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Emelie Byström

Founding females: Tracing and placing nymphs in colonial and religious landscapes on Sicily, 734-264 BC

In modern scholarship, nymphs are described as minor, subaltern deities in Greek mythology. They occupy a prominent place in ancient Greek culture and they frequently appear in textual and archaeological evidence. However, their role in mythological narratives and genealogies of the Sicilian colonies and sub-colonies are often left out when referring to the “master narrative” of religion in Classical Greece. Yet, the colonies, their foundation and development, a process in which the nymphs played important parts, are crucial for our understanding of ancient Greece.

The nymphs were goddesses of nature, inhabiting mountain peaks and caves, springs and rivers, forests and fields. As such, they were intimately associated with local topographies and, thus, important for establishing connections to the land and in imbuing it with meaning and identity. Given the ephemeral nature of these deities, the worship of nymphs was not formalized to be housed in communal temples or at large sanctuaries, meaning that the creation of cult places in general required minimal investment. Instead, they populated natural places, often minimally altered by humans. However, due to their local ties nymphs often shared sacred space with the major gods or goddesses of the ancient Greek pantheon. In a Sicilian context, this implies that the nymph represented a local, often subordinate and essentially non-Greek, entity, whereas the Olympian deity embodied the Panhellenic and superior Greek culture.

Nevertheless, this is not a history of marginalized deities. In this thesis I aim to show how and why the concept of nymphs on Sicily was infused with important meanings that stretched beyond the religious sphere in terms of kinship, ideas about the past and in mythological and colonial narratives. Furthermore, the dual character of nymphs will be emphasized, which entails the nymph as both a physical entity present in nature (being the spring/tree/mountain) and as divine humanlike beings with humanlike qualities and agency.  By a close reading of the ancient textual sources, combined with the archaeological evidence in its local contexts, the core of this project is to map out ‘nymphic space’ on Sicily, addressing both tangible and intangible, public and private, urban and rural, and Greek and non-Greek aspects of the worship of nymphs.

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