A nymph in Greek mythology is a female spirit typically associated with a particular location or landform. Other nymphs, always in the shape of young nubile maidens, were part of the retinue of a god, such as Dionysus, Hermes, or Pan, or a goddess, generally Artemis. Nymphs were the frequent target of satyrs. They live in mountains and groves, by springs and rivers, also in trees and in valleys and cool grottoes. They are frequently associated with the superior divinities: the huntress Artemis; the prophetic Apollo; the reveller and god of wine, Dionysus; and rustic gods such as Pan and Hermes.
The symbolic marriage of a nymph and a patriarch, often the eponym of a people, is repeated endlessly in Greek origin myths; their union lent authority to the archaic king and his line.
"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 stupid 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 marriageable 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, one of the meanings of νύμφη is "rose-bud").
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. In the works of the Greek-educated Latin poets, the nymphs gradually absorbed into their ranks the indigenous Italian divinities of springs and streams (Juturna, Egeria, Carmentis, 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.
Nymphs in modern Greek folklore
The ancient Greek belief in nymphs survived in many parts of the country into the early years of the twentieth century, when they were usually known as "nereids". At that time John Cuthbert Lawson wrote: "…there is probably no nook or hamlet in all Greece where the womenfolk at least do not scrupulously take precautions against the thefts and malice of the nereids, while many a man may still be found to recount in all good faith stories of their beauty, passion and caprice. Nor is it a matter of faith only; more than once I have been in villages where certain Nereids were known by sight to several persons (so at least they averred); and there was a wonderful agreement among the witnesses in the description of their appearance and dress."
Usually female, they were dressed in white, decked with garlands of flowers, but they frequently had unnatural legs, like those of a goat, donkey or cow. They were so beautiful that the highest compliment was to compare some feature of a woman (eyes, hair, etc.) with that of a nereid. They could move swiftly and invisibly, ride through the air and slip through small holes. Although not immortal, their lives exceeded a human's tenfold, and they retained their beauty until death.
They tended to frequent areas distant from humans, but could be encountered by lone travellers outside the village, where their music might be heard, and the traveller could spy on their dancing or bathing in a stream or pool, either during the noon heat or in the middle of the night. They might appear in a whirlwind. Such encounters could be dangerous, bringing dumbness, besotted infatuation, madness or stroke to the unfortunate human. When parents believed their child to be nereid-struck they would pray to Saint Artemidos, the Christian manifestation of Artemis.
As H.J. Rose states, "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 dryads and hamadryads as nymphs of trees generally, meliai as nymphs of ash trees, and naiads as nymphs of water, but no others specifically.