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Myth Monday - Narcissus and Echo

By July 9, 2012

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Public Domain Courtesy of Wikimedia Narcissus and Echo - Attributed to Nicolas Poussin(June 1594-November 19, 1665) Currently at Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.

I selected this representation of the story of Echo and Narcissus because it highlights Echo, instead of just the pool-gazing Narcissus. How do you represent an echo? Poussin makes it a shadowy-rocky humanoid apparition.

The story of Echo and Narcissus is familiar from Ovid's Metamorphoses. It starts with a consultation with the long-lived, transgendering seer Tiresias, who is connected with other stories of the Theban set. The story of Thebes includes (1) Cadmus founding the city, (2) the family of Laius, including Oedipus, and (3) the stories about the birth of Dionysus, the denial of his divinity, and the Sparagmos (tearing apart) of King Pentheus [see Myth Monday - Dionysus, Dismemberment, and the Origin of Humans]. The story of Narcissus and Echo is not an ordinary part of the Theban set. If the reason for Ovid's inclusion of this myth and its relationship with the Oedipal stories interests you, please read:

"Ovid's Narcissus (Met. 3.339-510): Echoes of Oedipus"
Ingo Gildenhard and Andrew Zissos
The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 121, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 129-147.
The seer provides the nymph mother of Narcissus an answer to her question about her future son's longevity that is as cryptic as one from the Delphic oracle. At least when Achilles' mother asked if her son would live a long life the answer she got made sense. He would live a long life, if he lived in boring obscurity, or a quick life ending in a surge of close to unrivaled glory. Narcissus' mother heard that if her son never got to know himself he'd live long, but what does that mean? The familiar injunction to know oneself gnothi seauton γνῶθι σεαυτόν that was inscribed at the temple of Apollo at Delphi suggests it isn't easy.

Narcissus was vain, but for good reason. He attracted undue attention for his looks. Various nymphs and others fell in love with him. His scorn so humiliated the nymph named Echo that she shriveled up into the barest wisp of her former self becoming no more than a voice on the wind echoing what others said.

One of the scorned nymphs didn't take it so personally. She took revenge, calling upon Nemesis to make the proud young man fall.

Nemesis obliged and so, when Narcissus next chanced to see himself in a pool of water, he saw his reflection, and fell hopelessly in love. He called to it and reached for it, but the only sounds to be returned were from Echo acting as an echo.

Gradually, realization grew that the vision wasn't another person, but his own reflection. By that time, it was, of course, too late. He withered away, pining for himself. Instead of there being a body to bury, his body was changed into the narcissus flower.

[494] But when she saw him in his hapless plight, though angry at his scorn, she only grieved. As often as the love-lore boy complained, "Alas!" "Alas!" her echoing voice returned; and as he struck his hands against his arms, she ever answered with her echoing sounds. And as he gazed upon the mirrored pool he said at last, "Ah, youth beloved in vain!" "In vain, in vain!" the spot returned his words; and when he breathed a sad "farewell!" "Farewell!" sighed Echo too. He laid his wearied head, and rested on the verdant grass; and those bright eyes, which had so loved to gaze, entranced, on their own master's beauty, sad Night closed. And now although among the nether shades his sad sprite roams, he ever loves to gaze on his reflection in the Stygian wave. His Naiad sisters mourned, and having clipped their shining tresses laid them on his corpse: and all the Dryads mourned: and Echo made lament anew. And these would have upraised his funeral pyre, and waved the flaming torch, and made his bier; but as they turned their eyes where he had been, alas he was not there! And in his body's place a sweet flower grew, golden and white, the white around the gold.
Ovid Book 3 Metamorphoses. Translated by More, Brookes. Boston, Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922.
Philostratus included the story of Narcissus in his Imagines: Elder Philostratus, Younger Philostratus, Callistratus. Translated by Fairbanks, Arthur. Loeb Classical Library Volume 256. London: William Heinemann, 1931.


Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?
  22. Pandora's Box
  23. Achilles and His Heel
  24. Hercules and His Labors
  25. The First Humans
  26. The Death of Pentheus

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