Narcissus statue in Naples Museum
Draving from Harry Thurston Peck's Harpers Dictonary of Classical Antiquities(1898)
Narcissus in Ovid's Metamorphosis Book 3.337
Ovid told of Narcissus’ story from his birth:
Narcissus was fathered by a river god to a nymph named Liriope. Liriope was told by a prophet that Narcissus would reach old age if he failed to recognize himself.
Narcissus turned into a very beautiful young man, whom everyone loved. However, there was no one to whom Narcissus would return affection.
Echo was a nymph who was destined a fate that she could only repeat the sounds and last words of others. One day she spotted and fell in love with Narcissus. She followed him through the woods but could not speak without repeating his words.
Finally Narcissus tried to call to Echo, but it failed since she could only repeat his call. Finally Echo appeared and tried to hold Narcissus. Narcissus rejected her and Echo ran to hide. Her body then wasted away while she pined for him. She is now forever hiding amongst the leaves and caves in the forest. Her body is gone but her bones became rocks and her voice remains and can be heard in mountain valleys and in caves. Since Narcissus denied everyone his love, the gods fated that Narcissus could never have anything that he loved.
One day while Narcissus was hunting he went to get a drink. As he bent down to drink the water he fell in love with the reflection of himself. He was so awed by this person that he could not move. He tried to grab the image but couldn’t, which made him more infatuated with himself.
Narcissus stayed there without any sleep or food. He called to the gods asking why he was being denied the love that the two shared. He started to talk to the reflection. He claimed he would not leave the one he loved and that they would die as one.
Crazy with love, Narcissus stayed by the side of the water and wasted away. Echo returned to see him wasting away. She mourned more and as he said his farewell to the reflection she echoed his words. Narcissus then lay down to die and the nymphs mourned him. They covered him with their hair and set up for a funeral. When they turned for his body, there was a flower instead.
Narcissus woodcut by Irving Amen
Narcissus in Pausanias 9.31.7-8
Pausanias summarized Ovid's story, but also had his own version:
The spring of Narcissus is located on a mountain top at the river Lamus in a place called Donacon. At this place Narcissus looked in the water and fell in love with his reflection and died at the spring.
Pausanias scoffed that a man old enough to fall in love would not recognize his own reflection, so he told a rationalization of the Ovidian myth. This story tells that Narcissus had an identical twin sister, who he did everything with. He was in love with his sister who eventually died. He missed her so much that he would go to the river to see his reflection. Although he recognized it as himself, it still allowed him to see the image of the one he loved.
Narcissus and Echo by John William Waterhouse
Painted in 1903 Location: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool England
Narcissus in Philostratus' Book 1.23
This was an analysis of a painting of Narcissus, not directly a story. The painting is included in the PDF linked above. It just shows Narcissus leaning over a pond looking at himself with a statue behind him. Narcissus fell in deeply love with his reflection while drinking on a hunt. Philostratus mentioned that the cave shown was sacred to the Nymphs, though he did not directly mention Echo.
Due to the lack of stories based on Narcissus and Echo, many scholars believe that this myth and these characters originated with Ovid. According to Gildenhard and Zissos, the story of Narcissus actually interrupted the poetic pattern within Metamorphoses, showing that the story was an afterthought used to verify the validity of the prophet Tiresias. The basic story was then retold by later poets. It is an explanation not only for where the flower originated, but also why echoes exist. It is also a story of vengeance of the Gods; Echo was punished by Juno for distracting her so that the Nymphs who were lying with Jupiter could escape and Narcissus was punished for treating those who loved him poorly.
According to W. S. Anderson, the language used in the original Ovidian tale discouraged the audience from experiencing sympathy or pity for Narcissus. It was stressed that he deserved everything that happened to him because of the scornful way he treated those who loved him, especially Echo.
Interestingly, the Pausanias version of the story stated that Ovid's story is foolishness. In the rationalized version where Narcissus had a twin, Echo and the will of the Gods are completely omitted, thereby negating what appeared to be the main points of the story. Pausanias even stated that he believed the flower existed long before Narcissus. This changed the myth from an explanation of the origin of the flower and echoes and a discussion of the divine-human relationship to a story simply told for entertainment.
In both Ovid’s and Pausanias’ versions of Narcissus, Narcissus dies by a pool gazing at his own reflection that he falls in love with. He has no concern about anything around him nor does he eat or sleep. He takes his last dying breath by himself and dies by the image that he will never have but so badly desires. Even Philostratus’ analysis states that in the Painting of Narcissus, Narcissus is gazing at himself and his focus is not towards anything else. Through the painting all he can see and hear is the reflection of him. He dies in complete solitude without love. Ovid and Pausanias show the reader that it isn’t good to be self absorbed because a person will end up with no one in the end just like Narcissus who died by the side of a watering hole with only his reflection.
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The background is a photo of the Narcissus flower. It has white petals and an orange cup in the center. Photo by Danny Burk, 2001.
Last updated 24 October 05