Like a tender Nymph
Within the dewy caves.
THE Grecian mythology, like its kindred systems, abounded in personifications. [a] Modified by scenery so beautiful, rich, and various as Hellas presented, it in general assigned the supposed intelligences who presided over the various parts of external nature more pleasing attributes than they elsewhere enjoyed. They were mostly conceived to be of the female sex, and were denominated Nymphs, a word originally signifying a new-married woman.
Whether it be owing to soil, climate, or to an original disposition of mind and its organ, the Greeks have above all other people possessed a perception of beauty of form, and a fondness for representing it. The Nymphs of various kinds were therefore always presented to the imagination, in the perfection of female youth and beauty. Under the various appellations of Oreades, Dryades, Naides, Limniades, Nereides, they dwelt in mountains, trees, springs, lakes, the seas where, in caverns and grottos, they passed a life whose occupations resembled those of females of human rare. The Wood-nymphs were the companions and attendants of the huntress goddess Artemis; the Sea-nymphs averted shipwreck from pious navigators; and the Spring- and River-nymphs poured forth fruitfulness on the earth. All of them were honoured with prayer and sacrifice; and all of them occasionally 'mingled in love' with favoured mortals.
In the Homeric poems, the most ancient portion of Grecian literature, we meet the various classes of Nymphs. In the Odyssey, they are the attendants of Calypso, herself a goddess and a nymph. Of the female attendants of Circe, the potent daughter of Helios, also designated as a goddess and a nymph, it is said,
They spring from fountains and from sacred groves,
And holy streams that flow into the sea.
Yet these nymphs are of divine nature, and when Zeus, the father of the gods, calls together his council,
None of the streams, save Ocean, stayed away,
Nor of the Nymphs, who dwell in beauteous groves,
And springs of streams, and verdant grassy slades.
The good Eumaeus prays to the Nymphs to speed the return of his master, reminding them of the numerous sacrifices Ulysses had offered to them. In another part of the poem, their sacred cave is thus described:--
But at the harbour's head a long-leafed olive
Grows, and near to it lies a lovely cave,
Dusky and sacred to the Nymphs, whom men
Call Naides. In it large craters lie,
And two-eared pitchers, all of stone, and there
Bees build their combs. In it, too, are long looms
Of stone, and there the Nymphs do weave their robes
Sea-purple, wondrous to behold. Aye-flowing
Waters are there; two entrances it hath;
That to the north is pervious unto men;
That to the south more sacred is, and there
Men enter not, but 'tis the Immortals' path.
Yet though thus exalted in rank, the Homeric Nymphs frequently 'blessed the bed' of heroes; and many a warrior who fought before Troy could boast descent from a Nais or a Nereis.
The sweet, gentle, pious, Ocean-nymphs, who in the Prometheus of Aeschylus appear as the consolers and advisers of its dignified hero, seem to hold a nearly similar relation with man to the supernal gods. Beholding the misery inflicted on Prometheus by the power of Zeus, they cry,--
May never the all-ruling
Zeus set his rival power
Against my thoughts;
Nor may I ever fail
The gods, with holy feasts
Of sacrifices, drawing near,
Beside the ceaseless stream
Of father Ocean:
Nor may I err in words;
But this abide with me
And never fade away.
One of the most interesting species of Nymphs is the Dryads, or Hamadryads, those personifications of the vegetable life of plants. In the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite, we find the following full and accurate description of them. Aphrodite, when she informs Anchises of her pregnancy, and her shame to have it known among the gods, says of the child;--
But him, when first he sees the sun's clear light,
The Nymphs shall rear, the mountain-haunting Nymphs,
Deep-bosomed, who on this mountain great
And holy dwell, who neither goddesses
Nor women are. Their life is long; they eat
Ambrosial food, and with the deathless frame
The beauteous dance. With them, in the recess
Of lovely caves, well-spying Argos-slayer
And the Sileni mix in lova Straight pines
Or oaks high headed spring with them upon
The earth man-feeding, soon as they are born;
This fair and flourishing; on the high hills
Lofty they stand; the Deathless' sacred grove
Men call them, and with iron never cut.
But when the fate of death is drawing near,
First wither on the earth the beauteous trees,
The bark around them wastes, the branches fall,
And the Nymph's soul at the same moment leaves
The sun's fair light.
They possessed power to reward and punish these who prolonged or abridged the existence of theft associate-tree. In the Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius, Phineus thus explains to the heroes the cause of the poverty of Peraebius
But he was paring the penalty laid on
His fathers crime; for one time, cutting trees
Alone among the hills, he spurned the prayer
Of the Hamadryas Nymph, who, weeping sore,
With earnest words besought him not to cut
The trunk of an oak tree, which, with herself
Coeval, had endured for many a year.
But, in the pride of youth, he foolishly
Cut it; and to him and to his race the Nymph
Gave ever after a lot profitless.
The Scholiast gives on this passage the following tale from Charon of Lampsacus:
A man, named Rhoecus, happening to see an oak just ready to fall to the ground, ordered his slaves to prop it. The Nymph, who had been on the point of perishing with the tree, came to him and expressed her gratitude to him for having saved her life, and at the same time desired him to ask what reward he would. Rhoecus then requested her to permit him to be her lover, and the Nymph acceded to his wishes. She at the same time charged him strictly to avoid the society of every other woman, and told him that a bee should be her messenger. One time the bee happened to come to Rhoecus as he was playing at draughts, and he made a rough reply. This so incensed the Nymph that she deprived him of sight.
Similar was the fate of the Sicilian Daphnis. [b] A Nais loved him and forbade him to hold intercourse with any other woman under pain of loss of sight. Long he abstained, though tempted by the fairest maids of Sicily. At length a princess contrived to intoxicate him: he broke his vow, and the threatened penalty was inflicted.
[a] See our Mythology of Ancient Greece and Italy, where (p. 237) most of what follows will be found, with notes.
[b] Parthenius, Erotica, chap. xxix