Virgil’s Aeneid Contained Some Peculiar Nautical Sea Nymphs

(THE NYMPH ROSE FROM THE SEA AND BORE THE VEIL AWAY, by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Ancient origin myths and creation stories can be really strange. So, too, are many of the creatures and monsters found in mythology weird and bizarre. Therefore, it is not surprise that the origin stories of some mythological beings are especially odd.

A particular band of sea nymphs found in the poetic verse of The Aeneid by Virgil (70-19 BCE) perfectly illustrates how peculiarly some mythological entities were born. The epic poem about Aeneas follows a band of Trojan refugees journeying to make a new life in Italy, only to be constantly harassed by the goddess Juno and the various peoples (Carthaginians and native Italians) she riled up against the homeless wanderers. Just like in The Illiad and The Odyssey, the gods choose sides and intervene on multiple occasions to help, or hinder, the characters of the story.

One of the stranger supernatural events of The Aeneid, however, is the birth of a group of sea nymphs. These nymphs were not brought about by the promiscuity of the gods, or curses or blessings placed on humans, as many other creatures of myth came into being. No, these particular nymphs from The Aeneid actually originated as the ships used by Aeneas and his Trojan companions. When the Trojan refugees and the Italian Latins mobilized their forces to make war against each other, the ships of the Trojans broke their mooring lines, transformed into nymphs and dove into the ocean. This is the passage that describes the transformation of ships into sea nymphs:

“And all at once,
each vessel snapping her cables free of the bank,
they dive like dolphins, plunging headlong beaks
to the bottom’s depths, then up they surface,
turned into lovely virgins—wondrous omen—
each a sea-nymph sweeping out to sea.”

  • From The Aeneid by Virgil (Book Nine), translated by Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics edition), 2010.

The nymphs return to aid the Trojans later, where they give Aeneas an account of their birth:

“A troop of his comrades comes to meet him,
halfway home, the nymphs that kindly Cybebe told
to rule the sea in power, changing the ships
to sea-nymphs swimming abreast, cutting the waves,
as many as all the bronze prows berthed at anchor once.
They know their king far off, circling, dancing round him
and one, most eloquent of them all, Cymodocea swims in
on his wake and grips his stern with her right hand,
arching her back above the swells as her left hand
rows the silent waves, and she calls out to Aeneas,
lost to it all: “Awake Aeneas, son of the gods?
Wake up! Fling your sheets to the winds, sail free!
Here we are, the pines from the sacred ridge of Ida,
When traitorous Turnus forced us headlong on
with sword and torch, we burst your mooring lines,
we had no choice, and now we scour the seas
to find our captain. The Great Mother pitied us,
changed our shape, she made us goddesses, yes,
And so we pass our lives beneath the waves.”
  • From The Aeneid by Virgil (Book Ten), translated by Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics edition), 2010.


Written by C. Keith Hansley

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