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Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs Manchester Art Gallery 1896.15-0.jpg

A nymph (Greek: νύμφη, nýmphē [nýmpʰɛː]) in Greek mythology is a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform.

Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in mountainous regions and forests by springs or rivers; as Walter Burkert (Burkert 1985:III.3.3) remarks, "The idea that rivers are gods and springs divine nymphs 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." Other nymphs, always in the shape of young maidens, were part of the retinue of a god, such as Dionysus, Hermes, or Pan, or a goddess, generally the huntress Artemis. Nymphs were the frequent target of satyrs.

The Greek word νύμφη has the primary meaning of "nubile young woman; bride, young wife" and is not associated with deities in particular. It refers to young women at the peak of sexual attractiveness, contrasting with parthenos (παρθένος) "a virgin (of any age)", and generic kore (κόρη < κόρϝα) "maiden, girl". The term is used by (human) women to address each other, so Iris addressing Helen, or Eurycleia addressing Penelope as νύμφα φίλη "dear nymph" (Il. 3.130, Od. 4.743). Reduced to νύφη, the word remains the regular Modern Greek term for "bride". In Katharevousa, it is still νύμφη, as in the refrain of the Marian hymn Agni Parthene (c. 1880), χαῖρε νύμφη ἀνύμφευτε "hail, unwedded bride".

The Doric and Aeolic (Homeric) form is νύμφα. The Iliad (6.420) refers to "mountain nymphs, maidens of Zeus":

ἠδ᾽ ἐπὶ σῆμ᾽ ἔχεεν: περὶ δὲ πτελέας ἐφύτευσαν / νύμφαι ὀρεστιάδες κοῦραι Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο. [Il. 6.419f.] "He [Achilles] heaped over him [Eetion] a barrow, and all about were elm-trees planted / by mountain-nymphs, maidens of Zeus the aegis-bearer."

The divine nymphs are called θεαὶ Νύμφαι "the nubile goddesses" in Il. 24.616. In mystical theology, the term is applied to souls seeking re-birth. The derived verb νυμφεύω means "to marry (of a woman)" (with dative), "to give in marriage (of the bride's father)" or "to marry (of the husband)" (with accusative).

The etymology of the noun νύμφη is not certain. It has been compared to Latin nubere "to wed", as derived from a word for "veil, cover", root cognate with Greek νέφος, Latin nubes ("cloud"), Greek νεφέλη, Latin nebula ("mist, vapor"), and Latin nimbus ("cloud cover"). This is not generally accepted. Beekes argues for a pre-Greek origin of the word. An alternative suggestion[by whom?] connects a word for "to bud, swell", from the root of German Knospe) "bud". This is informed by a gloss of Hesychius which gives "rose-bud" as a meaning of νύμφη.

Ancient Greek mythology

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 their names, 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.