Narcissus by Regius
taken from the Ambrose Collection at UVM
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Sister Juana Ines of the Cross) published El Divino Narciso (The Divine Narcissus) in Mexico in 1690. She is better known for her poetry than for this play, one of three auto sacramentales, or Eucharistic dramas. Sor Juana is known as “The Tenth Muse” or “The Phoenix of Mexico” for her baroque writings. As a Catholic nun in Mexico during the Spanish inquisition, Sor Juana had a deep seeded interest in knowledge and learning, as well as women’s rights. She has been called “The New World’s first feminist” by many, and her works live up to her reputation. In El Divino Narciso, Sor Juana combines the biblical and mythological by presenting Narcissus as Christ and Echo as Satan. The play is a combination of Catholicism and Greek mythology, borrowing from both scriptural and literary texts. She was greatly influenced in the writing of El Divino Narciso by writers before her, her feminist and religious beliefs, and the political climate of the time.
In writing El Divino Narciso, Sor Juana pulled from many different sources. The theme is, of course, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but she also used many other writings. The play includes many Biblical passages, including from the Song of Songs, Jeremiah, and the book of Matthew. The final piece of the play is a translation of a hymn by Sir Thomas Aquinas. According to Octavio Paz, she also included “echoes of Garcilaso, St. John of the Cross, and Lope” (p. 351). El Divino Narciso was one of many autos of the time that was an allegory for the Eucharist using both mythological and biblical traditions including those by Lope and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Calderón specifically had many writings that are believed to have inspired Sor Juana, not the least of which was his play Eco y Narciso (Paz, p. 351). She kept the three main elements that appear in all of these stories; Narcissus, Echo, and a fountain. She added characters of Human Nature and Grace, as well as complicated the allegory by making Narcissus represent Jesus and Echo represent Satan.
At first glance, portraying Echo as Satan seems to go against Sor Juana’s feminist belief system. However, according to Stephanie Merrim, Sor Juana’s play “enacts the drama of the divided woman, the dark versus the light heroine” (p. 95). Sor Juana included some “received norms” of her time, especially her extension of the biblical and dramatic norms that the woman is the temptress and trouble maker. However, she also included Human Nature, who is the purified Echo. Both were pure before the Fall, Echo as an angel, and Human Nature as untainted by sin. Echo attempted to stop Human Nature from reaching the purifying waters to keep her as Echo’s tainted double. Human Nature still succeeded, and was able to unite with God again as her originally pure self through the Eucharist. Echo is denied this holy reconciliation, and is thereby punished for her evil deeds. Through this play, Sor Juana illustrated the dualism of women, and the troubles thereby faced. The “divine” woman who strives for God, in Human Nature, ultimately receives the most magnificent gift possible for a religious individual; she is reunited with the Holy.
The role of Mary in El Divino Narciso also shows a lot about the climate that Sor Juana was writing in. She portrayed Mary, represented by the pure spring, as having an active role in the formation of Christ/Narciso, the power to cleanse and united the human and divine through helping Human Nature find the fountain. She was not just a passive carrier of the divine, she was a very active and strong feminist figure in the play. The cult of the Virgin Mary was established in this time period. According to Frances Kennet, Sor Juana’s “Father Confessor Nuñez de Miranda was head of a fervent Brotherhood of Mary” (p. 77). She gave Mary a role in the Trinity by showing her presence in the fountain of purity. She also represented Mary in the white flower of the Eucharist, which is not only a commonly accepted symbol for Mary but also the native flower of Mexico.
The political climate of Sor Juana’s time period was ripe with censorship, especially through the church, and especially for women. She used the baroque style of writing to engage in such discourse without being stopped by the Church. The complex, many layered style of writing, “the astounding formal and conceptual complexity that characterizes the writings of Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, Góngora, Calderón de la Barca and other Renaissance and Baroque Spanish authors derives partly from the need to mask ideas that might be considered questionable. With that necessity came the invention of and the taste for verbal camouflage” (Kennet, p. 60). Sor Juana used her writing less as a way to define political unease or conflict than to create a political and religious experience, since an auto sacramental was performed out on the stairs or in the courtyard of public gathering places. It was a shared experience for the public, making this type of writing an ideal way for Sor Juana to share her ideas and beliefs.
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz took a rather simple myth about Narcissus and Echo and turned it into a multi-layered, beautifully written public discussion of religion and politics. The major themes in El Divino Narciso are those typical of the baroque: deceit, jealousy, unrequited love, the transient and ephemeral nature of life (Andre, http://www.hope.edu/latinamerican/cruz.html). She used the combination of mythological Greek goddesses and strong female characters from the Bible to develop a sense of gender awareness and express her feminist ideals to the general audience through figures they would recognize. While not a work she is best known for, El Divino Narciso is an important work that stands out among those in its genre.
Merrim, Stephanie, 1990. Feminist Perspecitves on Sor Juana Ines del la Cruz. Chapter 5: Mores Geometricae: The "Womanscript" in the Theater of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.
Paz, Octavio, 1988. Sor Juana: The Traps of Faith.
Written by Kristin Fleming
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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