Nympholepsy – What’s it all about?

Tales of Greek gods seducing women are well known, but there are stories of goddesses seducing men too. On this vase, Eos, goddess of dawn, pursues young and justifiably reluctant Tithonus. Mortals who became lovers of divinities had to become immortal.  There was
a price. Tithonus lost the capacity for speech and suffered an interminable old-age; Endymion’s immortality was
an eternal sleep. This playful representation of the encounter is a glancing reference to the reality that encounters with transcendence are literally

Such encounters were rare (unless you are an Odysseus, when it’s essential to your heroic identity that you develop the ability to negotiate with divine beings). Far more common were encounters with nymphs, whose presence inhabited every aspect of the natural world: the sea, every mountain, river, stream, tree had its nymph. Not quite immortal, they lived longer
than ‘ten phoenixes’ according to Hesiod, and unlike the Olympians were intrinsic to their locations. They rarely travelled.

Greek poets used the word ‘seized’ to describe such encounters and sometimes spoke of a gust of wind, one that was capable of sending you down to Hades. It’s comparable to current descriptions of the paranormal such as near death experiences, or a strange force suddenly taking hold to cast you out of your normal frames of reference.

Eos and Tithonus (British Museum) 470-460 BCE


On the road from Athens to Sounion in the suburb of Vari,
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 5th Century BCE inscription reads: ‘Archedemos of Thera, the nympholept, at the instructions of the nymphs created this grotto’.  The cave was a sacred place of cult used for centuries by the people living nearby. Archedemos, touched by divinity, had become an object of cult himself and took 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.

In another cave at Pharsalos in Thessaly, is a similar record: ‘the nymphs made Pantakles a distinguished man…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 these examples there’s 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’s 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 which 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 effect a sudden, lasting inspiration – especially in music and poetry.

It’s hard to deny the idea of an abstract, archetypal feminine here (i.e. not limited to gender). One which pervades the whole of nature and embraces the polar opposites of benevolence and destruction, while the cults are methods of integrating a connection with the divine feminine within ordinary life. 

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