Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily
 Nymphs and river gods


In Greek mythology the nymphs (from the Greek nymphs that is, girl, bride) are inferior divinities, they represent the spirits of the fields, woods, waters and nature in general. They are divided into different categories depending on the environment that surrounds them, there are therefore:


       Water nymphs. They include the ereidiiNereidi, marine gods daughters of Nereus[1] and personification, perhaps, of the waves of the sea. However, those who are best known, in Sicily as in Greece, are the Naiads, nymphs of fresh waters that feed trees, livestock and therefore also man. Each famous spring has its Naiad and its legend. In Sicily, the most famous Naiad is Arethusa, who linked his name to the famous Arethusa spring in Syracuse. The Naiads, unlike other nymphs, are considered mortal, as are the sources they represent.


       Nymphs of the woods and trees (Dryads or Hamadriads). Like water nymphs, tree nymphs are not immortal, as their life is tied to the same trees they represent.


       Mountain nymphs (Oreadi). These nymphs live in the mountains and valleys. In Greek mythology, the nymph Echo was famous, who fell unrequited in love with the young Narcissus who, on the other hand, did not want to know about her or the others who had fallen in love with him. Echo, distraught, withdrew into solitude, where he lost weight to the point that only her voice remained. Narcissus for this was punished by heaven and one day, leaning over a spring to quench his thirst, he saw his image reflected in the water, he fell in love with it and in an attempt to reach it he fell into the water and drowned.


Often the nymphs raise children born of divine loves, as in the case of Daphnis and Hermes. Sometimes it is they themselves who have love affairs with gods, as in the case of Talia who generated the Palici from her love with Zeus, or they are part of the retinue of a greater divinity, such as the nymphs who accompanied Artemis on her hunts or the Maenads[2], the terrible escorts of Dionysus.


In Sicily the cult of river divinities, often male personifications of springs and rivers, as well as the cult of female divinities linked to the same aspects of nature and similar to water nymphs, such as the Greek Naiads, must have been present long before the arrival of the Greeks on the island due to the predominantly pastoral and agricultural character of the indigenous populations, who enjoyed the benefits deriving from the use of springs and rivers. This is why it was not unusual to resort to the personification, both male and female, of springs and rivers, even if later the dominance of the Greek religion led to the loss of the indigenous characteristics of the cult, replaced by purely Hellenic ones.

All the main rivers of Sicily were personification of a god or a nymph, even if, of most of them, only a few traces remain in classical literature and in some ancient coins. This aspect probably had to concern the Anapo river in Syracuse, the Simeto in Catania, of which we only know that the nymph who personified it was considered, in turn, the mother of the river god Aci, the Belarus (the current Tellaro). , the Agrakas river which gave its name to the homonymous city and other rivers of Sicily. The cults described in this paragraph are therefore only a small part of the constellation of nymphs and river gods that populated the mythology of ancient Sicily.


Popular Christian tradition has meant that the nymphs of the Greek-Sicilian mythological tradition were replaced by devils, often with female features, or by more or less capricious fairies.

Sicilian folk tales and legends are full of characters with characteristics reminiscent of those of the ancient river gods.

A figure with these connotations is the Monacella of the Fountain[3], known above all in the villages of the Iblei mountains, in the Ragusa area.

The Nun of the Fountain is a youthful figure, dressed like nuns. She is always accompanied by a dog and carries a basket with flowers and gold coins in her hand. It is possible to see it near a fountain on the first three Tuesdays of June and it vanishes by diving into the fountain and melting in the water. It is often considered the guardian of hidden treasures along the course of rivers and springs. It offers wealth to those who see it, but flees at the sight of rosaries or sacred images. This last detail underlines the attempt to unite the Monacella della Fontana with the demonic enemy figures of the new Christian religion.

Other similar figures are the so-called "Women from outside" or "Beautiful Lord "or"Patruni of the house " or simply "Damsels[4]". They are supernatural beings similar to witches who live in the woods or underground wandering during the night and transforming themselves into birds, snakes or black cats. A Damsel guardian of a treasure terrifies those who have the misfortune of entering an enchanted house[5]. And in the "Courtyard of the seven fairies", seven "women of fora", at night, show wonderful things and then disappear in the morning[6].

Given its brevity, we report the story of Pitrè "Lu curtigghiu di li seven Fati", collected in Palermo:


'Ntra stu Curtigghiu di li seetti Fati, 'nta the vanidduzza who check' nfacci lu Munasteriu of Santa Chiara, vonnu diri ca the nights cci vinìanu seven donni di fora, all one cchiu bedda of 'n'àutra. Sti donni si purtavanu quarchi omu o


puramenti quarchi fimmina who cci parìa to iddi, and cci facianu vidiri so never seen: dances, sònura, cummiti, so great. And vonnu say puru ca si li purtavanu supra mari, fora fora, and facianu caminari supra water without vagnàrisi. Every nights faciànu stu magisteriu[7], and then in the morning spiriànu e, un si nni parrava cchiui. Di ddocu nni veni ca stu curtighiu is called lu curtigghiu of li setti Fati.




[1] Nereo is an ancient divinity of the sea, even older than Poseidon. Son of Gaia (the earth) and Pontus (the sea wave), he is considered, in fact, a divinity of the natural forces of the world.

[2] The Maenads (demoniac women), also known as Bacchae, personify the orgiastic spirits of nature; they were the nymphs who nourished the god Dionysus and who, possessed by mystical madness, formed the procession that accompanied the god.

[3] Giuseppe Pitre: Uses and customs, beliefs and prejudices of the Sicilian people Vol. IV p.198.

[4]Giuseppe Pitre: Customs and traditions, beliefs and prejudices. Vol. IV p. 163

[5]S. Salomone Marino: Popular Sicilian Legends pag. 105. N ° XXII “La Casa 'ncantata”.

[6]Giuseppe Pitre: Sicilian fairy tales and folk tales, pag.72 N ° CCXIX “Lu curtigghiu di li seven Fati”.

[7] (From Pitre, clarification at the foot of the page) Magisteriu: here an intriguing, curious and even mysterious matter.



Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily by Ignazio Caloggero

Nymphs and river gods


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