On the road from Athens to Sounion in the suburb of Vari, there is a cave consisting of several chambers through which water would have run, plants would have grown, and where simple statues have been found. A fifth-century BCE inscription reads: ‘Archedemos of Thera, the nympholept, at the instructions of the nymphs created this grotto’. A nympholept is one who has experienced nympholepsy; an encounter with a deity called a nymph. Archedemos, touched by divinity, had become a cult object himself and taken on the responsibility of creating this sacred space in honour of the nymph and in recognition of his initiation into a special kind of knowledge. The cave was a sacred place of cult used for centuries by the people living nearby.
A similar record is found in another cave at Pharsalos, in Thessaly:
‘The nymphs made Pantakles a distinguished man and he helped these plants grow and shaped things with his hands. They in turn gave him a generous living for all his days.’
In both of these examples, there is evidence of an ongoing relationship: one of mutual gift giving in a place made for that specific purpose and set aside from ordinary life. There is a whole nexus of ideas here: of reciprocity; of honour (the deity is honoured by the gift of the man’s skills and he is honoured by continuing connection with the divine); of responsibility (the nympholept takes on the burden of maintaining the proper rituals and of being a mediator between other devotees and the deity); of connection with the community that benefits from his contact with the divine; of creativity, as the nympholept is bound to use his talents. Most often, this kind of experience was associated with the arts. Nymphs could affect a sudden, lasting inspiration – especially in music and poetry.
Nymphs were not quite immortal, though they lived longer than ‘ten phoenixes’ according to Hesiod, and, unlike the Olympians, were intrinsic to their locations. They inhabited every aspect of the natural world and could be found in trees, streams, rivers, mountains, and glades. Thetis, the sea goddess and mother of Achilles, had a retinue of Nereids who would accompany her on her journeys across the waves and were her companions on the ocean floor. When baby Hephaistos was thrown out of heaven by Hera who was repelled by his lame foot, he fell amidst the Nereids who brought him up and, as he learnt his craft as a metalworker, made them jewellery.
Anyone might encounter a nymph at any time and be transformed by the experience. Greek poets described it as being ‘seized’ and sometimes spoke of a gust of wind, capable of sending you down to Hades. These experiences were in every way epiphanous and would transform not just one’s own sense of self, but how one was perceived by the community, as in Archedemos’ case. It is clear that the experience was about a transformative event which necessitated entering into a relationship, a reciprocity of attention with a divinity.
It is comparable to current descriptions of the paranormal, such as near-death experiences or a strange force suddenly taking hold which casts you out of your normal frames of reference. Modern experiences of the paranormal tend to make a melange of strong lights, temporary paralysis, heat, transportation, alien presences, sudden cures, ghosts and voices. Though the Greeks also believed in less kindly magical powers, it is interesting that the experience of being overcome by a visitation of the feminine was something which was a serious part of their religious framework and experience.
Written by Simone Witney
Pache, C.A. A Moment’s Ornament: The Poetics of Nympholepsy in Ancient Greece. Cambridge/NewYork: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Kripal, J.J. Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions. Chicago: Chicago Press, 2017.