To a certain extent the nymphs are civilizing beings they help herdsmen increase their herds, helping people to build wealth and increase their livelihoods. Further certain ones have been known to help grapes ripen, farms to be fertile and more. This in turn helps to solidify them as agricultural spirits. One could say that nymphs were the more rustic the more original form of the domesticated Muses of Greek Mythology.
Much of the depiction of nymphs could in essence be said to be a form of idealization of rural life through poems and plays by those who live in the city. We see something similar occur to the fairies during the Victorian era when to a large extent fairies became a form of idolized life, of youthfulness and a desire for immortality as well as a stereo typical image of the country life. This relationship between the nymphs and the rural poor is to be expected because as previously mentioned these are the people who were likely the most influenced by the indigenous populations of Europe. They are also often the slowest to change religiously. Among the Slavic peoples it was held that;
The fairies are fond of singing and dancing; and enticing
young lads and shepherds or singers to dance with them, they
distribute happiness or misfortune among them.
The Rusalky live in woods, meadows, fields, and waters.
Generally appearing when the corn begins to ripen in the
fields, and concealed amidst it, ready to punish him who
wantonly plucks the ears, they dance and make merry,
adorned with the many-coloured blossoms of the poppy and
with their hair flying loose. (MacCulloch)
The Rusalkas have much to do with the harvest, sometimes making it plenteous, and at other times ruining it by rain and wind. The peasants in White-Russia say that the Rusalkas dwell amid the standing corn; and in Little-Russia it is believed that on Whit-Sunday Eve they go out to the corn-fields, and there, with joyous singing and clapping of hands, they scamper through the rye or hang on to its stalks, and swing to and fro, so that the corn undulates as if beneath a strong wind. (Ralston 1872)
It’s interesting to note that the cults to these nymphs were rarely to them as individuals, but rather to them in the plurality. After all a grove a trees can be extensive so it would seem rare indeed to give each tree a name and a personality. Much like ancestor worship many of the nymphs then remained nameless; there was just the realization that they were the mothers of life and fertility. Going beyond this general statement however was the realization that humanity was born from the nymphs of the Ash tree in Greek mythology and from the Ash trees themselves in Germanic mythology (but from the god of the earth in Celtic).
Because of their status as the mothers of humanity the civilizing powers of nymphs were also more important to the cities of Greece then nearly any other beings as attested to by the fact that they were placed on the coins the cities stamped. What we see then is that groups of people and cities were intertwined with nymphs, nymphs who were the mothers of the city as the deities would mate with the nymphs in order to produce the founding heroes of each city making them in essence truly the mother goddess of that city, with the people directly descended from her. We see to a certain extent a similar idea in Celtic lands where the River spirits were the mother of a people. Because of this the relationship which different peoples had with each other was often describe in terms of the relationship and movements of nymphs. People were said to learn many of the arts from nymphs or nymph like beings such as the Muses. They were in essence a sort of Tutelary spirit, which could encourage prosperity in cooperation with local heroes. Further as the water the spirit of the water source which the city uses they are the ones who keep the people alive and every day the people must go out to gather water from them. In a way this makes reverence to them much more routine then it would be for any other deity.
In Slavic lands the vila went beyond the role of mother to also take the role of sister;
The belief that a Vila may
become a man's sister also points to the existence of close rela-
tions between them and human beings; and it is a popular conviction that not only every young lad and, indeed, every honest
man has a fairy for his sister who helps him in case of need, but
even some animals, such as stags, roes, and chamois, for whom
the Vily have a special liking, may possess such supernatural
Perhaps one of the nymphs most important roles was in presiding over and protecting marriage. In later Greece much of this definition appears to have become more and more patriarchal, however even as this occurred the nymphs themselves retained a certain amount of wildness, of freedom as did the rusalka and the nixes of the rest of Europe. Showing that although they were important symbols in marriage they still retained some of their original spirit.
Given the archeology which helped formulate the idea of goddess based worship in Europe the early nymph cults are of special interest not just because of their apparent survivability but because of the way statues were used in relation to their cults. Several Attic grave reliefs show young girls playing with doll like objects. It has been argued that these naked figures are not to be considered toys but as votives dedicated by girls to insure fertility and sexual maturation. The dedication of anatomically exaggerate votives in this sense could have had a socializing function, teaching girls that the most important parts of their bodies were their wombs and their breasts, that they were bound to become mothers and that their identity was based in large part on reproduction.
Boys in these reliefs on the other hand are shown playing with balls and toys. Certainly Greece by this time was under the influence of patriarchal society, but the only evidence we truly have for the matriarchal society theory are the small figurines of women with exaggerated reproductive parts or which appear as charms that were found throughout Europe and the best record we have of cults which were influenced by the Neolithic European beliefs are the nymph, rusalka and the Celtic sacred wells to which such figures were often offerings.
Other statues of nymphs were nuptial dedications, given to the nymphs on the occasion of the ritual bath before the marriage to insure fertility. So while it seems likely that Greece and many other societies within Europe became more patriarchal over time and so the symbolism of the need women’s fertility became less an idea of power it also seems quite possible that the statues found throughout Europe had multiple meanings, including as offerings for fertility rather than as an indication of a general worship of fertility goddesses.
What’s important to understand is that its seems likely that many of the figures found throughout Europe resemble those later dedicated to nymphs and so may themselves have been dedicated allowing us to glimpse into the past religion of some of the Neolithic Europeans.
Some of the nymphs of mythology were considered to have come into being before the deities with some of them even raising Zeus. And so we come upon another important role which they played in helping to build civilization, they raised heroes, deities and those who brought culture to humanity. Similarly the various Slavic water fairies were said to take and raise children;
feeding them with honey and instructing them in all kinds of knowledge.
This is significant not just because of the desirability of honey to children but because the bee was the sacred animal and the messenger of the nymphs and it was they who taught humans how to gather honey.
So to a certain extent nymphs were greater and more important than the deities but although the race of nymphs were older then the gods however they were not immortal. The trees whose spirits they are die, wells dry up, the world changes and these changes represent the birth and death of nymphs. This is an obvious part of being a true nature deity, for nature isn’t stable and must always change and we cannot forget that for all their civilizing qualities nymphs, rusalka, and the others always remained nature spirits.