Guest Post by Jenny Blackford
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.”
Jenny Blackford’s poem “Liquid Pleasure” can be found in Fae Visions of the Mediterranean.