Friday, July 13, 2012

PBP: Nymphs, Naiads and other nature spirits

An often forgotten part of Hellenismos, Hellenic myth and Hellenic religion in general is the worship of nature spirits. This group of divine and/or supernatural creatures was worshipped by many local cults back in the olden days, sometimes more actively than the worship of the Olympic Gods. This was especially true in the more rural areas.
    The most famous of the nature spirits are the Nymphs. The term Nymph means 'bride' and although these creatures rarely married, they were certainly desired. Nymphs are the divinities of the natural features of the landscape. Nymphs are always female and there are many kinds. Amongst others there are the: Alseid, Auloniad, Aurai, Crinaeae, Dryads, Eleionomae, Epimeliades, Hamadryads, Hesperides, Leimoniades, Limnades, Meliae, Naiads, Napaeae, Nereids, Oceanids, Oreades, Pegaeae, Pegasides, Pleiades and Potamides. Their male counterparts are Centaurs, Sileni, and Satyrs. Dryads, for example, are Nymphs of the trees (especially oak trees). Naiads are are Nymphs of the oceans, Oreads are nymphs of the mountains and Epimeliades, for example, protect flocks (or a specific flock) of sheep.

    In Hellenic mythology, nature spirits are rarely featured. When they are featured, the female nature spirits are usually chased, or even sexually molested by Gods or Satyrs. What Satyrs do is, of course, legendary. It is interesting to note that Nymphs are often revered side by side with the Gods who chase them and they share shrine space easily. The two are connected and usually enjoy the company of the other party. Examples include Dionysos, Apollon, Pan, Poseidon and Hermes. Goddesses who are closely associated with Nyads and other nature spirits are Artemis, Callisto and Aphrodite.

    Certain Nymphs--Naiads, Nereids and Limnades especially--are known for their healing powers. The waters they guards are often used in potions or used to wash away the disease with. Other Nymphs are known for their ability to gift the supplicant with prophetic powers. Those thus touched by a Nymph are called Nympholepts. Nympholepts were on the fringes of society in ancient Hellas but it were these men and women who tended the shrines for the Nymphs; an important task. Nympholept has several meanings; it can be someone who has prophetic powers, as gifted by Nymphs, like just discussed. It was also used as a term to describe those who were seen as possessed by the Nymphs and as a term for the priests and caretakers of the shrines of the Nymph cults.

    The worship of nature spirits is easy; when you visit them at their home--an especially old oak tree, a lively stream or a bee visited meadow--you can leave them offerings. Suitable offerings are a bit of water from your flask, shiny things like coins or honey. Especially honey is closely related to nature spirits--Nymphs in particular--as they were often assumed to taken the form of bees to interact with us. 

    A certain animistic worldview can be seen in the worship of nature spirits. It's one of the major links between Paganism and Hellenismos and yet, very few Hellenics actively partake in this type of worship or use it as a bridge. When I was young, I used to talk to trees and bushes. The rustling in the leaves reminded me of words. When I discovered Paganism, I made connections with trees or areas I felt were inhabited with something more than organic matter. I was never much of a tree hugger in the new age sense, but I know that some natural features are home to beings who are worthy of our respect. I will make the worship of nature spirits an active part of my practice and I hope others do as well; if not to honor these beings than to bridge the gap between Paganism and Hellenismos. That might be more important than we realize. 


    1 comment:

    Memory Walker said...

    I find myself drawn to certain trees. I'm sure it looks dorky, but I will actually hug them; and while it doesn't make sense - tree trunks are hard and rough and not very person-shaped - I always find myself settling into the hug as comfortably as I would hugging my mother or my partner. :) I can feel the coolness of the sap within, the quiet of its spirit. It is immensely comforting, and I always thank the tree afterwards for soaking away a little of my anxieties.
    I'm convinced that there's more to a tree than gets written down in a biology book. Whether the tree itself has a spirit, or whether a nymph lives within the tree, or some other option...