When I was a child, every summer I would visit the family farm in upstate New York, sometimes spending the entire season in the old farmhouse that had no running water and seemed to be right out of the nineteenth century. As soon as we arrived, I would tear off across the pastures to a creek than ran through the farm and could be known by the small, hanging willow trees that edged its progress through the cow piles and patches of grass. Nothing gave me more pleasure than simply sitting by the side of that stream—we called it “the crick”—absorbed in the private lives of polliwogs, minnows, and an occasional water snake.
Years later at Syracuse University, not far from the old homestead, I studied Greek spirituality in some depth and was intrigued by the ancient attention to spirits of nature. I came to believe that the Greeks were highly sophisticated in their religious views, including their piety toward nymphs, whose presence they felt in all kinds of flowing streams and pooling waters. I knew right away what they were talking about, because I had experienced nymphs at that old crick on the farm.
You don’t see nymphs like you see a person crossing the road, but you can sense their presence. One of the most perceptive theologians to study the Greeks—there have been many—was Carl Kerenyi, who said that religious experience often begins in an atmosphere you feel in certain places. The Greeks went from sensing that atmosphere, to building temples and shrines based on what they sensed, to telling elaborate stories and creating statues and works of art to embody the mystery they had found.
I’ve written and lectured about nymphs over the years, but I haven’t had much response. The very word “nymph” seems too fluffy to be taken seriously. But I think the Greeks had a better feel for natural religion than we do. We prefer the hard language of science when talking about nature, but then we overlook an important part of how we experience the world—the part that is mysterious and spiritual and poetic.
We could restore a sense of the nymph in our modern world, but that would require a shift in the way we imagine spirit. We’d need first to be more serious about the special presences that draw us to lakes, ponds, streams, and oceans. Why go to the beach? Why sit, as I do on Cape Cod, and contemplate a marsh, one of the reputed favorite haunts of nymphs? We go because we find the spirit of the place refreshing and restoring. After all, the Greeks said that nymphs are healers.
There are different kinds of nymphs, like naiads or oceanids. Everyone knows that the spirit you sense at the ocean is different from the one at a pond. Sometimes the ancient nymphs were attached to a great spirit, a god or goddess. Aphrodite, the goddess of the sea, the garden, and the human body, had her own particular nymphs, as did Artemis, goddess of the forest and the mountain spring.
You can meditate on these goddesses with the aid of ancient Greek statues and stories, or by contemplating Botticelli’s La Primavera and Lucas Cranach’s several versions of The Nymph of the Spring. You can read D. H. Lawrence’s poems about how an old intelligence about nature religion is still accessible. You can read a spiritual nature poem, like Jane Hirshfield’s “The Gods Are Not Large,” about fish going about their lives, like the ones that captivated me so completely in the crick in front of the old farm.