The story of Narcissus is one of the most enduringly popular, and instantly recognisable, from classical myth. The very name of Narcissus has become a kind of shorthand for self-love and self-regard.
But the actual facts of the Narcissus story are a little more complex than they first appear. Who fell in love with Narcissus, and what was her name? Or was it even a ‘she’? How did Narcissus give his name to the flower known as the ‘narcissus’ – and did he, in fact, give his name to it at all?
Let’s explore these and other fascinating questions involving the facts surrounding the myth of Narcissus.
1. Like many figures in classical myth, Narcissus was informed of a prophecy about his own life by the blind seer, Tiresias.
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.
2. Narcissus loved himself before he ever laid eyes on his own beauty.
Contrary to what many people think, Narcissus didn’t have such high self-regard because he knew he was beautiful: he had never actually beheld himself, because of the warning from the prophet Tiresias, which told him not to do so if he wished to live to a ripe old age. Instead, he simply paid other people no heed, despite the fact that they clearly swooned over him.
3. It was Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, who made Narcissus break the ‘terms’ of his prophecy – and thus brought about his doom.
The god Nemesis – god of divine retribution – didn’t like the fact that Narcissus was completely indifferent to the feelings of all the young women (and, in some accounts, young men) whose hearts he was breaking.
To punish him, Nemesis arranged it so that Narcissus would behold his own reflection in the surface of the water. When he stopped to drink from the waters of a spring, Narcissus saw himself and immediately fell in love with his beauty, as countless others had before him.
4. The nature of Narcissus’ death actually depends on which version of the myth you read.
When he fell in love with his beautiful reflection, Narcissus did the only thing he could do: he leaned into the water to kiss the lovely face that he saw. And then, he fell into the water and drowned. Or did he?
In other versions of the story, his death was more lingering and slow, and he simply pined away when he realised he could not ‘possess’ the beautiful face that he saw in the water (even though, on the most literal level, he actually did possess it, because it was his own). In Ovid’s version, Narcissus fades away rather than drowns. In other, more violent renditions of the myth, Narcissus even stabbed himself when he realised he couldn’t have himself, as it were.
5. The flower known as the narcissus is said to have sprung up from the body of the dead youth.
The narcissus flower – related to the daffodil – flourished upon the spot where the dead Narcissus dropped down dead. And this mythical story may have inspired the name of the flower.
Certainly there are plenty of examples in classical myths of people dying and giving birth to flowers. Adonis’ blood is said to have stained white roses, giving rise to red roses (alternatively, it was Aphrodite’s blood when she cut her food rushing to help Adonis). And the Hyacinth story is another example of this trope.
6. However, an alternative theory for the origins of the flower’s name take us to narcotics, rather than Narcissus.
The exact origin of the name of the plant known as narcissus is actually unknown, and some scholars linked the word to a Greek word for intoxicated (as in narcotic), with the word’s spelling and pronunciation gradually morphing into ‘narcissus’, under pressure from the name found in classical myth.
This theory is borne out by the fact that one genus of the flower, the aptly named Narcissus poeticus (found in Greece), has a scent which has been described as intoxicating, like a narcotic drug. Pliny the Elder (who, we should note, was often wrong) wrote that the plant was named for its fragrance, rather than after Narcissus.
7. Narcissus inspired the adjective ‘narcissistic’ and the noun ‘narcissism’ to describe the sort of behaviour which he himself exhibited.
Indeed, narcissistic personality disorder is a recognised clinical mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. People evincing narcissistic traits depend on attention from others, and often lack the ability to care about the feelings of others (as Narcissus himself did).
8. The name of the woman who loved Narcissus has also become famous.
Many women pined away with unrequited love for Narcissus, but the most famous of these was Echo. Echo pined away until eventually only her voice remained of her.
Echo was a mountain nymph whom the goddess Hera robbed of the power of speech when she grew jealous of what her husband, Zeus, had got up to with Echo. After Hera had exacted her terrible revenge on Echo for talking to distract Hera (while Zeus got away), all Echo could do was repeat the words that others spoke: she had no ‘voice’ of her own, so to speak (as it were).
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.
9. However, in other versions of the story, it was Narcissus’ male friend, a youth named Ameinias, who pined away because he desired Narcissus but was spurned by him.
According to the Greek grammarian Conon, in his Narrations, Narcissus gave his friend Ameinias a sword with which Ameinias killed himself because Narcissus did not return his love. 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.
10. The full myth of Echo and Narcissus is really a bunch of separate myths which were conflated to make one story.
The love story (if such it can be called) involving Echo was only associated with Narcissus by the Romans, rather than the original Greeks. Although Echo existed as a figure in Greek mythology, her story was entirely separate from that of the self-loving youth.
It was probably the great Roman poet, Ovid, who first put Echo and Narcissus together, in his epic poem the Metamorphoses. His version has since become the most recognisable one.