Narcissus: The Story of Echo and Narcissus — A Tragic Story of Vanity

The Story of Echo and Narcissus — A Tragic Story of Vanity

In Greek mythology, Echo and Narcissus’s story is one of the most tragic tales of vanity. It is a tale told to kids when they start getting too obsessed with themselves. The story of Echo and Narcissus was derived from the poem book of Ovid, Metamorphoses. This story is about a beautiful young boy named Narcissus, and Echo, the mountain nymph, who fell in love with Narcissus.

Narcissism Definition
“the excessive interest or admiration for oneself and one’s physical appearance.”

There’s nothing wrong with looking in the mirror and being happy or proud of what you see. But I think we can all agree that being a narcissist isn’t great.

If you’ve ever wondered where the term came from, or in this case, who the term came from, the answer is Narcissus. A relatively minor figure in Greek mythology.

It’s also the name of a specific type of daffodil. We don’t know if the flower was named after the myth or the myth after the flower, but his mother also shares her name with a flower, so there is a connection there.

Who is Narcissus in Greek Mythology?

Narcissus, by Franz Caucig, by 1810 — Prado Museum

According to Greek mythology, Narcissus was the beautiful son of the River god Cephissus in Boeotia and the nymph Liriope.

Narcissus himself was a young hunter from the town of Thespiae, in the region of Boeotia, which pretty much just means central Greece. The son of a river god and a nymph was widely celebrated across Greece for his beauty. He’s described as one of the most beautiful young men, along with the likes of Adonis, Ganymede and Hermaphrodite.

So, naturally, he had many suitors, both male and female. However, Narcissus—as I’m sure you’ve gathered—was a bit of a narcissist. He was incapable of feeling love for anyone except himself. In his eyes, no one could match his beauty, so how could he possibly fall in love.

The problem with this approach is you’re going to reject a lot of people, and those people are going to be upset. So, when they start praying to the gods to spite you, that’s when you run into trouble, and that is what happened to Narcissus.

The Story of Echo and Narcissus—Ovid’s Story (Roman)

The Story of Echo and Narcissus—Ovid’s Story (Roman)

There are two main stories that involve a spurned lover. The most recognizable is the story of Echo and Narcissus, detailed in book three of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

This story involves a mountain nymph named Echo, who, as her name would suggest, could only echo back the last thing that was said to her. However, she wasn’t born this way.

Zeus ordered Echo to help him hide one of his affairs from his wife Hera, but when she eventually found out, as she always does, echo punished for the role she played. Because she lied, Hera took away her ability to speak. She could only repeat back the last thing that was said to her, just like an echo.

Echo – Talbot Hughes (1869-1942) – PD-art-100

One day when wandering through the forest, she came across Narcissus and fell instantly in love. To not make her presence known, she followed him from a distance, but when he heard the snapping of branches, he turned and called out, “who’s there?” She could only repeat what he said, and Narcissus took this as his voice echoing through the forest and continued on his way.

The longer Echo followed, the more her heart swelled until she could hide no longer. She revealed herself and placed her arms around Narcissus, and this is wherein most love stories they kiss and embrace and blah blah blah—but not in this story.

He removed her arm and told her to get out of his sight. He could never love anyone like her, or more accurately, he could never love anyone who wasn’t himself.

She would then spend the rest of her life in those woods alone and heartbroken until she just faded away, and the only thing that was left was the sound of an echo.

The Punishment of Narcissus

The Death of Narcissus – François-Xavier Fabre (1766-1837) – PD-art-100

The goddess Nemesis had been observing Narcissus and found his behaviour to be questionable. Once she had heard of what happened to Echo, she decided it was a time that this behaviour was finally punished.

One morning when Narcissus was out hunting, he saw something in the distance that caught his eye. This was Nemesis luring him to a pool of water. Thirsty from the hunt, he knelt to take a drink.

In that pool of water, he saw the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and this time, it was Narcissus who fell in love instantly.

What he was looking at, of course, was his reflection. But to him, it was an entirely different person. He was so taken aback that he couldn’t bring himself to leave. He gazed endlessly at his reflection until he realized this love could never be reciprocated. At this point, some say he finally understood what it felt like to love someone who could never love you back.

He killed himself in his shame and despair—his blood pooling and forming a white and gold flower.

The Various Endings to Narcissus

Now, there are numerous endings to this story. In Ovid’s version, he finally feels the burning passion that comes of love, and he just melts away, leaving only a flower in his place.

In one version, he simply dies of thirst despite that can straight into a pool of water, fearing that if he moved the image in front of him would disappear forever, he just remains still until he dies of thirst. And again, he turns into a flower.

There’s also another version where his punishment is to stare eternally into that pool of water. The nymph seeing him as they strode past every day, eventually took pity and transformed him into the narcissus flower.

The Story of Ameinias and Narcissus—Conon’s Story (Greek)

The Story of Ameinias and Narcissus—Conon’s Story (Greek)

The second story comes from a mythographer called Conon. Instead, his story involves a young man named Ameinias, who, just like many before him, made the same mistake of falling in love with Narcissus.

In this case, Narcissus was harsher than usual. He gave the young boy a sword and told him to remove himself from his sight. The young boy, upset and heartbroken, took things a step further, using the sword to kill himself in front of Narcissus.

This didn’t have the desired effect as Narcissus didn’t seem to care and just went back to hunting. This, however, would not be the end of Ameinias’ role in this story.

In his dying breath, he called out to Nemesis to give Narcissus a taste of his own medicine. To feel the same pain that he caused the others.

The next part of this story is essentially the same. Nemesis lures him to a pool of water, where he gazes endlessly at his reflection. He then takes his own life as the object of his obsession is unattainable.

This variation of the ending makes more sense in this story than in the previous one because Ameinias died in the same way. His dying wish was for Narcissus to feel the same pain, and he does. So, there is something poetic about the two deaths being in the same fashion.

Another variation to this story came a few hundred years later, where Narcissus falls in love with his twin sister. At the time, he didn’t know who she was. But after she learns of their relation, she doesn’t feel the same.

Not being able to deal with this unrequited love, he disappears, and the only thing they can find is a flower.

The Differences Between the Roman and Greek Versions of Narcissus

The roman version (which is the story of Echo and Narcissus) is the most popular version of this story because the ancient Greeks were very superstitious. Especially when it came to looking at their reflections for long periods, believing it was bad luck could even lead to death.

When you take that into account, this story makes a bit more sense, and you can understand why it may not have been their favourite.

On the flip side, the Romans rather enjoyed this story, and many Renaissance artists took to create the portraits and sculptures of Narcissus. The most famous of this sculpture being Narcissus, painted by Caravaggio in the 16th century, depicts a young man staring at his reflection by the river.

16th century CE oil painting by Caravaggio depicting Narcissus the handsome youth of Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection.
A 16th century CE oil painting by Caravaggio depicting Narcissus the handsome youth of Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection. (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome)|Wikimedia

We don’t know for sure why the Romans enjoyed this story as much as they did. Still, it may be because this story serves as a warning to those who valued vanity, possessions and self-preservation over the needs of the many.

What is the Moral of the Stories of Narcissus?

Before we finish with the morals and themes of this story, it’s important to note that the Greek and Roman versions have similarities. But they also do have some differences that may or may not show a difference in culture.

I have not seen too much discussion comparing these two stories, so I can only offer you my thoughts and observation.

One of these stories is about a man being rejected and the other a woman. But the real difference is in how they react to the rejection.

When Echo made her feelings known, she just accepted it and lived a sad and lonely existence. She didn’t harbour any ill feelings towards Narcissus, and Nemesis acted of her own accord when it came to his punishment.

In the Greek version, Ameinias does the exact opposite. When his approaches are rejected, he doesn’t walk away. If Echo chose a slow and quiet death, then Ameinias decided to go out in a blaze of salty glory—killing himself and praying to the gods for vengeance.

The Roman approach is tame and pragmatic. If you’re wrong by someone, then there will eventually be justice from those in power. The other approach is emotional and driven by revenge, which isn’t a huge surprise.

Many of its stories feature individuals seeking revenge and taking situations into their own hands when it comes to Greek mythology. In this case, that was persuading Nemesis to intervene where she usually may not have.

The morals and themes remain the same regardless of the many different versions. On a base level, it’s a clear warning to those obsessed with vanity. There’s more to the world than what you see in the mirror. You may lose sight of the bigger picture if you allow your vanity or arrogance to consume you.

It’s also a reminder to be cautious of the effects your actions may have on others. Narcissus shows his suitors no respect with not much thought to how they may feel after being rejected. He only comes to this realization when he’s put in the same position.

The most overlooked lesson and the theme that can be taken away from this story is the emotional immaturity of youth. It’s easy to sit here and say, “well, he should have known better.” But Narcissus is always described as a youth, which means he was in his mid-teens—an age where you’re likely to do an incredible number of stupid things because you’re still maturing.

Being somewhat selfish and obsessed with his appearance at that age is also not really out of the norm. We see Narcissus begin to mature and understand that his actions have consequences. Still, he is turned into a flower, and it’s all pointless.

To me, this ending is almost saying, “don’t learn from your mistakes; just don’t make mistakes in the first place, stupid!”

It’s a story with many different meanings and many different interpretations. Some, of course, more helpful than others. Let me know in the comments section (when it is opened) which version you prefer and what it means to you.

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