What is a Nereid?
The Nereids are a group of fifty sea nymphs, daughters of Nereus and Doris, who are famous for their beauty and gentleness. Together, they represent everything good about the ocean, from its sparkling waves to its swift currents and bounty of fish.
Like the nymphs of fresh water and land, Nereids are exquisitely beautiful maidens with rosy skin and long, flowing hair. No two Nereids look exactly the same, but they can always be identified because they wear tokens of their oceanic home: a comb of red coral holding back their curls or a starfish clinging to their robes.
The daughters of the ocean are friendly with all its creatures; more often than not, you will find them riding dolphins or cuddling with hippocamps. Occasionally, the maidens themselves are seen with graceful, fish-like tails.
Generally, Nereids are as sweet tempered as they are beautiful. All fifty of them are renowned for their silky-smooth singing voices and for their light-footed dancing, and they will happily entertain a weary traveler in their silver and gold palace under the sea. However, they’re not dangerous as the sirens are. Rather than seducing and trapping sailors, they guide ships and calm the seas.
If you do manage to rile one of these serene maidens, you will be in for a pitched battle. A Nereid’s greatest strength is her family; insult one of these maidens, and all fifty of them will come swarming down on you. Nereus, Posedion, and even Zeus tend to back the sea nymphs as well, so you can expect to be met with horrific storms and angry sea monsters if you dare to mess with a Nereid.
Each of sisters has her own special touch, as far as the ocean is concerned. For example, Galateia conjures up sea-foam, while Kymo creates waves. Neso governs islands, Speio dwells within sea caves, and Thetis controls the fish spawn.
All fifty Nereids share one father, Nereus, who is often referred to as “the Old Man in the Sea.” Nereus is born directly from the Sea and the Earth. His power is ancient, even predating the rise of the Olympic gods, but he takes a subservient position to the other gods. Instead of joining them on Olympus, he maintains his own magnificent palace in the Aegean Sea, where he is attended by his lovely daughters. In addition to his palace, Nereus also shares his noble spirit with his daughters. He is famous for his honesty and benevolence and, no doubt, the gentle Nereids have inherited their temper from him.
The mother of all the Nereids is Doris, a sea nymph who was born to a pair of oceanic Titans. She passed her poetic beauty and her responsibility for keeping the ocean wealthy and hospitable along to her daughters.
The Nereids can also count on Poseidon, the God of the Ocean, as a strong ally. The beautiful maidens often travel with Poseidon, adding an extra bit of flair to his entourage. In return, Poseidon defends their honor against any naysayers or unworthy suitors.
The Sacrifice of Andromeda
Queen Cassiopeia was famous for her beauty and for her vanity. For years, she and her husband ruled the kingdom of Aethiopia in high style, but when the queen’s vanity led her to boast that her daughter, Andromeda, was more beautiful than the Nereids, she brought the wrath of the gods down upon her unlucky kingdom.
Poseidon took offense when he heard Cassiopeia slurring the beauty of his beloved Nereids. For their sake, he asked Zeus for permission to sic a horrible sea monster, Cetus, on the coast of Aethiopia. After Cetus had reduced much of the kingdom to ruins, the desperate king asked an oracle how the beast could be stopped. The king received a horrible answer: he must sacrifice his innocent daughter, Andromeda, to the monster.
With a bitter heart, the king sent Andromeda to the oceanside, where she was stripped naked and chained to a rock. Just as the monster crawled out of the ocean to claim his prize, Perseus came to the maiden’s rescue. He slayed the monster and took the beautiful Andromeda (though not quite as beautiful as a Nereid) to be his wife.
The Test of Theseus
Shortly before his legendary attack on the minotaur, Theseus was put to an even trickier test. He had just arrived in Crete, along with six other boys and seven girls who were supposed to be sacrificed to the minotaur. Minos, the king of Crete, developed a new idea when he noticed the beauty of one of these young girls; he decided he would take her to his own bed chamber, instead of sending her into the deadly labyrinth, where the minotaur was waiting.
Theseus opposed King Minos, declaring that he was the son of Poseidon, and he would not allow a young lady to be wrongly used. Minos merely laughed at Theseus. Then, he took a golden ring from his finger and flung it into the ocean, telling Theseus to retrieve it, if he really was the son of Poseidon.
Without hesitation, Theseus leapt into the ocean. A swarm of dolphins appeared around him and guided him under the waves and into the sparkling depths of the ocean. There, he found a palace of overwhelming beauty, and the Nereids, with skin gleaming like fire and feet moving like liquid, rushed out to meet him. After a glorious party, the Nereids sent him back with Minos’s ring and a crown full of precious gemstones to prove that he was, indeed, Poseidon’s son.
The Happy Marriage of Amphitrite
One of the most beautiful Nereids, Amphitrite, attracted more than a friendly gaze from Poseidon. The god loved her above all her sisters, and eventually, he set out to marry her.
At first, Amphitrite was frightened by the concept of marriage. She eluded Poseidon by fleeing from grotto to shadowy grotto in the depths of the ocean. Fortunately, the god Delphin was a deeper swimmer than Poseidon. He found Amphitrite and coaxed her into returning to her would-be husband. They were married, and Amphitrite lived a life of splendor as Queen of the Sea.
The Unhappy Marriage of Thetis
One day, some of the Nereid sisters were frolicking together on the sea shore, playing one of their lovely games. A man, Peleus, spotted them and was overcome with desire to make a Nereid his wife. He charged into their game and grabbed the beautiful Thetis. Although she tried shape-shifting into various forms, Peleus still gripped her. At last, the exhausted Nereid agreed to marry him—but she wasn’t happy about it, and neither were any of her sisters.
An elaborate wedding, with beautiful water flowers and haunting music, was thrown for Peleus and Thetis, but Thetis’s heart was still bitter. Her sisters accompanied her to the wedding, all of them in mourning for her, and the bride herself cried behind her veil.
Despite hating her husband, Thetis loved the son that was born to them, Achilles. She attempted to bless him with immortality, told him about a prophecy which said he would be greater than his father, hid him during the first half of the Trojan war, and gave him special armor to fight his arch enemy, Hector.
The Argonauts and the Wandering Rocks
Under the orders of the goddess Hera, the Nereids agreed to help the Argonauts on their sea voyage, even though they were still bitter enemies of Peleus, who forced Thetis to marry him.
First, Thetis approached the Argonaut’s ship, which had been idling on the beach of Aia for days. She appeared only to her husband, telling him to get the ship ready for a perilous journey the next day. She and the other sea nymphs would guide the ship through this journey, but he must not point her out to any of his companions, or she would be angrier with him than ever before.
As instructed, the Argonauts prepared to sail, and on the next day, Thetis appeared again. This time, she began to push the ship, steering it through the water. Soon, the other nymphs began leaping around the ship like a crowd of dolphins. The ship approached a crop of dangerous rocks, but with Thetis steering them and her sisters protecting them, they made it safely through the rocks.
Greek and Roman Culture
Nereids were revered in Greek culture. Their legendary beauty earned them a place in the finest Greek artwork, and in coastal cities, they were even worshipped as deities.
The daughters of the sea play a role in some of ancient Greece’s most important pieces of literature, including The Iliad and The Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. They are abundant in more minor poetry as well. Mosaic shrines were built to honor the beautiful sea nymphs. Images of them were pressed into silver and gold coins, even carved onto the faces of gemstones for elite ladies to wear as jewelry.
Like many of the other gods and demi-gods of Greek culture, the Nereids were handed down to the Romans, who were equally fascinated by them.
Today, the term “nereid” has largely fallen out of use. When Nereids are referenced, they are poorly distinguished from other nymphs and fairy-like creatures.
In honor of the ancient Greek mythology, one of the moons that orbits Neptune (a planet named for Neptunus or Posedion) is named Nereid.