In Greek mythology, a nymph is any member of a large class of female nature entities, either bound to a particular location or landform or joining the retinue of a god or goddess. Nymphs were the frequent target of lusty satyrs.
"The idea that rivers are gods and springs divine nymphs," Walter Burkert remarks (Burkert III.3.3) "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." Nymphs are personifications of the creative and fostering activities of nature, most often identified with the life-giving outflow of springs. The Greek word νύμφη has "bride" and "veiled" among its meanings: hence, a marriagable young woman. Other readers refer the word (and also Latin nubere and German Knospe) to a root expressing the idea of "swelling" (according to Hesychius of Alexandria, one of the meanings of νύμφη is "rose-bud"). The home of the nymphs is on mountains and in groves, by springs and rivers, in valleys and cool grottoes. They are frequently associated with the superior divinities, the huntress Artemis, the prophetic Apollo, the reveller and god of trees Dionysus, and with rustic gods such as Pan and Hermes (as the god of shepherds).
The symbolic marriage with a nymph of a patriarchal leader, often the eponym of a people, is repeated endlessly in Greek origin myths; clearly such a union lent authority to the archaic king and to his line.
The different species of nymph are sometimes distinguished according to the different spheres of nature with which they were connected. However, many of these distinctions may not have existed in popular belief at any time, being late inventions. As Rose (1959, p. 173) states, "the fact is that all these names are simply feminine adjectives, agreeing with the substantive nympha, and there was no orthodox and exhaustive classification of these shadowy beings." He mentions (pp. 172–3) dryads and hamadryads as nymphs of trees generally, meliai as nymphs of ash trees, and naiads as nymphs of water, but no others specifically.
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. Among the Greek-educated Latin poets, the nymphs gradually absorbed into their ranks the indigenous Italian divinities of springs and streams (Juturna, Egeria, Cavmentis, Fontus), while the Lymphae (originally Lumpae), Italian water-goddesses, owing to the accidental similarity of name, 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.
Depictions in popular culture