The story of Echo and Narcissus is one of the most famous in all of classical mythology. But really, what we’re dealing with is a case of several different myths being put together. Narcissus has become synonymous with self-love, with the adjective ‘narcissistic’ and the noun ‘narcissism’ being coined to describe the sort of behaviour which he himself exhibited.
The woman who loved him, meanwhile, has a curious name: Echo. Yet Echo has her own separate story, and was only associated with Narcissus by the Romans, rather than the original Greeks, who came up with the figures of Echo and Narcissus.
Where did these stories come from? And how did Echo and Narcissus end up being put together as part of the same story?
Who was Narcissus?
Let’s take them one at a time first.
Narcissus was a beautiful youth, and the son of the god Cephisus and a nymph named Leiriope. Tiresias, the blind seer or prophet who often turns up in Greek myths to warn characters not to do certain things, prophesied that Narcissus would live to be an old man as long as he never looked at himself.
The problem, however, was that Narcissus was beautiful – so beautiful, in fact, that all the boys and girls who saw him were struck by his beauty and desired him. Many of them pined away with unrequited love and despair because he ignored them, and some died from their heartache.
At first, Narcissus paid them no heed, and went about his business, which appears to have been hunting: he was a hunter by trade.
The god Nemesis – god of divine retribution – didn’t like the fact that Narcissus was completely indifferent to all of the hearts he was breaking, so Nemesis arranged it so Narcissus would come face-to-face with his own reflection in the surface of the water. When he stopped to quench his thirst in the waters of a spring one day, Narcissus promptly fell in love with his own reflection.
Wanting to kiss his beautiful reflection, he leaned into the water, and drowned – or, depending on which version of the myth you read, he pined away, or even stabbed himself when he realised he couldn’t have the object of his desire, namely himself. The narcissus flower – related to the daffodil – is said to have sprung up from the body of the dead Narcissus.
Who was Echo?
So, how did Echo come to be involved with Narcissus?
Well, here’s a question for you. What was the name of the figure who, in Greek myth, pined away for love of Narcissus and ended up killing themselves because Narcissus didn’t return that love?
Not Echo, but Ameinias, Narcissus’ male friend.
According to Conon – a Greek grammarian not to be confused with Robert E. Howard’s barbarian, Conan – in his Narrations, a collection of narratives which survive only as a summary in another writer’s work, Narcissus spurned all of his male suitors, and gave his friend Ameinias a sword with which Ameinias killed himself, over his hopeless love for Narcissus. According to Conon, it was Ameinias who prayed to Nemesis to deliver retribution upon Narcissus for spurning all of his suitors and treating them so coldly. There’s no mention of Echo loving Narcissus.
And although the story of Echo and Narcissus strikes us as quintessential Greek myth, the introduction of Echo into the tale of Narcissus appears to have been the invention of a Roman poet, Ovid, in his Metamorphoses.
Echo was an Oread or mountain nymph whom Zeus liked to visit for … carnal relations. Hera, Zeus’ wife, was suspicious of what her husband was up to with all these nymphs, and one day followed him to spy on him. Zeus ordered Echo to distract Hera by engaging her with a lengthy conversation (giving Zeus a chance to escape back home to Mount Olympus). Echo did this, but when Hera found out that she was protecting Zeus, she punished Echo by robbing her of all speech of her own: from now on, all Echo could do was repeat the words of others, hence her name.
Echo loved Narcissus, but she obviously found it hard to tell Narcissus how she felt about him, because she had already been cursed so that she could only repeat what others said, rather than speak for herself. According to Ovid, after she was shunned by Narcissus she witnessed his demise after he saw his own reflection: in Ovid’s version, Narcissus fades away rather than drowns. Distraught at seeing her beloved destroyed like this, Echo pined away until, eventually, only her voice remained.
Regarding the origins of Echo’s name, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the termination -ώ (found at the end of ‘Echo’ in the original Greek, ἠχώ) was common in Greek female names. The editors point out that ‘Echo’ was used in ancient Greek literature long before the nymph of the Echo and Narcissus story came along – so, Echo was named after echoes rather than vice versa.
Narcissus myth: analysis
What’s the moral of the story of Narcissus? It’s summed up succinctly in the wonderfully informative The Wordsworth Dictionary of Mythology (Wordsworth Reference): Narcissus died because he was unwilling to give himself to others.
Note that this is not the same as saying that self-love in and of itself was his downfall. The ancient Greeks talked of hamartia: the tragic flaw, if you will, that was the chink in a hero’s armour, the detail that would lead to his downfall. If we apply the concept of hamartia to Narcissus, then self-love was definitely not his flaw, because his crimes – the ones which made Nemesis decide to punish him – preceded his own knowledge of how beautiful he was.
Instead, Narcissus’ crime was his indifference to others rather than his love of his own beauty, which only came later, and then only because Nemesis tricked him into seeing his own reflection. What this all means is that Narcissus’ greatest flaw was not really narcissism at all, but self-absorption – that is, being preoccupied with oneself or one’s own business to the exclusion of other people.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
Similarly, Narcissus, in another famous Greek myth, actually shunned other people before he fell in love with his own reflection, and yet we still talk of someone who is obsessed with their own importance and appearance as being narcissistic. And as William Empson pointed out about the myth of Oedipus, whatever Oedipus’ problem was, it wasn’t an ‘Oedipus complex’ in the Freudian sense of that phrase, because the mythical Oedipus was unaware that he had married his own mother (rather than being attracted to her in full knowledge of who she was).
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.