Narcissus: An Ancient Tragic Story with Many Modern Parallels
The Greek tale of the self-absorbed yet staggeringly handsome Narcissus is a famous and ancient one. Despite its age, the myth remains famous to this day and provides a moral warning against becoming selfish and uncaring towards others.
The Narcissus story is so influential, in fact, that his name has been given to the mental condition narcissism which is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance and a lack of empathy for others. Narcissus’ life has also influenced popular culture for centuries and even provided the inspiration for the name of the Harry Potter character Narcissa Malfoy.
Whilst the most popular and well-known versions of the myth contain nymphs, warnings from the Gods and blind seers, the integral moral of the story remains influential. The story also acts as an explanation for the origin of the Narcissus flower (daffodil) and for the origin of echoes.
Primary Sources Give Some Info About Narcissus’ Life
There are a couple of surviving stories about Narcissus’ life, all of which differ somewhat but have the same central story with the same moral teachings.
The main primary source of the myth is Ovid’s Metamorphoses where the story is told in Book III. Ovid was a Roman poet who was born in the city around 43 BC and died in 16 or 17 AD. He traveled throughout his life to a number of Greek territories like Asia Minor and Athens.
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In 2 AD he began his Metamorphoses which is considered his magnum opus comprising 11,995 lines, 15 books and over 250 myths. This colossal poem chronicles the history of the world from its beginning until the deification of Julius Caesar. It also contains the longest version of the myth.
Another earlier but less complete source for the story of Narcissus is a version composed in 50 BC and thought to be the work of the poet Partenius of Nicaea. This work was discovered in 2004 by Dr Benjamin Henry within the Oxyrhynchus papyri at Oxford. The only difference between this telling and Ovid’s is the ending.
A third source for the tale of Narcissus’ life was composed by Conon who was a Greek grammarian and mythographer. His ending is similar to that of Partenius. The tale is also told by the Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias in Book IX of his Description of Greece.
Echo and Narcissus in painting from 1627 by Nicolas Poussin. (Nicolas Poussin / Public domain)
Narcissus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Ovid’s telling of Narcissus’ life is perhaps the most well know version today. It begins with the birth of Narcissus. His parents were the God of the River, Cephissus, and the nymph Liriope. Ovid claims that Cephissus was not a nice man and had forced Liriope into his bed, and consequently the nymph became pregnant.
Narcissus, from his birth and throughout his life was incredibly handsome. When Liriope consulted a seer (named Tiresias) after his birth and asked if her son would live a long life, the seer stated that Narcissus would live a long life if he did not look at himself.
Narcissus managed to live his early life and not discover himself. His beauty became known, and men and women alike were said to be throwing themselves at him. However, Narcissus was not fazed by any of them and ignored all of their advances.
One day he was walking in the woods when an Oread (a mountain nymph) named Echo spotted him. Echo, like so many women before her, instantly fell deeply in love with the handsome Narcissus. She proceeded to follow him through the wood.
However, she was hesitant to speak to this beautiful man because, according to Ovid, the nymph suffered from a speech impediment that was a result of a curse by Juno (or Hera), the wife of Zeus. It was known that Zeus had a particular fondness for nymphs, and this had made Juno extremely jealous. It was said that every time Juno would almost catch Zeus with a nymph Echo would distract the unknowing wife.
When Juno eventually found out she punished Echo by removing her ability to communicate properly so she could only say the last few words that were spoken to her. She could therefore not talk to Narcissus first and instead had to wait for him to talk to her.
Another version of the hopeless heartbreak “bubble” Echo lived in because Narcissus was more interested in himself, from a painting by Francesco Xanto Avelli from 1535. (Francesco Xanto Avelli / CC BY-SA 2.0)
After some time, Narcissus heard Echo following him through the wood and he called out “Who’s there?” Echo repeated his questions and was eventually convinced by Narcissus to reveal herself.
Echo then immediately attempted to embrace Narcissus, however, he refused and stepped away from the nymph.
“Away with these encircling hands! May I die before what’s mine is yours. She answers,
“What’s mine is yours!” (Metamorphoses, Book III)
The heartbroken Echo spent the rest of her life in misery, she lived alone in the glens until nothing remained of her but an echo.
Narcissus continues to break the hearts of numerous lovers. One even went as far as to curse him that he may suffer as he has caused others to suffer. The Goddess of Revenge, Nemesis, eventually heard of this tale and noticed Narcissus’ behavior. She decided to punish the selfish man. During the summer when Narcissus became thirsty, she lured him to a pool and when he leaned down to the water he gazed upon his own reflection. Not realizing it was his own reflection, Narcissus fell deeply in love with himself, believing it was someone else.
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He was unable to remove himself from looking at his own reflection but soon realized that his love could not be reciprocated when he attempted to kiss or hold the reflection. However, his confusion is amplified when the image in the pool reciprocated his winks and waves. Narcissus could not understand why he could not secure what he so desperately desired.
Narcissus was tormented by this and by the time he realized it was his reflection it was too late, and he had already fallen in love with himself. Because he now knew he could never obtain what he truly wanted his body melted away from the passion he felt burning inside him.
When Echo returns to the place where Narcissus had been staring into his own eyes to recover his body for the funeral, she found in his place a gold and white flower. This flower would become known as the Narcissus flower, or the daffodil.
Ameinias spurned lover of Narcissus, who committed suicide as his love turned to madness, sculpted by Malcolm Lidbury for the 2016 Cornwall LGBT History project. (Pinkpasty / CC BY 4.0)
Narcissus According to Other Stories about Him
Parthenius tells much of the same story, however, rather than slowly decaying because of his yearning, Narcissus lost his will to live and committed suicide.
Canon’s version of the story was written at roughly the same time as Ovid’s however, this also differs slightly. First of all, rather than a nymph named Echo, a young man by the name of Ameinias falls in love with Narcissus after the latter had already turned away many male suitors.
Like those before him, Narcissus rejects Ameinias and gives him a sword. As a result of this rejection, Ameinias commits suicide on Narcissus’ doorstep. Ameinias had prayed to the gods to give the selfish Narcissus a lesson and make him learn from all the pain he had caused.
Narcissus then walked to a pool of water and decided to have a drink. As he bent down, he gazed upon his own reflection and fell in love. When he realized this love was futile, he killed himself because he could not obtain what he desired most.
In his work, Pausanias summarized Ovid’s story. Pausanias did not believe that a man old enough to fall in love would be stupid enough to not realize it was his own reflection upon which he was staring. So, Pausanias changed the story slightly, to make it more believable. Rather than falling in love with a nymph named Echo or a man named Ameinias, Narcissus was actually mourning the death of his beloved twin sister and was gazing at his own reflection to recall her features. In this telling, the spring in front of which Narcissus wastes away is located on a mountain top and is part of the river Lamus in a place called Donacon.
What all the versions share, however, is the inherent negative link between Narcissus and the act of gazing upon his reflection. It is possible that this was derived from the ancient Greek superstition that it was unlucky and sometimes even fatal to see your own reflection.
A fine Narcissus fresco from Pompeii showing the pool reflection he was in love with. (CC0)
The myth of Narcissus has had a lasting effect on humans. He was a very popular subject in Roman art and appears prominently in 50 paintings from Pompeii alone. His name has been given, in Freudian psychiatry and psychoanalysis, to the mental condition that leaves one with an “inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships and a lack of empathy for others.” The myth also had a huge influence on Dante and Shakespeare.
After losing influence after the Renaissance, it came back and inspired more creatives. The myth appears in a number of 20th-century works of art and music and provides a warning against self-obsession which was particularly influential during the age of individualism.
The Origins of Narcissus’ Story
Because there is a lack of stories based on Narcissus and Echo, many scholars today believe that the myth may have originated with Ovid. According to Ingo Gildenhard and Andrew Zissos, this story actually interrupted the poetic pattern of Metamorphoses suggesting that the story may have been an afterthought and placed in the work to verify the validity of the prophet Tiresias (the seer). Ovid’s version, nevertheless, was then retold by later poets and has become not only an explanation for where the flower originated but also why echoes exist.
W. S. Anderson has argued that the language used in Ovid’s tale is formed in a way to discourage the audience from feeling any kind of sympathy for Narcissus. The poet stresses that he deserved everything that happened to him because of the horrible way he treated those who fell in love with him, particularly Echo.
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In Pausanias’ telling, however, the author takes a different stance. By rationalizing the story, Pausanias expresses his belief that Ovid’s version is foolish. Here, Echo and the will of the Gods are omitted. He even argues that the flower had existed long before Narcissus and his story. He effectively warped the story from one which explained the origins of the flower and of echoes into one purely for entertainment.
Despite this, and as already mentioned, both stories end with Narcissus’ death as a result of gazing into the pool and at his own reflection. Because of this he dies completely alone with no awareness of his surroundings. Both authors are conveying the same moral message that it is not good to be self-absorbed. The story warns that being so will only end in loneliness.
Top image: Echo and Narcissus in a painting by John William Waterhouse, and one senses that Narcissus has already fallen in love with himself for all time. Source: John William Waterhouse / Public domain
By Molly Dowdeswell
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Fleming, Kristin and Michelle Mariorenzi. n.d. Narcissus and Echo. Available at https://www.cornellcollege.edu/classical_studies/cla216-2-a/narcissus-echo/
History Today. 2018. The Myth of Narcissus. Available at https://www.historytoday.com/archive/foundations/myth-narcissus
Lin, Kimberly. n.d. Narcissus: Myth: Early Poets and the Ancient Society. Available at https://www.historicmysteries.com/narcissus-myth-version-poets/