Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.15

Corinne Ondine Pache, A Moment's Ornament: The Poetics of Nympholepsy in Ancient Greece.   Cambridge/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. vi, 213.  ISBN 9780195339369.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Theodora S. F. Jim, University of Oxford (


Since Connor’s article in 1988, there has been no detailed study of nympholepsy, the religious phenomenon of individuals ‘possessed by the nymphs’.1 Pache’s recent book is an attempt at a comprehensive treatment of the subject by using literary, and to a lesser extent archaeological and epigraphic, evidence from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period. Borrowed from Wordsworth, the title ‘A Moment’s Ornament’ refers here to the use of religious monuments (such as dedications and shrines) and poetry for preserving and memorializing the momentary encounter between a mortal man and a goddess. Pache understands nympholepsy broadly as a mortal man’s inspiration or seizure by, and often union with, a goddess, most commonly but not exclusively a nymph. Her book examines how this initial encounter could give rise to commemoration through cult and poetry by the nympholept himself or a poet.

Chapter One takes as its starting point the end (lines 963 -1022) of Hesiod’s Theogony, where the poet evokes the Muses and sings about goddesses who unite with moral men and bear their children. Contrary to the generally accepted view that this part of the Theogony is an interpolation, Pache explores the implications if it is taken as genuine. Pache calls these divinities ‘nympholeptic goddesses’ because of their mingling with humankind, a kind of union which, she argues, leads to both cult and poetry. Thus rituals became established when Aphrodite seized Phaithon and appointed him as her temple keeper (lines 989-991). At the same time the poem gives men an account of their genealogical connection to the heroic past. In Pache’s words, the ending ‘encapsulates the continuum between poetry and cult that is the subject of this study’ (p. 14) and ‘provides a useful paradigm to understand the transformation experienced by Greek nympholepts’. (p. 37-38).

Chapter Two looks at three individual’s special relationship with one or more nymphs, and the cave sanctuaries established by or closely associated with them. These are Archedamos at Vari, Pantalkes at Pharsalos, and Onesagoras at Kafizin. Central to this Chapter is Pache’s idea that the caves served to commemorate the nympholept’s special connection to the goddess(es): along with dedications, inscriptions, and self-portraits in these sites, the shrines were religious manifestations of the individual’s bond with the nymph(s). She notes the ‘poetic quality’ or ‘poetic aspirations’ in some of the verse inscriptions engraved in the caves, and suggests that the nympholept was somewhat like a poet, thereby reinforcing her idea of the double manifestation of nympholeptic experience through cult and poetry. At the same time these cave sanctuaries, Pache suggests, were not merely sites of memory for the nympholept but were ‘transformed’ into an object of pilgrimage for other worshippers.

Chapter Three turns from material evidence to literary sources. Pache acknowledges the rarity of explicit literary examples of nympholepsy per se in archaic Greek literature, but sees a ‘mirror image’ of nympholepsy in the motif of goddesses in love with mortal men in epic poetry. Pache focuses on the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, and considers nympholepsy a central theme in this text because it describes Aphrodite’s union with Anchises, which joins the realms of the human and the divine, and because it conflates the nymphs and Aphrodite. To Pache, nympholepsy and poetic narratives of human-divine love affairs are ‘two manifestations of the same phenomenon, each providing a refracted image of the other’ (p. 78).

Chapter Four moves on to Homeric epics, in particular the Odyssey. Pache examines Odysseus’ relationship with the goddesses he encountered, namely Kalypso, Kirke, Leukothea and Athena, to illustrate two features - erotic and maternal love – which she associates with nympholepsy. The human-divine dynamics in the Odyssey differ significantly from those in Hesiod’s Theogony (as seen in Chapter One) and the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (Chapter Three), in that Odysseus rejects Kalypso and thereby increases the divide between the human-divine realms which are normally bridged by the union of the mortal man with the goddess.

Chapter Five discusses the motif of Eos’ love for Kephalos in Classical Athens, using both literary sources and vase-painting depicting Eos’ pursuit and abduction of Kephalos. Contrary to other scholarly views that the images are expressions of male sexual fantasies or anxieties or of moralizing advice about mortals’ vulnerability to the gods’ whims, Pache thinks that they represent the transformation and heroization of the mortal lover into a figure of cult: the mortal man, who is the object of the goddess’ desire, was transformed into a cult hero. Thus Kephalos is known to have received sacrifices in two Attic demes and was a hero in Attica already in the sixth century. Nympholepsy concerns therefore, Paches argues, not merely the individual but also the local community at large.

The final chapter examines treatments in Hellenistic poetry of the topos of the nymphs in love who seize the object of their affection. Unlike nympholeptic encounters in earlier literary sources, in Hellenistic poetry the goddesses interact with both heroic figures and ordinary herdsmen, and such interactions can result in blindness, disappearance and even death of the chosen mortal. Instead of cult foundation for the nymph(s) and the elevation or heroization of the mortal man found in earlier sources, Pache suggests that in these genres we find the ritual mourning of and lament for the deceased mortal.

A Moment’s Ornament adopts an interdisciplinary approach by combining a wide array of literary, archaeological, epigraphic, iconographic and anthropological evidence. Pache demonstrates successfully the variety of nympholeptic experience that emerges from different sources and from different contexts within the same source. Her study illustrates well the variety of bonds between goddesses and mortals, with varying degrees of divine involvement with and detachment from humans and different kinds of entanglements between mortals and immortals. For example, Pache notes that inscriptional evidence tends to make no explicit mention of the nympholept’s personal interaction with the goddess(es), whereas mythical narratives can give detailed accounts of erotic encounters. Pache unites the different human-divine relations examined by a single constant, namely the common motif of a goddess in love with a mortal. Nowhere has Pache given her definition of nympholepsy; but it is apparent from her analysis that she understands it broadly as the goddesses’ seizure of and union with a mortal man of their desire, during which the realms of the divine and humans are temporarily bridged. Although she aims to investigate the intersection between ‘poetic inspiration and literal possession (in the sense of a deep personal spiritual experience’ (p. 6-7), her interpretation of nympholepsy seems to be heavily affected by the sexual connotations of the word νύμφη, which can be used for a bride or a marriageable maiden;2 and the nature of the ‘seizures’ discussed is primarily physical rather than mental or spiritual.

This understanding of nympholepsy in terms of erotic, and to a smaller extent maternal, love is at once too broad and too narrow. It is too extensive as it seems to equate nympholepsy with love affairs between goddesses and mortals in general: though the two phenomena share certain elements in common, not all historians would regard them as identical. It is too narrow as it fails to discuss other aspects of nympholepsy: the motif of goddesses in love with mortal men is overemphasized throughout this study, when in fact the dynamics between the nympholept and the goddess who ‘seizes’ him are not erotic per se. Other known features of possession by the nymph(s) include a heightened state of eloquence and understanding and sometimes prophetic power as a result of a mental (rather than physical) rapture by the nymph(s), and also an unusual degree of religious devotion, such as in an individual’s commitment to the maintenance of a specific cult of the nymph(s). Neither of these two aspects of nympholepsy necessarily involves any love relations with the nymph(s): one could be a nympholept without experiencing an erotic encounter with the divine. Pache’s study would benefit from considering where nympholepsy overlaps with and diverge from human-divine love affairs, and from discussing other aspects of nympholepsy and its relations with other forms of religious possession.

Also problematic is Pache’s argument that poetic narratives of goddesses falling in love with mortals can provide a ‘refracted image’ of the experience of nympholepts in real life and its associated cult practice. It is unclear how faithfully poetic representations reflect the actual experience of nympholepsy. Her idea is undermined, for example, by the fact that none of the three historical nympholepts examined in Chapter Two can be shown to involve the kind of erotic relation with the nymph(s) described in literary sources, though they evidently had a special bond with the goddess(es). While poetic narratives may complement inscriptional and archaeological evidence, the relationship between the two is not one of simple refraction or reflection. Pache’s could have discussed further the differences between literary representations of nympholepsy and historical nympholetic experience.

The study is an admirable attempt to combine a variety of sources; yet Pache’s use of inscriptional and archaeological evidence sometimes lacks the precision and critical analysis that she displays for literary sources. This is evident in her treatment of the epigraphic dossier at Kafizin.3 While Onesagoras may justifiably be regarded as a nympholept given the intensity of the devotion he exhibits for the nymph, the other criteria – the address of the nymph as his own ‘sister’ (Kafizin nos. 48, 194, 213d) or ‘daughter’ (Kafizin nos. 253, 293), the use of ‘self-portraiture’, the reference to a nymph ‘on a throne’ (Kafizin no. 227), his divine service as a ‘temple barber’, and the possible link to ‘prophetic power’ (Kafizin no. 258) – based on which Pache identifies him as such are problematic and entirely dependent on Mitford’s highly uncertain conjectures or restorations. All occurrences where the goddess appears to be described as Onesagoras’ ‘sister’ or ‘daughter’ are fragmentary or insecurely supplemented. The phrase ἐπὶ δίφροι in no. 2274 and the otherwise unattested verb μαν̣ζιαρχήσαντος in no. 258 appear in contexts too fragmentary for us to establish their precise meaning and significance. It is also disputed whether Onesagoras was a sacred barber or an ordinary barber. We do not know if the drawings represent Onesagoras himself or someone else; nor do we know whether the pottery items were Onesagoras’ own dedications (as Pache takes them to be) or artefacts from a third party.5 In short, Pache follows Mitford’s interpretation without engaging critically with the textual uncertainties and the difficulties in the interpretation of the dossier, with the result that the picture she presents of the nympholept at Kafizin risks being misleading to the reader.

In short, this book may be of interest to those concerned with the literary motif of divine love for mortals; but readers interested in other aspects of nympholepsy will be disappointed.


1.   W. R. Connor, ‘Seized by the Nymphs: Nympholepsy and Symbolic Expression in Classical Greece’, ClAnt 7 (1988), 155-89. Other useful discussions of nympholepsy are, for example, N. Himmelmann-Wildschütz, Theoleptos (Marburd, 1957), F. T. Van Straten, ‘Daikrates’ Dream. A votive relief from Kos, and some other kat’onar dedications’, BABesch 51 (1976), 18-20, P. Borgeaud, (1979), Recherches sur le dieu Pan (Geneva, 1979). 159-62, C. Sourvinou-Inwood, Hylas, the Nymphs, Dionysos and Others (Stockholm, 2005), 109-111.
2.   See P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire Étymologique de la Langue Grecque (Paris, 1968-80), s.v. nymphe, LSJ s.v. νύμφη.
3.   T. B. Mitford, The Nymphaeum of Kafizin (Berlin, New York, 1980).
4.   Note that the word [ἡ Νύμφη] is supplemented in line 5, so it is unclear if the nymph is enthroned.
5.   These uncertainties are discussed in, for example, J. Robert and L. Robert, BE (1981), no. 636, K. Hadjioannou, ‘Kafizin and the Cypriote dialect. A review article’, RDAC (1982), 254-9, J. Pouilloux, ‘Le dernier livre de T. B. Mitford’, RPh 108 (1982), 99-103, A. Hermary, ‘Un nouveau vase inscrit de Kafizin’, CCEC36 (2006), 63-72.

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