Saturday, April 1, 2017
THE NYMPH: The Original Lost Girl
Nymphs have undergone quite a few metamorphoses. Female elements of nature, spirits of water, air, and woods, they frolicked with satyrs and the gentler fauns. In Greece and Rome, nymphs were treated as potentially dangerous. 'to be among the nymphs' was a double-edged sword--a paradise (Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides, for instance) but one was trapped there forever, like an insect in amber. It meant death. Nymphs were not the cute girls portrayed in books and Disney cartoons; they were in the category of vampiric fauni ficarii, phantoms and faeries that haunted the wild places. As with mermaids and the Russian Rusalka, (the water spirits of drowned young women,) the nymph's playful beauty concealed a sinister core. Being elemental and connected to nature, they were neither good nor evil, but in between. If not exactly femme fatales, they were nature mimicking human form; the invisible world, motives unknown, as a sentient being. A folklorist visiting Greece in the early 1900s wrote: "The Nereids are conceived as women half divine yet not immortal, always young, always beautiful, capricious at best, and at their worst, cruel. Their presence is suspected everywhere. I myself had a Nereid pointed out to me by my guide, and there certainly was the semblance of a female figure draped in white, and tall beyond human stature, flirting in the dusk between the gnarled and twisted boles of an old olive-yard. What the apparition was, I had no leisure to investigate; for my guide with many signs of the cross and muttered invocations of the Virgin urged my mule to perilous haste along the rough mountain path.' (J.C. Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore)
Yet the Greeks call nymphs 'the kind-hearted ones,' 'the ladies,' 'our maidens,' 'our good queens,' and leave them milk and honey and ask for their blessings when children are born. They are faery godmothers and protectors of children. They grant men oracular powers.
'Nymph' in Greek is synonymous with the stage between the larva and the adult insect, and bees, butterflies, and dragonflies are significant symbols representing the mysterious, diaphanous, and alien world of nature. Nymphs are girls on the verge of womanhood, forever stuck in that phase of their lives, without their own stories or the epics that drove Greek heroes. Forever barefoot to represent their connection to earth, free of any care because they are semi-divine, they are innocent, and only predatory when confronted by male power, whether that power stems from beauty or strength. As Diane Purkiss writes, "Like illuminations, nymphs brighten the edges of stories without reaching the middle. Why this terrible blankness? Because nymphs are young girls to whom nothing has happened yet, nothing that needs to be told." (At the Bottom of the Garden)
In mythology, nymphs have names with meanings such as Brightness, Scarlet, Sunset Glow, perfect for fairy tales or suitable for exotic YA heroines (Calypso, Pomona, Syrinx.) They are long-lived but not immortal, capable of love forever.
When Daphne runs from the gorgeous Apollo, preferring to transform into a tree rather than belong to him, it is because she doesn't want to change, to grow up, to give birth to a hero's story, never having had one of her own. And that is what nymphs will always be, beautiful insects trapped in amber, the Lost Girls.