The Nymphaeum at Chedworth Villa is usually of interest to students: there are frogs to be seen in the pool, and with luck even a greater crested newt; there is the realisation that the water pouring into it, filtered through the Cotswolds limestone, is still flowing through its original channel; and then there is the concept of a shrine to a nymph: what the people who worshipped and made offerings were thinking, and what they considered a nymph to be.
That last is a difficult question, more complicated the more one reads. The Romans themselves were confused, as is clear from what Gaius Aurelius Cotta says in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum1. Which of the countless unseen beings who inhabit the earth are to be regarded as gods? There seems no answer, and nymphs were a Greek construct, which the Romans seemed to have assimilated only in part.
The conversation of young pupils, overheard on the bus, was interesting:
“Did they think that because there was a spring, there must be a nymph? Did they really believe in her?”
“I think they just needed someone they could thank for the water.” (The guide had reminded them how precious fresh water was.)
The OED explains that nymphs are
‘Any of a class of semi-divine spirits, imagined as taking the form of a maiden inhabiting the sea, rivers, mountains, woods, trees, etc., and often portrayed in poetry as attendants on a particular god.
‘Special names for various types of nymph existed in Greek, and many of these have been employed in English, as dryad, hamadryad, naiad, Nereid, oceanid, oread, etc.’
Henri Frankfort on early man’s view of the world:
‘The world appears… neither inanimate nor empty but redundant with life; and life has individuality, in man and beast and plant, and in every phenomenon which confronts man—the thunderclap, the sudden shadow, the eerie and unknown clearing in the wood, the stone which suddenly hurts him when he stumbles while on a hunting trip. Any phenomenon may at any time face him, not as “It,” but as “Thou.” In this confrontation, “Thou” reveals its individuality, its qualities, its will. “Thou” is not contemplated with intellectual detachment; it is experienced as life confronting life, involving every faculty of man in a reciprocal relationship. Thoughts, no less than acts and feelings, are subordinated to this experience.’2
- Book III, 43–47
- Henri Frankfort, et al., Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, Pelican 1971