Narcissus, an Ancient Myth with Modern Significance.

narcissus-caravaggio-300x363Narcissism is much in the news of late, so I decided to brush up on the myth.

The classic version of the story of Echo and Narcissus is found in Book III of the Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem written by Ovid.

Somehow in my schooling, I missed reading the Metamorphoses, maybe because it’s so long. It contains more than 250 myths and tells the history of the world from creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. I don’t know when Ovid started writing it, but he finished in 8 AD. More than 2000 years ago.

This is more or less how the story goes:

Narcissus was the son of the loveliest nymph, Liriope, and Cephisus, the River God. Now you may wonder how a nymph gets involved with a river god. In this case, the river god clasped her in his winding streams and took her by force.

By the time Narcissus was sixteen years old, he was so good looking that he was desired by both youth men and young women. But, “there was such intense pride in that delicate form that none of the youths or young girls affected him.” (from A. S. Kline’s version.)

One day the nymph, Echo, saw him when he was out hunting for deer, and she was inflamed with love. At that time Echo still had a body, but her ability to speak was limited. She could only repeat the last few words someone else said. When Narcissus invited her to come out of the woods, she made the mistake of running up and throwing her arms around him.

Here is where Narcissus’ nature showed itself.

He ran from her shouting, “Away with these encircling hands! May I die before what’s mine is yours.”

Poor Echo. She never stopped loving him. Wandering in the woods, her form eventually wasted away, leaving nothing but the echo we know today.

Narcissus didn’t care. He was too obsessed with himself.

One day, tired from the hunt, he stopped to drink at a clear, untouched pool. Leaning over, he saw the reflection of a gorgeous young man and was filled with desire.

Each time he leaned forward with puckered lips, the one he loved raised his lips to him. When Narcissus smiled, he smiled. When Narcissus cried, he cried. And when Narcissus tried to embrace the loved one’s neck, plunging his arms into the water, the reflection broke apart.

Eventually Narcissus realized that he was burning with love for none other than himself, but still he couldn’t tear himself away. He cried and tore his clothes and struck his naked chest. He knew he was getting weak, and yet he stayed beside the pool with his beloved reflection, waiting for death.

After he died, the residents of the house of shadows left his body as they prepared his funeral pyre. When they returned, it had disappeared, leaving in its place a flower.

By Taken byfir0002 20D + Tamron 28-75mm f2.8 - Own work, GFDL 1.2, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=282392


Over the years, narcissism has come to mean something even more extreme than the self-love described in the myth of Echo and Narcissus.

Psychology Today defines Narcissistic Personality Disorder as having the following traits:

arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration.

Narcissus had the first two traits, but not the last. He died loving and admiring himself, but he didn’t seem to require crowds of admirers.

According to Psychology Today:

Narcissism involves cockiness, manipulativeness, selfishness, power motives, and vanity–a love of mirrors. Related personality traits include: Psychopathy, Machiavellianism.

It seems that a modern narcissist could be far more dangerous than the original young man in the myth.

Do you enjoy reading Greek and Roman myths? What relevance do you think they have for the 21st century?

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About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. This is interesting, Nicki. Although I don’t remember reading the Metamorphoses while in school, I do remember many boys, particularly in high school, who had the traits of Narcissus.

    • My children and grandchildren are much better acquainted with Greek and Roman myths than I am. I don’t think they were part of the curriculum when I was in school. Or maybe my memory is bad.

      I may have gone to high school with some narcissistic boys. If so, I didn’t notice them.

      • I just talked to my daughter. She said that she and her sisters and her children just read more library books. In elementary school, after they finished reading all the fairy tales of the world, they moved on to the Greek and Roman myths. They were voracious readers.

  2. Traveller at heart

    Another poignant topic, Nicki! I can still feel the edge of the blades?

    I did Shakespeare in school, my first introduction to the literary world. It was a small class of six, we were blown away by her lessons. Our teacher was then replaced by a young graduate with university qualification. It wasn’t long before her lessons went pear shaped. Fancy sitting in an English Literature class where the teacher delivered it in a monotone voice.

    The word Narcissus is derived from the Greek word narke, meaning numbness or stupor. Some attribute the naming of the flower to its narcotic fragrance while others debate that it is associated with the poisonous nature of the Narcissus bulbs.

    A modern narcissist comes in different forms. From my experience and observations, there are common traits. They can be highly intelligent and full of charm, confident and tend to be able individuals with leadership skills, ability to attract followers and some are eloquent speakers. They are set in their ways. Over time, their followers will do the legwork. Challenge them at your peril!

    • The derivation of the word narcissus is interesting. Oleander is another poisonous flower. Mothers should be careful about what their children put in their mouths because there are many poisonous flowers.

      As you said, charming, intelligent narcissists can attract many followers. Your final sentence (Challenge them at your peril!) is chilling.

  3. I think that the myth of Narcissus has huge relevance in today’s world. The growing obsession with taking ‘selfies’ is nothing more nor less than a form of Narcissism. The Kardashian family are all narcissistic, and they trade on it.

    • Good point! I was thinking of selfies when I read the post. 🙂

    • In the classical sense, humility is one of the seven heavenly virtues; hubristic pride is one of the seven deadly sins. Unfortunately, our plugged-in, interconnected world pushes us in the other direction. People like the Kardashians benefit from their narcissism.

  4. Lovely bit of history behind the idea of narcissism. I never studied Greek or Roman mythology in school, so it is always interesting to hear bits and pieces of it. I do think what you brought up here has quite a bit of relevance in today’s era. All of us are narcissists to some extent: we want to look our best on some occasions, we feel the need to be heard and express our voices. Some of us might think we know it all, and that is a bit of a self-centred trait.

    Too much of this self-love is no good, and it can be self-destructive, just like in the moment when the character plunges his arm into the water at his reflection. There is only so much one can learn from thinking about oneself all the time.

    • We all care about ourselves and how we appear to the world to one degree or another. But not above all else. I thought it was interesting that Narcissus said, “May I die before what’s mine is yours.” He wasn’t willing to give of himself to another person. And even when he realized his love affair with himself was ultimately self-defeating, still he wouldn’t let it go.

  5. I dated this guy. On our second date we went to a restaurant with a mirror behind the bar. He primped and preened for about 5 minutes. I knew it was never going to work. Unfortunately he didn’t stay by the mirror and die. He most likely went on to torment other women.

  6. Great post, Nicki! I studied Greek myths in school. What a story. And how sadly relevant. I think we’ve all dated this dude at some point. Herschelian has a good point!

    • The question of selfies is related to a choice we bloggers have to make: Do we put photos of ourselves and our families on our blogs or not. Blogging is already a very public activity. Paradoxically, writers, who spend so much time hidden and alone, end up publishing their work, which is a very public thing to do. I try to base my choices on what I think someone would like to read or see. It’s a hard balancing act.

  7. A few years ago, I read a fascinating book about narcissism: Living in the Age of Entitlement ~ The Narcissism Epidemic.

    According to the authors, narcissists are:

    * Materialistic and status conscious
    * Arrogant, self-centered, vain
    * Aggressive when insulted
    * Manipulative and exploitive
    * Willing to cheat and lie to get ahead
    * Uninterested in emotional closeness
    * Attention seeking and desirous of fame

    And, if the authors are correct, the number of narcissists among us are growing by leaps and bounds.

    Why the surge?

    Twenge and Campbell see the epidemic being fueled by four primary factors:

    (1) parents who are raising royalty;
    (2) our fascination with celebrities and fame;
    (3) the quest for attention fed by internet social networking sites (if you’ve got it, flaunt it; if you don’t got it, flaunt it anyway); and
    (4) easy credit which allows people to pretend they’re better off than they really are (even if they are in debt up to their eyeballs).

    The authors provide ample evidence of the growth in both narcissistic entitlement and cultural narcissism.

    Bottom line, if you see narcissists everywhere you go these days, you’re not alone.

    • Thank you so much, Nancy, for describing the main points in Living in the Age of Entitlement. It sounds like a really insightful analysis.

      The Psychology Today definition relates to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but I think garden variety narcissism is similar. In the same article, Psychology Today points out that we used to think that below the surface narcissists were insecure. But recent evidence indicates that they are secure or even grandiose both on the surface and deep down. I suppose that’s why narcissists are aggressive when insulted.

      On the other hand, I suspect that some cultural narcissism is a mask.

  8. Deep down, though, the classic narcissist of today (in psychological terms) is insecure, unlike the classical Narcissus. They know/ fear that they are a fraud, which is why they cannot tolerate any criticism. It’s why they lash out with personal attacks whenever their views are challenged, rather than being able to respond with rational debate.

    Well, classical or classic, I love your post on Drumpf. 🙂 Very timely.

    • You hit the nail on the head. This is definitely a post inspired by Drumpf.

      I can’t pretend to have done extensive research, but in the Psychology Today definition, they asserted that psychologists have changed their minds. They now believe narcissists actually have no trouble with insecurity. If they’re right, then Drumpf really does believe that he knows better than anyone else in the country. Here’s what he said about who he consults on foreign policy: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain…” Politico

  9. When I was in secondary school we had a subject called “Classical culture”. It was all about the Greeks and the Romans. I loved it! Knowing many myths was also useful for my History of Art class, as many paintings and sculptures describe classical myths.

  10. I really enjoyed reading this, Nicki. Although never a big fan of mythology, we can learn a few life lessons from them. This was a great example!

  11. In my school we never studied Greek and Roman mythology. That’s a shame because I suspect there are lots of life lessons to be learned from it. Apparently today’s narcissists ~ and there are a lot of them ~ didn’t study mythology either.

  12. I have never read it either, so thank you for sharing this. I enjoy learning the origins of words and phrases.

  13. I wonder if you could elaborate about what exactly has been in the news of late, regarding this. I thought I was well-informed, but not perhaps with the nuances of US news.

    • Lani, I’m so sorry. I missed some comments way back in June. But I did want to answer your question. My comment about the news was supposed to be a subtle reference to Donald Trump. He has been accused of being a narcissist on a regular basis. One psychologist said that he demonstrated all the characteristics of narcissism so perfectly that he was going to use him as an example for his students. I try not to be political in my blog, but Trump is such a tempting target.

  14. An interesting read, Nicki, because I didn’t know the rather pathetic fate of Echo. I can see her trailing through the woods now. I like the image. The young man, not so much 🙂 🙂


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