

III. Nymphs provided a useful mythographic shorthand for peoples, villages, and cities. --- a story of a nymph being seduced by Zeus could represent the colonization of the area for which the nymph is named.

IV. In the archaic period the worship of nymphs was primarily done by the rural poor. During the classical period elites began to take interest in the worship of nymphs in part due to the popularity of the Pan cult after the Persian wars.

V. "The lore of nymphs by their very mundaneness and their rural, local connotations somehow distilled an essential, authentic quality of Hellenism."

VI. Three basic themes are sounded over and over:

1. the nymphs' presence in the landscape

2. rites of passage and the social dimension of the nymph as a bride

3. genealogy and locial identity

VII. Attica

* Athens

1. The earliest known sites of the nymphs' cult at Athens are at three water sources: Empedo, Kallirhoe, and the Asklepieion.

2. Empedo: empedos which means "firmly set" and "steadfast."

a. an ancient spring located in a deep cleft at the base of the Akropolis.

b. It was renamed Klepsydra, "water hider", when a spring house was constructed over the spring.

c. The spring house incorporated the natural rock overhang of the cave in a n attempt to keep the naturally rocky appearance of the cave.

d. This suggests the great sanctity of the place.

e. The four small caves and the spring probably make up a single sacred precinct.

3. Kallirhoe: lovely flowing

a. provided water for the nuptial baths of Athenian women.

b. The exact location of the Kallirhoe is debated as being either at the bank of the Ilissos or a sixth century fountation house on the agora.

c. Upstream from the Kallirhoe is the hill of Adrettos which is a shrine of the nymphs and Acheloos.

d. Smaller, doll-like figures were found either at the shrine or by the spring called korai.

e. The kallirhoe and the shrine are both located in an area called the Agrai, the Field, where many rustic cults were located.

f. Another such shrine was the shrine of Dionyos at Limnai. At this shrine Dionyos was connected with both nymphs and the Horai.

g. The shrine of Dionyos at Limnai connected the three divinities as the Horai ripened the grapes, the nymphs provided water, and wine was sacred to Dionyos.

4. The sacred springs of the Asklepeion, on the south slope of the acropolis.

a. There are two possible locations: the Round Spring House and the Slouth Slope House.

b. Each of these locations were associated with the nymphs.

c. Asklepeion was introduced to the site later on as abundant water was key to the healing power of the god.

d. Across from this site is the Church of Ayia Marina a saint who aid in childbirth as well as a sacred, smooth rock women would slide down to aid in a smooth childbirth.

* Peiraieus and Demes

1. The sanctuary at Kephisos River

a. Two dedicators: Xenokrateia and Kephisdotos

b. Xenokrateia dedicates a votive relief which portrays the Geraistian Nymphs of Birth.

c. The relief follows the cult regulation on what gods should be depicted.

d. "The regulation ensures that the correst gods will receive sacrifice in the correct order, while the relief depicts the relationship between Xenokratiea, her son, and the gods of the sanctuary."

e. Kephisdotos contributes a double-sided relief depicting nymphs, Hermes, and a river god Kephisos --and Hermes and Echelos, a local hero, on the other side.

f. Both people claim to have founded altars there but it seems as if Kephidotos altar was in compliment to Xenokratiea's.

2. Also a harbor in Athens where votives reliefs have been found indicating worship of the nymphs.

a. This is an example of nymph worship with a foreign god: Bendis and Men, a Phrygian moon god.

3. Two calendar inscriptions mentioning nymphs are: Erchia and Marathon.

a. Erchia: the nymphs were worshiped in a cult partnership with other gods­all gods of the life cycle--- and five sheep would be sacrificed.

b. Marathon: sacruificed a goat to the nymphs. Aso another tribal group (trittus) who sacrificed to gods who could aid in the lives of a new citizen.

c. "These sacrifices are of interest because they confirm that the extraurban cults of the nymphs were not confined to caves."

* Central Greece

* Boiotia

1. Boiotia has a large number of female divities.

2. One problem is that many of the place names connected with the Boiotian cults of the Muses and nymphs are duplicated from the Macedonian district of Pieria.

3. The Asopos River: the father of many desirable nymphs

a. Two rivers: one in Boiotia and another in Peloponnesian Philos--- the myths of both rivers are merged into one legend claimed by both locales.

b. Two important daughters of Asopos: Thebes and Aigina

c. Thebes was a city adjacent to Boiotian Asopos.

d. Aigina was a daughter who was abducted by Zeus and founds the line of Achilles and Ajax.

4. Normally nymphs were not worshipped individually but as traditionally pluralities. This was a tension in Boiotia as there was also the need to recognize individual nymphs as ancestors.

5. Mentions Melia­ash tree nymphs, formed from the blood of Heaven. She had a exalted place at Apollo's sanctuary at Thebes.

6. The cult of Halia Nymphe (Sea Nymph)­was important in the Boiotian region Oropos. Little is known about this cult.

* Euboia

1. Two Daughters of Asopos: Chalkis and Eubioa

a. Chalkis: had a sanctuary calling her archegetis (founder)

b. Eubioa: was beloved of Poseidon and bore a local hero­Tychios.

2. Also has a Dionysiac tradition: in which the infant was raised by nymphs on the island

* Saronic Gulf

1. Aigina, Asopos daughter--- who was pursued by Zeus

2. She founds the Myrmidons and the lineage of Achilles and Ajax

3. Scenes on Attic vases of Aigina's abduction by Zeus may be a metaphor for the growing self-assertion of Athenian male citizenry. Athens eventually subjugated the Aiginetans.

* Megara

1. Famous fountain house built by the tyrant Theagenes.

2. The fountain house was associated with the Sithnid nymphs.

a. These nymphs were locally important as the primordial hero Megaros was a child of Zeus and one of these nymphs.

* Phokis

1. Mount Parnassos

a. was home to a primordial oracular shrin with a mountain nymph named Daphnis as its prophet.

b. Korykian cave was the most popular cave of the nymphs in antiquity.

2. The Delphic springs Kastalia and Kassotis

* Peloponnese and Corinth

* Corinth

1. Peirene: famous fountain house­a nymph who bore to Poseidon two sons, one of whom was killed by Artemis.

a. She was turned into a spring while weeping over her dead son.

b. This was the spring where Bellerophon tamed Pegasos

2. Glauke: "Gleaming, silvery"--- another famous fountain house

a. the spring may be named after the princess who was poisoned by Medea, and threw herself into the river to relief her anguish.

* Argolis

1. The river Inachos: who is the primordial father of Argive heros Phoroneus, Danaos, and ultimately Perseus and Herakles.

2. The lack of water in Argos

a. This problem was mythically created by Inachos choosing Hera over Poseidon as patron of Argolis.

b. Poseidon rescued the Danaid Amymone from a lustful satyr. The two had a love affair and Poseidon relented providing water to Argos.

3. The saga of Perseus: three nymphs give him the tools he needs to defeat Medusa.

4. Lerna: the location of the Hydra­depicted as a nymph reacheing out to Herakles as he kill the beast.

* Lakonia, Messenia, and Arkadia

1. In Sparta: a cult of Helen replaced the typical worship of nymphs

2. Both in Messenia and Arkadia: stories of the birth of Zeus

a. Messenia: Zeus was reared by the mountain Ithome, two nymphs, and the river Neda.

b. Arkandian: Zeus was reared by three nymphs­Neda, Theisoa, and Hagno. Rhea purified herself in the river Lymax.

3. The Peloponnesian tradition focuses on water and its role in purification after birth and the cleansing of the infant.

4. This focus on purification is different from the typical focus of nymphs as providing nourishment and education.

5. Pan: he is honored in Arkadia in exclusive sanctuaries without his typical nymphs.

6. Pan has three nymph loves in Arkadia: Syrinx, Echo, and Pitys

7. The river Styx is also an Arkadian nymph.

a. Styx is both an underworld and earthly river

8. In Arkadia, nymphs are rarely worshiped in plurality­contrasts to Boiotia.

* Elis and Achaia

1. The River Alpheios was famed for his sexual aggressiveness.

a. He attempted a rape of Artemis

b. From this story originated the ritual of abducting girls from a chorus line as a mythic paradigm for marriage.

2. The River Ladon: a young man fell in love with Ladon's daugher Daphne--- when he was discovered the nymph killed the boy.

3. Sanctuary of Olympia: there were three altars to the nymphs

4. The unusual cult and temple of Hades found in Triphylia

a. Minthe: was a nymph who was a lover of Hades, invoking the rage of his wife who turned her into a garden mint.


Return to Main Page: CLST 4003H. Greek Religion Honors Colloquium. Spring, 2002.