In Greek mythology, Narcissus or Narkissos (Greek Νάρκισσος), was a hero of the territory of Thespiae in Boeotia who was renowned for his beauty and his pride. Several versions of his myth have survived: Ovid's, from his Metamorphoses Pausanias', from his Guide to Greece, (9.31.7); and one found among the Oxyrhynchus papyri.
Pausanias locates the spring of Narcissus at Donacon 'Reed-bed' in the territory of the Thespians. Pausanias finds it incredible that someone could not distinguish a reflection from a real person, and cites a less known variant in which Narcissus had a twin sister. Both dressed the same and wore the same kind of clothes and hunted together. Narcissus fell in love with her. When she died, Narcissus pined after her and pretended that the reflection he saw in the water was his sister.
In Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of a graceful and pretty nymph named Echo who loved Narcissus in vain. Narcissus' beauty was so unmatched that he felt it was godlike in scope, comparable to the beauty of Bacchus and Apollo. As a result, Narcissus spurned Echo's affections until, despairing, she faded away to nothing but a faint, plaintive whisper. To teach the vain boy a lesson, the goddess Nemesis doomed Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection in Echo's pond. Entranced by his own beauty and enamoured with his own image, Narcissus lay on the bank of the river and wasted away staring down into the water. Different versions of the story state that Narcissus, after scorning his male suitors, then was cursed by the gods to love the first male that he should lay his eyes on. While walking in the gardens of Echo he discovered the pond of Echo and saw a reflection of himself in the water. Falling deeply in love with himself, he leaned closer and closer to his reflection in the water, eventually falling into the pond and drowning.
This, a more archaic version than the one related by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, is a moral tale in which the proud and unfeeling Narcissus is punished by the gods for having spurned all his male suitors. It is thought to have been meant as a cautionary tale addressed to adolescent boys. Until recently, the only source for this version was a segment in Pausanias (9.31.7), about 150 years after Ovid. However, a very similar account was discovered among the Oxyrhynchus papyri in 2004, an account that predates Ovid's version by at least fifty years.
In this story, Ameinias, a young man, loved Narcissus but was scorned. To tell Ameinias off, Narcissus gave him a sword as a present. Ameinias used the sword to kill himself on Narcissus' doorstep and prayed to Nemesis that Narcissus would one day know the pain of unrequited love. This curse was fulfilled when Narcissus became entranced by his reflection in the pool and tried to seduce the beautiful boy, not realizing it was himself he was looking at. Completing the symmetry of the tale, Narcissus takes his sword and kills himself from sorrow.
Narcissism is named after Narcissus, and both derive from the Greek word narke "numb" from which we also get the word narcotic. Thus for the Greeks Narcissus stood for vanity, callousness and insensitivity, as he was emotionally numb to the entreaties of those who fell in love with his beauty.
The Narcissus flower
The Narcissus flower blooms early in the spring and is often found in damp soil near to a pond. It is a self-sufficient, fertile but stagnant environment. The flower is usually of six white vesica-shaped radiating petals with a central yellow funnel containing the stamen and the stigma. The stem bends just before the blossom, tilting it so the blossom faces out or down rather than up. According to myth, this is because Narcissus was gazing down at his reflection when he was transformed into the flower. The stalk is otherwise firm and upright.
Further reading & listening
- Louise Vinge. (1967). The Narcissus Theme in Western Literature up to the Nineteenth Century. (The classic in-depth study).
|The Narcissus myth as told by story tellers:|
|1. Narcissus, read by Timothy Carter, music by Steve Gorn, compiled by Andrew Calimach. (.ogg file)|
|Bibliography of reconstruction: Ovid, Metamorphoses III.340 - 350, 415 - 510 (AD 8); Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.31.7 (AD 143–176)|
- Text, translation, and images of the new version of the myth found in a recently published papyrus from Oxyrhynchus.
- Article on the version found in the papyrus from Oxyrhynchus.
- Narcissus and Ameinias – A storyteller's audio rendition (in MP3 and other formats) of the myth, compiled from primary sources.