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.
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.
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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