Greek mythology has fascinated much of the world for many decades. Their abundance of gods and goddesses, both good and evil have sparked the imagination of many. One such creature is the Dryad or tree nymph.
These goddesses of nature were so feared and respected in ancient Greece, that the forests became sacred places and members of Ancient Greek society would often ask the God’s permission to even fell a tree in a place where nymphs may reside.
You will find mention of Dryads in many different cultures, even if that term isn’t used but it is in Greece where they began. So, if you are ready to learn all about these mystical and shy creatures, keep reading.
History of Dryads
The term Dryad was first used in Ancient Greece within their mythology and religious beliefs around 1700 – 1100BC. They were associated with many different stories but were best known for caring for an infant Zeus when he was in hiding from his father, Cronus.
These minor goddesses lived in and with the trees of the forest. The original dryad was a nymph of the oak tree. The word Drys itself signifies oak in Greek. However, as time went on the term dryad came to mean any kind of tree-dwelling nymph.
Dryads would often take the form of young and beautiful women and most of them lived immortal lives. Unlike many other nymphs and fairies in folklore over the world, dryads were not mischievous but rather shy and unassuming.
Once the mythology of the dryads grew there came to be five main types of dryads, although the deeper you delve into Ancient Greek beliefs you begin to realize that almost every plant was thought to have its very own dryad protector. They were separated depending on what type of tree they were associated with.
The Meliai were the nymphs of the ash tree. It was widely believed that they were born when Gaia was impregnated by the blood of the castrated Uranus.
The Oreiades nymphs were associated with mountain conifers.
Hamadryades were dryads of both oak and poplar trees. They were also usually connected to trees that framed rivers and sacred tree groves. This type of dryad was the only one not considered to be immortal. Their lives were tied to that of the tree they resided within and when one died, so did the other.
Maliades were believed to be the nymphs that lived in fruit trees, such as apple trees. They were also considered to be the protectors of sheep. In fact, the Greek word melas means both sheep and apple.
The Daphnaie were a rare type of tree dryad that were associated with laurel trees.
Because of the respect people had for dryads, the ancient Greek people has for their tree nymphs people would often make offerings to appease the temperament and thank these tree nymphs when it was time to harvest from the trees and branches.
They also ensured they asked the god’s permission to fell any trees because of the Hamadryades whose lives were tied to the life of their tree.
Dryad Images, Pictures, and Drawings
Many depictions of dryads have been found carved in wood or stone, showing them peering through trees or residing in their forest dwellings. These images often depicted dryads to look similar to the trees they lived among with long limbs, hair-like leaves, and bodies made of or covered in moss.
Dryads in Mythology Explained
In Greek mythology, the Dryads were shy, timid, and quiet mythical creatures bound to protect the trees and the forests. They were considered to be loyal to the Goddess Artemis, they even thought of her as their mother goddess.
These guardian spirits, depending on what mythological story you are reading, were either entirely immortal or their lives were just extraordinarily long thanks to their lives being tied to the tree they were connected to.
This meant that if the Dryad died, the tree would wither and die. The same went for if their tree died, inevitably the dryad would die too.
Dryads were always thought to be female, at least in looks, and you can find many depictions of dryads in Ancient Greek art and poetry speaking of their insurmountable beauty and showing them as humanoid-type creatures.
Although, it was strongly believed that their physical characteristic matched the very trees they inhabited and protected.
In Greek mythology, many different stories included the dryads, especially how they were transformed into dryads – many dryads were actually considered to either be human originally or children of the nature Gods.
The most famous story in Greek mythology is that of Daphne and Apollo.
Daphne was a dryad that spent her days by the river with her sisters and her father, God of the river, Peneus.
The God Apollo had insulted Eros, and as revenge, Eros shot a golden arrow at Apollo which caused him to fall madly in love with Daphne. Eros then shot a lead arrow at Daphne so that she could never love him back.
Apollo desperately went after Daphne, he felt as though he couldn’t live without her, but she would always run away.
One day, she fled to the forest in an attempt to escape his pursuits but as always he still found her. She begged her father to protect her from Apollo’s advances and he agreed.
Just as Apollo went to touch her, her skin became rough, like tree bark. Slowly her hair turned to leaves and her limbs to branches.
However, Apollo swore to always love her even if she now stood as a laurel tree. He promised to always we are her leaves on his head, and place those leaves on every hero. He also shared his powers of eternal youth with her so that she would remain green forever.
This story really embodies the way dryads and nymphs were seen in their mythology. Many stories were about the advances of lustful Gods and the subsequent attempt to escape from these dryads.
So, not only did dryads prefer to remain out of sight of humans. They also actively avoided being seen by most of the Gods.
Although dryads were well respected and sometimes even feared, their powers or abilities were fairly limited. They were said to have some control over the trees and branches of the forest, some could even speak with animals and other spirits.
However, they were only considered to be minor goddesses or inferior divinities, so their powers weren’t as mighty as, say the God Zeus.
Names of Dryads in Greek Mythology
Unless you look through all of the literature and poetry left over by the Ancient Greeks, it’s difficult to pinpoint how many different dryads there were scattered throughout their mythological stores. So we’ve gathered a few of the names we know and what kind of dryads they were.
- Aigeiros – Hamadryad of the black poplar tree
- Ampelos – Hamadryad of the wild grape vine
- Atlanteia – Hamadryad, mother of some of the Danaides of King Danaus
- Balanis – Hamadryad of the acorn/ilex tree
- Byblis – A Miletos girl who was transformed into a Hamadryad
- Erato – Prophetic dryad of Mount Kyllene
- Eidothea – Oreiad nymph of Mount Others
- Karya – Hamadryad of the hazel/ chestnut tree
- Khelone – Oreiad dryad who was transformed into a tortoise as punishment
- Kraneia – Hamadryad of the cherry tree
- Morea – Hamadryad of the mulberry tree
- Pitys – Oreiad dryad loved by Pan
- Ptelea – Hamadryad of the elm tree
- Syke – Hamadryad of the fig tree
Dryads in Literature
Thankfully, the Ancient Greeks loved to write everything down. Their love for art, stories, music, and poetry means many of the stories that spoke of the Dryads are still available today, just as they were then.
It is in the literature that we get so much more information about dryads, who they were, how they behaved, and the powers they were believed to hold within.
Here are a few exerts from Greek literature that speaks of the famous dryads.
“But Zeus, from the many-folded peak of Olympos, told Themis to summon all the gods into assembly. She went everywhere, and told them to make thier way to Zeus’ house. There was no River [Potamos] that was not there, except only Okeanos (Oceanus), there was not one of the Nymphai (Nymphs) who live in the lovely groves (alsea) [i.e. Dryades], and the springs of rivers (pegai potamon) [i.e. Naiades] and the grassy meadows (pisea poiêenta), who came not. These all assembling into the house of Zeus cloud-gathering took places among the smooth-stone cloister walks.”Homer, Iliad 20. 4 ff ff (trans. Lattimore) (Greek epic C8th B.C.)
“A chattering crow lives out nine generations of aged men, but a stag’s life is four times a crow’s and a raven’s life makes three stags old, while the Phoinix (Phoenix) outlives nine raves, but we, the rich-haired Nymphai (Nymphs), daughters of Zeus the aigis-holder, outlive ten Phoinixes.”Hesiod, The Precepts of Chiron Fragment 3 (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.)
“Dionysos, who delightest to mingle with the dear choruses of the Nymphai Oreiai (Mountain Nymphs), and who repeatest, while dancing with them, the sacred hymn, Euios, Euios, Euoi! Ekho (Echo), the Nymphe of Kithairon (Cithaeron), returns thy words, which resound beneath the dark vaults of the thick foliage and in the midst of the rocks of the forest; the ivy enlaces thy brow with its tendrils charged with flowers.”Aristophanes,Thesmophoriazusae 990 ff
“Those [Nymphai Dryades (Dryad Nymphs)] who in days of old, according to the story of the poets, grew out of trees and especially out of oaks.”Pausanias, Description of Greece 10. 32. 9
“Richly robed in gorgeous finery, and richer still her beauty; such the beauty of the Naides (Naiads) and Dryades (Dryads), as we used to hear, walking the woodland ways.”Ovid, Metamorphoses 6. 453 ff
The Magical World of the Dryads
Though the stories of the Dryads may have faded a little from our collective human consciousness, the influence they had over our connection with nature and the respect it deserves still remains.
Many cultures across the centuries, before we had a little more scientific understanding, used the creation of such creatures to make sense of the natural world and its chaotic behaviors.
Whether the dryad is a creature of reality or fiction, they capture the creative hearts of the Ancient Greeks for centuries, and every now and again they still appear in modern arts.