This is a post I wrote for the Future Fire site, in honour of Fae Visions of the Mediterranean, an anthology of 24 stories and poems of horror and wonder of the sea in 9 languages. The anthology includes my poem "Liquid Pleasure", the story of a woman who fell in love with a water nymph long, long ago.
Nymphs were the fae of ancient Greece—tall, beautiful supernatural women who were the embodiment of springs and rivers, trees and pools, mountains and caves. They were seriously powerful, more or less immortal, and permanently fixed at the age just between girlhood and marriage. Any spring or pool or river, even within a town, could safely be assumed to be inhabited by its own nymph or nymphs who were worthy of worship. So could trees and groves, hills and mountains. And the Greeks sensibly left offerings for the nymphs in all of these places. There were names for all the different types of nymphs—a naiad was a water nymph, an oreiad was a mountain nymph, etc.—but they could safely be referred to en masse as nymphs.
The word nymph (in ancient Greek, numphē) simply means “a girl of marriageable age”, but nymphs were not merely tall, beautiful, and female. Like all fae, and supernatural beings generally, they could also be dangerous.
Their presence could simply influence one to inspired speech—as Socrates said the nymphs of the nearby stream inspired him in the Phaedrus. Sometimes they healed the sick, though in folk belief they also were responsible for stealing away healthy babies and leaving changelings in their place. A man who saw a nymph could become nympholeptos: “taken by the nymphs” or “possessed by the nymphs,” never the same again—perhaps not so different from our “off with the fairies.” And there were folktales of fairyland-type exploits, where the nymphs tricked people into spending days or weeks with them that turn out to be years and centuries.
The most famous story of a person taken by the nymphs was Hylas, the beautiful young man beloved by Herakles. It happened while Hylas and Herakles were sailing towards Colchis with Jason and the Argonauts. According to Apollonius of Rhodes in his Argonautica, Hylas went looking for water one evening, and the naiad of the spring fell in love with him. He bent over the spring, she put one arm around his neck, ready to kiss him, and pulled him in with her right hand. Herakles searched and raged, but Hylas was never seen again.
Other versions of the story involve multiple naiads, and those were clearly what John William Waterhouse had in mind in his wonderful painting Hylas and the Nymphs. I’ve owned a print of it for decades, and it hangs over my bath.
Why, I wondered, should only men fall in love with nymphs? The narrator of my poem is a woman “taken by a nymph.”