In Greek mythology, a nymph is any member of a large class of mythological entities in human female form. They were typically associated with a particular location or landform. Others were part of the retinue of a god, such as Dionysus, Hermes, or Pan, or a goddess, generally Artemis. Nymphs were the frequent target of satyrs.
Nymphs live in mountains and groves, by springs and rivers, and in valleys and cool grottoes. They are frequently associated with the superior divinities: the huntress Artemis; the prophetic Apollo; the reveller and god of wine, Dionysus; and rustic gods such as Pan and Hermes.
The symbolic marriage of a nymph and a patriarch, often the eponym of a people, is repeated endlessly in Greek origin myths; their union lent authority to the archaic king and his line.
As H.J. Rose states, "all these names are simply feminine adjectives, agreeing with the substantive nympha, and there was no orthodox and exhaustive classification of these shadowy beings." He mentions dryads and hamadryads as nymphs of trees generally, meliai as nymphs of ash trees, and naiads as nymphs of water, but no others specifically.
The following is not the Greek classification, but is intended simply as a guide:
Tethys, any water, usually salty)
The ancient Greek belief in nymphs survived in many parts of the country into the early years of the twentieth century, when they were usually known as "nereids". At that time John Cuthbert Lawson wrote: "...there is probably no nook or hamlet in all Greece where the womenfolk at least do not scrupulously take precautions against the thefts and malice of the nereids, while many a man may still be found to recount in all good faith stories of their beauty, passion and caprice. Nor is it a matter of faith only; more than once I have been in villages where certain Nereids were known by sight to several persons (so at least they averred); and there was a wonderful agreement among the witnesses in the description of their appearance and dress.
Usually female, they were dressed in white, decked with garlands of flowers, but they frequently had unnatural legs, like those of a goat, donkey or cow. They were so beautiful that the highest compliment was to compare some feature of a woman (eyes, hair, etc.) with that of nereid. They could move swiftly and invisibly, ride through the air and slip through small holes. Although not immortal, their lives exceeded man's tenfold, and they retained their beauty until death.
They tended to frequent areas distant from man, but could be encountered by lone travellers outside the village, where their music might be heard, and the traveller could spy on their dancing or bathing in a stream or pool, either during the noon heat or in the middle of the night. They might appear in a whirlwind. Such encounters could be dangerous, bringing dumbness, besotted infatuation, madness or stroke to the unfortunate human. When parents believed their child to be nereid-struck they would pray to Saint Artemidos, the Christian manifestation of Artemis.
Stock stories about nereids include the girl who fell ill and died and was seen after death dancing with the nereids; the nereid changeling; and the man who won a nereid as his wife by stealing a piece of her clothing. The latter would become an ideal wife until she recovered her clothing and returned to her own people. Nereids
Due to the depiction of the mythological nymphs as females who mate with men or women at their own volition and are completely outside male control, the term is often used for women who are perceived as behaving similarly. (For example, the title of the Perry Mason detective novel "The Case of the Negligent Nymph" (1956), by Erle Stanley Gardner, is derived from this meaning of the word.)
The term "Nymphomania" was created by modern psychology as referring to a "desire to engage in human sexual behavior at a level high enough to be considered clinically significant", "Nymphomaniac" being the person suffering from such a disorder.
Due to widespread use of the term among lay persons (often shortened to "nympho") and stereotypes attached, professionals nowadays prefer the term "Hypersexuality" which can refer to males and females alike.
The word "nymphette" is used to identify a sexually precocious girl. The term was made famous in the novel "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabakov. The main character, Humbert Humbert, uses the term countless times and usually in reference to the title character.