Dryads and hamadryads are two types of wood nymphs in Greek mythology. These female nature spirits were thought to inhabit trees and forests, and they were especially fond of oak trees. Dryads were often depicted in myth and art accompanied – or being pursued by – their male counterparts, the satyrs.
There are many stories of dryads in myth and legend. One famous dryad was Eurydice, the beautiful but ill-fated wife of Orpheus. According to the tale, Eurydice was killed by a snake when she tried to escape from the unwelcome amorous advances of Aristaeus. The fact that a dryad such as Eurydice could die demonstrates the idea that these nymphs were not immortal. And indeed, the hamadryads were even more vulnerable, for it was believed that their lives depended on the health and well-being of the trees they inhabited. The myth of Erysichthon illustrates this point.
Erysichthon needed wood to build a hall, so one day he entered a grove of oak trees. Now, this particular grove was sacred to the goddess Demeter, and was also a favorite location of those gentle nature spirits, the dryads. But these facts seemed lost on Erysichthon. He simply starting chopping down the largest, oldest tree standing. At first strike of his axe, the tree began to bleed. Undaunted, Erysichthon continued to cut through the bleeding bark. Then he heard a sound coming from the wounded tree. It was the voice of the hamadryad who lived in the oak. She begged Erysichthon to stop, telling the heartless man that not only was he killing her tree, he was also murdering her in the process. Erysichthon ignored her pleas. Eventually the helpless hamadryad died, along with her beloved oak tree.
The goddess Demeter learned of this horrible crime from the other dryads who inhabited the grove. In the end, Erysichthon was punished for defiling Demeter’s sacred grove and taking the life of a hamadryad. The details of this story – as well as Erysichthon’s punishment – can be found in the Metamorphoses of Ovid.