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The Nereids in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 1, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The Nereids of Greek Mythology

The names of many of the major gods of Ancient Greece are still well known today, and most people will know the names of Zeus, Apollo and Hermes.

The pantheon of Greek deities though, included thousands of minor gods and goddesses, many of who were associated with water. These water deities included the major gods Oceanus and Poseidon, but amongst the minor immortal figures were the Potamoi, the Oceanids, the Naiads, and the Nereids.

The Nereids

Raphael PD-art-100
Raphael PD-art-100 | Source

What was a Nereid?

Ancient writers would talk of 3,000 Potamoi, river gods, and 3,000 Oceanids, freshwater nymphs, but in the case of the Nereids there was said to be only 50.

The 50 Nereids were the daughters of the sea god Nereus, and his wife, the Oceanid Doris.

The ancient sources would tell of the Nereids being beautiful young maidens, and were normally depicted as resting on rocky outcrops, or frolicking with the creatures of the sea. Occasionally the Nereids might be described as mermaids.

The role of the Nereids in Greek mythology was to be part of the retinue of Poseidon, along with the Tritons, and as such the water nymphs were primarily associated with the Mediterranean Sea. Specifically though, the Nereids of Greek mythology were commonly found in the Aegean Sea, for they were said to reside in the palace of Nereus situated beneath the surface of that sea.

The sea nymphs were regarded as benevolent figures, helping sailors and fishermen in distress; as a result, most of the ports and harbours of Ancient Greece would have a shrine dedicated to the Nereids.

Poseidon and the Nereids

Friedrich Ernst Wolfrom (1857-1920) PD-art-100
Friedrich Ernst Wolfrom (1857-1920) PD-art-100 | Source

Poseidon and Amphitrite

Paris Bordone (1500–1571) PD-art-100
Paris Bordone (1500–1571) PD-art-100 | Source

Famous Nereids in Greek Mythology

Whilst the writers of antiquity would talk of 50 Nereids, there was not a consensus about the names of the 50 sea nymphs. There was though a general agreement about each named Nereid being the personification of a particular element of the sea.

Thus Actaea was “sea-shore”, Eulimene was the personification of “good harbouring”, and Melite was “calm seas”.

Most of the names of Nereids though mean nothing to most people, but amongst the 50 Nereids in Greek mythology there are a few famous figures.

Amphitrite

After the Titanomachy and the defeat of the Titans, the cosmos was divided up amongst Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon. Ultimately, Poseidon was given dominion over the world’s waters; and so started to search for a suitable female figure to be his queen.

The eyes of Poseidon would become firmly fixed upon the beautiful Nereid Amphitrite.

Despite the promise of the exalted position of queen, Amphitrite was not enamoured with the idea of marrying Poseidon, and fled from his advances. Amphitrite would flee to the furthest corner of the ocean, hiding away from the god. The hiding place though was discovered by Delphinius, who convinced her to return and wed Poseidon.

So, Amphitrite would become queen of the world’s waters, sitting alongside Poseidon.

Achilles and Thetis

Giulio Romano PD-art-100
Giulio Romano PD-art-100 | Source

Thetis

The nymph Thetis is often named as the leader of the Nereids, and she is probably the most famous of the group.

Thetis was another beautiful nymph, and was desired by both Zeus and Poseidon, but when a prophecy was made which stated the son of Thetis would be more powerful than its father, Zeus quickly had the sea nymph married off to a mortal, the Greek hero Peleus.

Thetis did not want to be married to a mortal, but eventually Peleus would trap her, and a marriage between the two was eventually agreed upon. Thetis would then bear Peleus a son, Achilles, a hero who would grow to be stronger than his father.

Thetis, when Achilles was still a baby, would try and make her son immortal, burning away the mortal part of his body; this act was discovered by Peleus who feared his wife was doing harm to his son. Thetis as a result would leave husband and son behind, returning to her father palace, but would still keep an eye on her son. Thetis would try and hide away Achilles when the Trojan War was imminent.

Thetis also appeared in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, and Thetis, along with other Nereids, would aid the heroes in their quest for the Golden Fleece, and would guide the Argo through the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis.

Galatea

Amphitrite was pursued by Poseidon, and Thetis was chased by Peleus, and the Nereid Galatea also had a famous suitor; for Galatea was chased by the Cyclops Polyphemus.

The story of Galatea is one of antiquity’s most famous love stories. Galatea though was not in love with Polyphemus, but was in love with Acis, and Acis indeed loved Galatea. Polyphemus though, rid himself of a love rival by crushing Acis beneath a massive boulder.

Galatea though would make her love for Acis eternal, by transforming his blood into Sicily’s River Acis.

Chafariz das Nereidas

Eugenio Hansen, OFS CC-BY-SA-3.0
Eugenio Hansen, OFS CC-BY-SA-3.0 | Source

The Story of the Nereids and Aethiopia

The deities of the Greek pantheon were often said to be quick to anger, and there is a story of the Nereids in Greek mythology being no exception.

The king of Aethiopia, King Cepheus, had a beautiful wife, Queen Cassiopeia. One day Cassiopeia would rashly proclaim that she was more beautiful than any of the daughters of Nereus.

Affronted by such a proclamation, the Nereids complained en masse to Poseidon. Poseidon, to appease the Nereids, would send flood waters and the sea monster Cetes to Aethiopia.

Cepheus and Cassiopeia would have to sacrifice their daughter Andromeda to placate Poseidon, but thankfully for the king and queen, Perseus came to Aethiopia on the return leg of his quest. Perseus would kill Cetes and rescue Andromeda.

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  • Colin Quartermain profile image
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    Colin Quartermain 3 years ago

    Many thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Colin

  • daydreamer13 profile image

    daydreamer13 3 years ago

    This is fascinating. Thank you for sharing this.

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