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Honouring the Water Element and the Nereids through Altar, Story & Place

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

"People claim the land by creating sacred sites, by mythologizing the animals and plants - they invest the land with spiritual powers. It becomes like a temple, a place for meditation." (From The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell.)

I recently took a visit to the British Museum in London and was amazed to see a reconstruction of a side of the Nereid Monument - the largest Lykian tomb found at Xanthos in south-west Turkey. The original monument was built in 390-380 BC and it is the first known example of a temple tomb. It was made of marble with Ionic columns and it's likely to have been built for Arbinas since his name is on the Inscribed Pillar at Xanthos. I didn't know much about the nereids and so I began my journey exploring this area of Greek mythology and I have included some stories related to these spirits of the water.

The reconstruction showed three female figures in wind-swept clothes who are thought to be nereids - daughters of the sea god Nereus. In Greek mythology the nereids were sea nymphs and there were 50 nereid daughters of Nereus and Doris. They were believed to accompany Poseidon and were friendly and helpful to sailors, symbolizing what is beautiful about the ocean and they sang with melodious voices. In more recent Greek folklore, the term nereid is used to describe all nymphs and mermaids.

This reconstruction was made in 1967-69.

Three sculptures from the Nereid Monument at the British Museum: "The three figures are sea nymphs, daughters of the sea god Nereus, riding over the waves on sea creatures. They are thought to have escorted the soul of the deceased on its journey to the afterlife. A sea bird is visible under the feet of the sea nymph to the far right and partially preserved dolphins support the others. Their dramatic, wind-blown drapery is clinging and almost transparent, wet with sea spray. They were originally placed between the columns of the tomb."

Some of the nereid daughters included Psamathe who was the goddess of sand beaches and Dynamene, along with her sister Pherusa, who were associated with the power of ocean swells. Thetis was a goddess of water and lead many of the nereids and it was believed that she was one of the earliest deities to be worshiped in Archaic Greece - her husband was the hero Peleus and she gave birth to Achilles and there are many mythological stories associated with this goddess and her shape-shifting abilities - she had attracted the attention of the sea-god Poseidon as well as his brother Zeus yet a prophesy was made that the son of Thetis would be greater than the father and since neither wanted a more powerful son, they decided that Thetis should marry a mortal - Peleus. Yet Thetis was unwilling to marry a mortal and so Zeus sent the wise centaur Chiron to help Peleus who was to entrap her and bind her tight so that even when she changed shape she could not escape. Eventually she agreed to marry Peleus and they had a son, Achilles. Upset to discover that he was mortal, she set out to make him immortal and in one famous story she submerged him in the River Styx to imbue him with immortality, yet she left out his heel which became his weak spot. Achilles eventually became a Greek hero in the Trojan War story.

(Online image: The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis by Dutch engraver Jan Sadeler, 1580-1600.)

(Online image: Thetis Immerses Achilles by French painter Antoine Borel, 1743-1810).

(Online image: Poseidon and the Nereids by German painter Friedrich Ernst Wolfrom,1920.)

The nereid Galene was a minor goddess, personifying calm seas, Actaea's name meant 'seashore' and the nereid Amphitrite was the wife of Poseidon and queen of the sea - a sea goddess, she was often used as a personification of the sea (saltwater) itself. She had a son called Triton who was a merman and was also the mother of dolphins and seals and she appeared in various mythological stories. King Triton appeared in the Disney film The Little Mermaid which was based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, although the characters were not named in his story.

(Online image: Depiction of the wedding of Poseidon and Amphitrite from the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, bas-relief in Rome, 2nd century BC.)

(Online image: Actaea, the Nymph of the Shore by English painter Lord Frederick Leighton, 1853, at the National Gallery of Canada.)

The nereid Arethusa fled from her home in Arcadia under the sea and arose as a fresh water fountain on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily - according to mythology she was fleeing from the advances of the river god Alpheus who had fallen in love with her when she bathed in a river at Arcadia, yet she wished to remain a chaste follower of Artemis and asked the goddess for protection. Firstly she was hidden in a cloud, yet the persistent Alpheus continued chasing her and she perspired and turned into a stream. Artemis broke the ground, allowing Arethusa to flee under the sea towards the island of Ortygia and she was given safe passage away from Alpheus by Virgil in exchange for some songs about unrequited love.

(Online image: Alpheus and Arethusa by English Romantic painter John Martin, 1832.)

Galatea was a nereid who featured in a myth with Acis - she was described by Homer and Hesiod as the fairest of the nereids and in Ovid's Metamorphoses she appeared as the beloved of Acis who was the son of Faunus (god of the forest and Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan) and the river-nymph Symaethis. However, a jealous cyclops, Polyphemus, killed Acis with a boulder and Galatea turned his blood into the Sicilian River Acis which he became the spirit of. The lovers were portrayed in many paintings and sculptures over the centuries and feature at pools and fountains across Europe.

(Online image: The Loves of Acis and Galatea by the French painter, Alexandre Charles Guillemot, 1827)

Gold oak wreath with a bee and two cicadas at the British Museum (350-300 BC) believed to be from from the Dardanelles tomb - these wreaths were regularly made for religious processions and were given to winners of musical contests. The Dardanelles is a narrow strait in north-west Turkey, known as Hellespont (Sea of Helle) in Ancient Greek - it is surrounded by the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.

Rather confusingly, there were also many oceanids (nymphs of the sea) and some of them shared the same names as the nereids, for example Clymene was a nereid but there was also an oceanid called Clymene who was the wife of the Titan Ophion. Ceto is listed as one of the nereids but there was also Ceto the primordial sea goddess - daughter of Gaia and Pontus and sister of Nereus. Calypso was one of the nereids yet there was also the nymph Calypso, the daughter of the Titan Atlas and Pleione who lived on the island of Ogygia and detained Odysseus there for seven years.

Doris, the mother of the nereids was an ocean nymph, (known as an oceanid) and her name represented the bounty of the sea and she personified the fertility of the sea and bountiful fishing areas at the mouths of rivers entering the sea where brine mixed with river water. She was the daughter of Oceanus, the Greek personification of the sea and Tethys, a Titan daughter. Along with her fifty daughters, Doris also had a son with Nereus - a minor sea deity called Nerites - he was described as being beautiful and in one story Aphrodite fell in love with him.

Nereus, known as the old man of the sea and the husband of Doris, was son of Pontus the ancient Pre-Olympian sea-god and Gaia one of the primordial deities and Mother Earth goddess and he lived in the Aegean Sea with his daughters and son. He was honoured for his kindness, prophetic and shape-shifting abilities, virtue and truthfulness:

"But Pontos, the great sea, was father of truthful Nereus who tells no lies, eldest of his sons. They call him the Old Gentleman because he is trustworthy, and gentle, and never forgetful of what is right, but the thoughts of his mind are mild and righteous." (From Hesiod's Theogony.)

The Greeks would often pray to a deity and make offerings to them in the deity's own sanctuary which usually included an altar, and a fence (peribolos) to create a boundary - a temenos was a marked out area of land in which everything inside was considered sacred and dedicated to a deity, grove or sanctuary and many mythological stories were used to explain the presence of an altar, although many did not survive. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell wrote the following: "The sanctification of the local landscape is a fundamental function of mythology." Different places in nature attracted sanctuaries dedicated to associated deities or nature spirits - Zeus was a sky and weather god and many altars were dedicated to him on mountain tops, whereas springs and caves were often given to the nymphs. Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote about temenos and compared it to the magic circle - a safe spot where mental processes could take place:

"I conjecture further that the treasure in the sea, the companion, and the garden with the fountain are all one and the same thing: the self. For the garden is another temenos, and the fountain is the source of “living water” mentioned in John 7:38, which the Moses of the Koran also sought and found…We see much the same thing in our Western cloisters with the fountain in the garden. This is also the “rose garden of the philosophers,” which we know from the treatises on alchemy and from many beautiful engravings…The centre and the circle, here represented by fountain and garden, are analogues of the lapis, which is among other things a living being…The crash to earth thus leads into the depths of the sea, into the unconscious, and the dreamer reaches the shelter of the temenos as a protection against the splintering of personality caused by his regression to childhood.” (From Psychology and Alchemy by Carl Jung.)

(Online image: Isle of the Dead, (third version,) the best-known painting of Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin, 1883. Many interpreted the boatman as Charon who led souls to the underworld in Greek mythology - the waters would in this case be the River Styx or the River Acheron.)

(Online image: Seaside Villa, by by Arnold Böcklin, 1878.)

The mythology of the nereids is rich in symbology and allegory and more stories can be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses, in the Dionysiaca, an epic Greek poem by Nonnus, in Theogony, a poem by Hesiod and in Homer's Iliad. The nereids also guided the ships of the Argonauts (a band of heroes who helped Jason in his quest to discover the Golden Fleece) through the Clashing Rocks. I find them captivating and a wonderful vessel for connecting more deeply to the ocean. Happy exploring.

"The palace of the Sun, high in the sky,                                                  has soaring pillars, bright with gleaming gold and fiery bronze, the highest pinnacles are of white ivory, and double doors give off a silver light. The artistry is even finer than the materials, for on it Mulciber has carved the seas encircling lands lying in the centre, the globe of Earth, and heaven suspended above that globe. The waves hold sea-green gods—                      

echoing Triton, shifty Proteus, Aegaeon with arms pressing the huge backs                                                       of whales, along with Doris and her daughters (some seem to be swimming, others sitting on the shore, drying their green hair, and some being carried on a fish—in appearance all look different and yet somehow the same, as sisters ought to). The Earth has cities, human beings, woods, wild beasts, rivers, nymphs, and other rural deities. Above these                                                    is placed the image of a brilliant sky, six constellations on the right-hand doors and the same number on the left-hand side."

(From Metamorphoses, Book Two, by Ovid.)

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