The Narcissus Myth: Early Poets and Versions of the Ancient Story

Monday, January 8 2018

The Narcissus Myth: Early Poets and Versions of the Ancient Story

January 7, 2018 200 Views
Of the great legion of characters in Greek mythology, Narcissus has earned the most distinctive role in our modern day vernacular. Remember the boy who tragically fell in love with himself? Today, we frequently hear the terms Narciss- ist and Narciss- ism. Both pertain to a condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and derive from the human nature of the Greek character, himself. The roots of the Narcissus myth go back thousands of years. Indeed, the earliest written works that we know of were created in the 1st century BCE. However, not all the stories about the self-centered boy were the same. Who were those early poets and how did their versions differ? Narcissus is affixed to his own reflection in the spring. J.W. Waterhouse, 1903. Public domain. Ovid
Ironically, one of the most well-known versions of this famous Greek poem was written by a poet who was not Greek, but Roman. Ovid was born east of the city of Rome around 43 BCE and lived until 16 or 17 CE during the reign of Augustus. In his early life as a teenage man, Ovid decided to become a poet and began putting his pen to parchment. He also traveled to a number of Greek areas that included Asia Minor and Athens. Around the year 2 CE, he began writing Metamorphoses , which is comprised of 15 books that contain about 250 myths. In book 3, Ovid gives us the longest version of Narcissus, as follows. Echo and Narcissus
In Ovid’s story of Narcissus, Cephisus, the river-god, forces the gorgeous nymph Liriope into coitus under the waves. She gets pregnant by him and gives birth to a beautiful child that she names Narcissus. Liriope consults the seer Tiresias and asks him if her son will live to a full age. The prophet replies with “If he does not discover himself.”
Many years go by, and Narcissus grows into a stunning 16-year-old boy. Many suitors, both male and female, have attempted to capture his heart, but he rejected all of them out of pride. One day the mountain nymph Echo spots Narcissus while he’s hunting deer in the woods. She is consumed by the boy’s beauty. Instantly, she falls madly in love with him, and she secretly tracks his every step as he moves through the woods.
Although Echo wants to approach Narcissus to profess her desires for him, she cannot because she suffers from a severe speech impediment that was forced upon her as a curse by Juno (or Hera), the wife of Zeus. It was a fact that Zeus loved to philander with the nymphs, and this made Juno very jealous. Each time, just when Juno was about to catch the nymphs having relations with Zeus, Echo would distract her with verbose conversation to give the nymphs time to escape Juno’s wrath. The jealous goddess punished Echo by taking away her ability to communicate, and now she can only say the last few words that are spoken to her. Thus, Echo cannot express herself to Narcissus, so she waits for him to say something first so that she may at least repeat his words. The Meeting
As it happened, Narcissus becomes separated from his hunting companions and calls out, “Is anyone here?” Of course, Echo is there, and she calls back, “Here.” Narcissus wants to know who is there, and after a few verbal exchanges and echoed replies, Narcissus encourages the source of the voice to come out of hiding. She emerges and immediately throws her arms around his neck. However, instead of responding lovingly, the boy rejects Echo saying, “Away with these encircling hands! May I die before what’s mine [his body] is yours. She answers, ‘ What’s mine is yours!” ( Metamorphoses Book III ). Echo gazes at Narcissus while he longingly peers at his own reflection. J.W. Waterhouse, 1903. Public domain.
Echo is embarrassed and flees in shame. The scorned nymph is so forlorn that she veils herself among the leaves and lives out her days in the mountain caves alone. All the while, her love continues to grow, as does her despair. Her body withers away and her bones turn into stones. Henceforth, only Echo’s voice remains in the mountains.
After the encounter with Echo, Narcissus continues to reject many others who are eager for the boy’s attention. One of his suitors becomes so scornful, he curses Narcissus that he may suffer the way he has made others suffer. Nemesis, the goddess who delivers vengeance for acts of arrogance, hears the plea. The Curse
One day while hunting, Narcissus comes across an untouched, glassy spring. He is drawn to its beauty and lies down to take a drink, but what he sees in the still water enchants him. He is in love with what he sees and is inflamed by the features of the vision: the hair, his eyes, porcelain skin, and rosy cheeks. Attempts to kiss and hold the reflection are in vain, and Narcissus is only frustrated by the teasing reactions of the image. When Narcissus winks, the image winks back, when Narcissus waves, the image waves, and when he cries tears, he sees that the image also cries. Narcissus cannot understand why he cannot reach what he so desperately desires.
The tormented boy agonizes over his unrequited love. He cannot leave the spring and is trapped in his frozen gaze at his reflection, pining away for the boy in the water who rejects all advances. Then Narcissus realizes that the image is his, but it’s too late, as he has already fallen tragically in love with himself. Knowing that he can never have what he desires, his body withers away in despair. When Narcissus says “Goodbye” to the reflection, Echo’s voice says “Goodbye.” At that moment, Narcissus dies while peering into the spring.
When the nymphs go to the spring to collect Narcissus’ body for a proper funeral, what they find in the place where his body once lay is a white-petaled flower with a yellow center.
In the end, the prophecy of Tiresias came true. The beautiful boy did discover himself – in the form of his own reflection – and that discovery prevented him from living beyond his youth. Conon
The Greek mythographer, Conon, who lived sometime around the late first century BCE to the early first century CE, also wrote of Narcissus – possibly before Ovid. Indeed, some scholars believe that Ovid’s and Conon’s accounts derive from the same older Greek source, however, that source is a mystery (Nelson:370).
Conon’s story tells of a boy by the name of Narcissos (Narcissus) who grew up in a city called Thespeia in ancient Greece’s central region of Boiotia. His version is similar to Ovid’s in that Narcissus was exceedingly beautiful and disdained all of his suitors. As a punishment by the gods, he falls tragically in love with his own reflection. However, three major differences exist between Ovid’s and Conon’s stories.
First, Conon names the spurned lover who cursed Narcissus. It was Ameinias, a fragile young man who pursued the youthful boy only to be rejected repeatedly. When Ameinias does not give up, Narcissus sends a sword to him suggesting to Ameinias that he kill himself. Ameinias goes to Narcissus’ home and appears on his doorstep. After praying earnestly to the gods to take revenge on Narcissus, he takes Narcissus’ sword and kills himself.
The second major difference between the stories is in how Narcissus dies. At the spring, he falls in love with himself in both versions. However, according to Conon, in the end, Narcissus’ despair over his self-love and his belief