by Jess Ketley
TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains discussions of sexual violence.
The stories which feature sexual violence will be highlighted so you can skip those tales if you wish.
Very soon the Classics Society event of the year, Hadrian’s Ball, will be upon us. If you have bought a ticket you will know that the theme is A Night with the Nymphs (and if you haven’t – get on it! There’s a limited amount of after party tickets left) As part of the theme, all of the tables for the dinner are named after a different Nymph from Greek Mythology. So, to prepare for the grand evening of festivities, I’ve prepared a series of short biographies of the namesakes of our different tables, so you can find out more about the nymphs featured. Without further ado, here are the nymphs of the night at A Night with the Nymphs!
If you’ve heard of Echo, it’s likely from the myth of Narcissus. In this tale, Narcissus, so obsessed with his own beauty, falls in love with his own reflection in a forest pool. Echo, a nymph of that pool, also falls in love with Narcissus. However, Echo was cursed by Hera because she helped Zeus pursue affairs with mortals. As a consequence, she cannot speak but only repeat what others say. Narcissus’ self-obsession leads him to reject Echo, who, in her grief, dissolves into air, leaving just her voice – and is thus the origin of echoes.
However, there are other versions of the Echo myth. For example, in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe a different version is presented, in which Echo is a beautiful singer and virgin, who rejects the pursuits of the god Pan. In retaliation to her rejection, Pan rapes and then murders Echo, ripping her body into several pieces. These pieces are then absorbed by the Earth, out of pity for Echo, preserving her voice, and thus creating echoes. There are versions where Echo is able to escape Pan, however.
You can read more about Echo in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (3.356– 510), Pausanias’s Description of Greece (9.31.6– 9), and Philostratus’s Imagines (1.23).
CW: Attempted Rape
Daphne’s story seems very tragic to us modern readers, as it is another tale of a woman being unable to escape sexual violence by gods. She was a wood nymph, daughter of the river god Peneus, and a follower of Artemis. Although she was a sworn virgin, Daphne was pursued by her goddess’ twin brother, Apollo. Like Echo, Daphne rejected these advances, and was then violently pursued by the god. In order to avoid being raped by Apollo, Daphne prayed to her father, who protected her by turning her into a laurel tree – Daphne meaning laurel in Greek. Since he was now unable to marry her, Apollo made the laurel tree one of his attributes.
You can find representations of Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1.452-567), Hyginus’s Fabulae (203) and Pausanias’ Descriptions of Greece (10.7.8).
Thetis was a sea nymph, the daughter of Nereus, wife of Peleus, and, most famously, the mother of the hero Achilles. While she was originally pursued by Zeus and Poseidon, Thetis was forcibly married to the mortal Peleus because of a prophecy that stated her child would be greater than his father.
She is best known, however, for her attempts to aid her son, Achilles, in the Trojan War. In the early books of Homer’s Iliad, Thetis persuades Zeus to turn against the Greeks in order to help Achilles to increase his glory. She also appears in the later books to give Achilles new armour made by the god Hephaestus, after the death of Patroclus. Because of her involvement in the Trojan War, Thetis also appears in Euripides’ Andromache, Hesiod’s Theogony, and Ovid’s Metamorphosis, amongst others. She has also appeared in modern works of fiction, most notably Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles.
There is also the famous myth of Thetis dunking Achilles in the river Styx in order to make him invulnerable, except for the part of his ankle she was holding. This is where we get the phrase Achille’s Heel from, as well as why that part of your foot is called the Achille’s Tendon. This story doesn’t appear in the Iliad, and it is unclear if Achilles is invulnerable in that story, as it is never explicitly stated. Scholars debate where or not this story was thus a later invention or was simply left out by Homer for some reason.
Not to be confused with Tyche, the goddess of Fortune and Luck, Tyche was also a nymph, the daughter of Oceanus, the god of rivers. She is mentioned in Homer’s Hymn 2 to Demeter, which details the abduction of Kore, better known as Persephone. When she is abducted by Hades, Kore was playing in a field with several of her companions – including Tyche (as well as a few others on this list). Pausanias also mentions this in his Descriptions of Greece.
Amphitrite was a Nereid, wife of Poseidon, and the Queen of the Sea. Despite her marriage to one of the most prominent Olympians, we know little about Amphitrite. Her parentage is disputed, with her either being the child of Doris and Nereus, or Oceanus and Tethys. We also have no myths specifically about her surviving to us.
She does appear in Homer’s Odyssey, in which she represents the dangers of the sea, with her breeding sea monsters and controlling the waves. Amphitrite is also mentioned in Pausanias’ Descriptions of Greece, Hesiod’s Theogony, and Apollodorus’ Library.
A Naiad of Mount Mintha, Minthe is known from the origin story of the mint plant. Supposedly, Minthe was loved by Hades, and so claimed to be superior to Persephone. In revenge for this, Persephone turned Minthe into the mint plant; although some versions have Persephone turning Minthe to literal ash (a little harsh) and Hades causing the mint plant to grow from the ashes to preserve his love. It is suggested that mint was used in ancient Greek funeral rites in order to mask the smell of the body, and was sacred to Hades.
Minthe’s story is mentioned in Strabo’s Geography and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
CW : Rape.
Nephele was a nymph made of clouds by Zeus to look like Hera (her name means cloud – nobody said the Greeks were creative). This was in order to test the King Ixion of the Lapiths, who Hera claimed hade tried to rape her. This trick did in fact work, and Ixion raped Nephele, who subsequently became pregnant. This pregnancy by Ixion resulted in her giving birth to the Centaurs by raining on the Mount Pelion. In a fresh change from other stories, Ixion was punished (more so for his attempted rape of Hera than his rape of Nephele, but you take wins when you can) and was chained to a fiery wheel in Hades for eternity.
Nephele was also the lover of Athamas, a mythic king of Boeotia (it has been debated whether or not these are two separate nymphs, both named Nephele, but for the sake of this I’m going to treat them as one figure in a world with a shortage of creative names). She had two children with Athamas, Phrixus and Helle, before he married another woman, Ino. Ino attempted to have her stepchildren killed through a ruse, but Nephele saved them by having them carried off by a golden ram, leant to her by Hermes.
As they flew away, Nephele’s daughter, Helle, fell off the ram and into the sea, where she drowned. Her name was then given to the place she drowned (which is a little messed up) – the Hellespont. Her son, Phrixus, survived and made it to Colchis, where he married one of the daughters of the King Aeetes, and sacrificed the golden ram in thanks to Zeus. The skin of this ram is the same fleece sought out by Jason and the Argonauts.
The different stories about Nephele can be found in Pindar’s Pythian Ode, Hesiod’s Catalogues of Women, and Apollodorus’ The Library
Styx is an Oceanid nymph of the river of the same name which encircles Hades, separating it from the mortal world. She is the eldest daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. She sided with Zeus in the war against the Titans. Styx was also the embodiment of hatred, making her the first known hater.
Despite siding with Zeus, she had several divine children by the Titan Pallas – Bia (Strength), Kratos (Power – and yes, that is the Kratos from the God of War games), Nike (Victory), and Zelus (Zeal). Apollodorus also claims that Persephone was the daughter of Styx by Zeus, rather than the child of Demeter. However, the Homeric Hymn 2 to Demeter claims that Styx was one of Persephone’s playmates present at her abduction.
One of the Pleiades (the star-nymph daughters of Atlas and Pleoine), Calypso is most famous for her appearance in the early books of the Odyssesy. When Odysseus is shipwrecked on the island of Ogygia, where Calypso lived, she fell in love with him and forced him to remain with her for seven years. She only allowed him to leave after being commanded to do so by Zeus. She did bear children with Odysseus, anywhere from 1-3 sons, depending on the source.
Calypso is also mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony and Apollodorus’ The Library, which give conflicting information on her parentage.
Scylla is best known as the sea monster who threatened Odysseus, Aeneas and the Argonauts on their respective journeys. Whether or not she was born as a monster differs depending on the source you read. In older Greek poems, Scylla was born a monster. However, in later sources, she is transformed into a monster. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Scylla was loved by the sea god Glaucus, and thus incurred the jealous wrath of Circe, who poisoned Scylla’s bath and transformed her into a sea monster.
Scylla’s parentage is also unclear – according to Apollodorus, she is either the child of Hekate by Phorcys, or of Trienus and Phorcus. She is described by Homer as having twelve feet, six necks, and three rows of teeth, aka a significantly worse goose. In art, she is frequently depicted with having several dogs attached to her waist.
Ambrosia is one of the Nysiades, who were the nymphs of the mythic Mount Nysa, a fictional mountain who’s location has been posited as being in Thrace, India, or Libya, amongst others. Sources are unclear as to how many Nysiades there were, with the most common numbers being 3, 5, or 6.
Ambrosia and her sisters – who are named Kisseis, Bromie, Koronis, and Arsinoe in Hyginus’ Fabulae 182, although he gives differing names and amounts in both the same story and other works – were the nurses of the infant Dionysos, who was entrusted to them by Zeus to raise of Mount Nysa. When he came of age, they joined him to become the first Bacchantes. So basically, this is the ultimate party table.
The daughter of Hephaestus, Thalia was a Naiad of Mount Etna in Sicily. Unfortunately for Thalia, she drew the desire of Zeus, and ended up conceiving children by him. In order to avoid the anger of Hera, Thalia asked to be swallowed by the Earth, and it, fortunately (?), obliged. Under the Earth she gave birth to twins – the Palikoi, the demi-gods of hot springs and geysers of Palakia in Sicily, in what I can only imagine was a quick birth. Her sons would then go on to have a sanctuary established at Palakia, in which escaped slaves could claim refuge.
We do know that Aeschylus wrote a play about Thalia, called the Women of Aetna, although now it is nearly entirely lost. Only one fragment survives to us through Macrobius’ Saturnalia. We know from the Life of Aeschylus that it was performed soon after the founding of the city of Aetna, and that Aeschylus possibly wrote it in Sicily to manifest good fortune for the new city.
Theoi Project – https://www.theoi.com/
Roman, L., Roman, M. (2010), Encyclopaedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, New York.