Of Water-Nymphs

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 05 February 2012

The Head of a Nymph by Sophie Anderson (from Wikipedia)The Head of a Nymph by Sophie Anderson (from Wikipedia)Like many things, my feelings about water-nymphs are a bit complicated. Part of me absolutely adores them. I can't tell you the number of times as a child that I wished I could be a water spirit, free to play in the water all day and night, splashing and roughhousing and exploring the depths of a world that most would never see. As I grew older, their lack of modesty appealed to me. They didn't have to segregate their lives into the sexual and the non-sexual, their sexuality was part of who they were.

Nymphs inspired creativity. They gave life to the wild and the civil alike. They healed. They pulled pranks. They warned heroes of danger. Sometimes, they found their own danger. They danced and sang. They attended the assembly of the gods on Mount Olympus. They were creatures of their own will, outside the the bounds of civilization and etiquette. In these ways, they were women as women were meant to be.

The problem, to me, came in with others, the people who would define them by their sexuality, forgetting about the rest of their nature. The life-giving, nurturing spirits became examples of everything the proper woman shouldn't be. We emphasized their ability to dazzle those attracted to them to the almost complete exclusion of everything else. They became mere playthings instead of givers of life. Their sexuality inspired fear, lest it trap the unsuspecting and soil the otherwise spotless hero. In short, they became yet another expression of womanhood, of femininity, that had to be categorized and avoided at all costs.

Here's how I would love to use water-nymphs in my game, working within the existing legends about them while, I hope, providing them greater depth and utility in games.

Water-Nymphs Lore

Water-nymphs reside in ponds, streams, wells and other collections of fresh water. Each nymph has a home body of water and her connection to that water is so strong that some say if the water dries up, she will die. They are known to be whimsical, beholden to no law or man. They love to play, often basking in the sun or daring each other to aquatic tricks. The water spirits are experts at not being seen although the splashes that result from their quick dives beneath the surface are frequently heard.

The various races differ in their views towards water-nymphs. In some areas, the local populations worship them as water spirits that they believe are the result of dalliances between the fey river spirits and humanoid women. Often, these groups view nymphs as great healers and providers of information. Other areas, especially the more civilized areas, fear them, afraid that their wild ways will entice away their young. In these areas, the people tend to believe that nymphs are not the daughters of the river gods but are instead either young women who ran away from home or the result of unions between seduced young men and the nubile nymphs.

Legends tell of the healing power of water-nymphs, claiming they can infuse small amounts of water with healing energy. However, they must feel moved to do so and cannot be compelled. Water-nymphs often lose this ability in the presence of an evil act (attempting to compel is an evil act) or an evil creature. Some believe the water spirits can sense a person's suffering either by being near him or a personal item, although it is harder for them to sense through the item. When a person seeks healing, family and friends may transport the afflicted to the water's edge and if that's not possible, brings a personal item instead. If a nymph feels moved to help ease the suffering, she will appear and bless water with the ability to heal the afflicted. Rarely, a person is so full of good that a group of nymphs will appear and their cumulative blessing is enough to bring a person back from death if he hasn't been dead more than a day.

(from Wikipedia)(from Wikipedia)Beyond their healing abilities, nymphs are rumored to be great sources of information. Every child knows that voices carry much further and louder across water. As a result, anything murmured near a water's edge is likely to find the ear of a water-nymph. In addition, the various streams, rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, and other bodies of water create a giant network across the land and nymphs frequently travel to visit one another, trading information as they go. They also can speak with animals, frequently gathering information from the creatures who quench their thirst at a watering hole.

In general, nymphs are most likely to appear before good creatures, although they often are unsure of those who are lawful good. For unaligned creatures, they might appear if the creature tickles their fancy or if sense the creature is a prankster like them. Whenever possible, they hide from evil creatures as the presence of evil takes away their healing abilities.

The daughters of water are able to leave it for short amounts of time, an hour or two during a sunny day to an entire night. If out in the sun, they must take care not to let their skin dry out. They also are able to sense good creatures within a mile of their water's shore. A number of legends speak of a well-timed warning delivered by a nymph who sought out the hero.

Anatomy and Appearance

Undine by John William Waterhouse (from Wikipedia)Undine by John William Waterhouse (from Wikipedia)Water-nymphs often are beautiful. While they are not immortal, they have long lives similar to elves, a trait many believe they get from their fey river spirit fathers. Their mothers can be from a number of races, and they often retain a trait or two from them. They have webbed hands and feet and tend to have strong, lean muscles. However, they can appear as a woman of their mother's race, hiding these features at will. When they wear it, they tend towards clothing that is soft and flowing. Their hair is almost always long and loose.

Tactics and Combat

Alberich steals the gold by Arthur Rackham. (from Wikipedia)Alberich steals the gold by Arthur Rackham. (from Wikipedia)Rarely will they enter into combat, although they will defend themselves and their watery homes if attacked. Their primary means of defense is enchantment, often through song or the shimmer of their wavy hair. Often one will appear and entice the enemy to follow her into an ambush. Creatures entranced by their beauty will follow the nymph into the water's depths, often forgetting that while she can breathe underwater, they can not, leading them to drown. For those who don't fall to the nymphs' charms, they are adept at spears and nets.


Water-nymphs often have eclectic treasures, collected from freshwater shipwrecks or overturned boats, goods washed away in floods, and from the fallen who died in battles in the water. They keep their treasures hidden in deeper water, often obscured by weeds. Underwater, they are fierce opponents, quite adept at quick movements and handy with the spear.


I think your spot in your assessment of modern culture misrepresenting the ideals of ancient civilizations. The term nymphomaniac and gentleman like Mr. Freud are the cause of this resultant shift.

Ancient cultures were a lot wiser than we like to give them credit for. Most of the mythological creatures and gods had a duality that the destruction or belittling by modern monotheism destroyed.

Mars or Aeres if you prefer Greek names like I do is another prime example. The god of war is oft depicted as purely a slayer, a being that seeks destruction for its primary purpose. Forgotten are the images of him as a protector and defender of the weak and of farmers and their crops. War was a necessary plight in a world of barbarism and conquest. We as a civilization make war on insects and germs and all kinds of harmful, toxic things. No one cries out to protect the endangered species of viruses...

Any way not going to rant today. Thanks for the thoughts.

"In these ways, they were women as women were meant to be."
- A beautiful, rich, and true statement! I think the "water nymph archetype" may be my favorite "fantasy female archetype" too. Nearly all my female D&D characters are tied to water. I often play Cylonea, a very young Shaman/Artificer Merfolk (the way the latest Magic: The Gathering sets portrayed them), and I now created Nerelkie (I'm sure the name will ring some bells to you), a Water Elementalist Half Elf of "Thaliessan blood", basically a "Half Sea-Elf".
Water is my favorite element, and I think it has always been considered "female". It's a life-giver, it adapts to any constraint, it's calm and welcoming but can also bring disaster and tragedy. It's not as "volatile" as Air, but not less moody. Not as aggressive as Fire, but potentially more destructive. Not as fundamental as earth, but still always necessary. I guess I can associate all the other elements to women too, but none of those "elemental women" are as attractive as the Water Woman.

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