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Narcissus (mythology)

In Greek mythology, Narcissus, Narkissos or The Self-Admirer (Νάρκισσος) was a hero of the territory of Thespiae in Boeotia who was renowned for his beauty. 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 similarly 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. Some Greek tales suggest that he was sexually attracted towards his sister, and when she was alive made love to her.

As Pausanias also notes, yet another tale is that the Narcissus flower was created to entice Demeter's daughter Persephone away from her companions to enable Hades to abduct her.

Hellenic version

This 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 intended as a cautionary tale addressed to young men. Until recently, the only source for this version was a segment in Pausanias (9.31.7), about 150 years after Ovid. 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. As a way of rebuffing Ameinias, Narcissus gave him a sword, which Ameinias used to kill himself on Narcissus' doorstep; he prayed to Nemesis that Narcissus would one day know the pain of unrequited love. This curse was fulfilled when Narcissus became entranced by his own reflection in a pool. He only realised that it was his reflection after trying to kiss it. Completing the symmetry of the tale, out of sorrow Narcissus took his sword and killed himself; his body then turned into a flower.

Roman version

In the tale told by Ovid, Echo, a nymph, falls in love with a vain youth named Narcissus, who was the son of the blue Nymph Leirope of Thespia. The river god Cephisus had once encircled Leirope with the windings of his streams, and thus trapping her, had raped ("seduced") the nymph. Concerned about the baby's welfare, Leirope went to consult the prophet Teiresias regarding her son's future. Teiresias told the nymph that Narcissus "would live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knew himself."

One day when Narcissus was out hunting stags, Echo stealthily followed the handsome youth through the woods, longing to address him but unable to speak first. When Narcissus finally heard footsteps and shouted "Who's there?", Echo answered "Who's there?" And so it went, until finally Echo showed herself and rushed to embrace the lovely youth. He pulled away from the nymph and vainly told her to leave him alone. Narcissus left Echo heartbroken and she spent the rest of her life in lonely glens, pining away for the love she never knew, until only her voice remained.

Eventually he became thirsty and went to drink from a stream. As he saw his reflection, he fell in love with it, not knowing that it was him. As he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to "run away" and he was heart broken. He grew thirstier but he wouldn't touch the water for fear of damaging his reflection, so he eventually died of thirst and self love, staring at his own reflection. The narcissus flower grew where he died.


The myth of Narcissus has been a rich vein for artists to mine for at least two thousand years, beginning with the Roman poet Ovid (book III of Metamorphoses). This was followed in more recent centuries by other poets (e.g. Keats) and painters (Caravaggio, Poussin, Turner, Dalí, and Waterhouse). Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky used lonely Narcissus-type characters in his poems and novels, such as Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin in "The Double" (1846).In Stendhal's novel Le Rouge et le Noir(1830), there is a classic narcissist in the character of Mathilde. Says Prince Korasoff to Julien Sorel, the protagonist, with respect to his beloved:

She looks at herself instead of looking at you, and so doesn't know you. During the two or three little outbursts of passion she has allowed herself in your favor, she has, by a great effort of imagination, seen in you the hero of her dreams, and not yourself as you really are. (Page 401, 1953 Penguin Edition, trans. Margaret R.B. Shaw).

The myth had a decided influence on English Victorian homoerotic culture, via the influence of Andre Gide's study of the myth, Traite du Narcisse ('The Treatise of the Narcissus', 1891), and the influence of Oscar Wilde.

In 20th century pop culture, Bob Dylan's song "License to Kill" refers indirectly to Narcissus: "Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool /And when he sees his reflection, he's fulfilled."!

"Supper's Ready" by Genesis (ca. 1972), a near-23-minute epic song laden with religious and mythological imagery, refers to the myth of Narcissus as follows: "A young figure sits still by a pool / He's been stamped "Human Bacon" by some butchery tool / (He is you) / Social Security took care of this lad. / We watch in reverence, as Narcissus is turned to a flower. / A flower?" The movement is titled "How Dare I Be So Beautiful?".

Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist also starts with a reference to Narcissus.

The Narcissus flower

The Narcissus flower is named after Narcissus. This was after he supposedly turned into a flower when he died, by looking at himself in the water too long. This forced him to stay there, because he was the god of beauty and he could only fall in love with himself; he later died of despair as he could not grasp the 'stranger' in the water.

About Narcissus

Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephisus and the nymph Liriope. When Narcissus was born, Tiresias (a seer) was asked if the child would live a long life. Tiresias replied "If he never knows himself".

As a handsome youth he left a trail of broken hearts from rejected lovers of both sexes. Narcissus wanted nothing to do with falling in love from anyone and rebuffed all attempts at romance.

His cruelty to Echo was not the only instance. Finally, the nymphs offered a prayer that he might feel what it was to love and meet no return of affection.

"So may he himself love, and not gain the thing he loves"

Narcissus, upon finding an image of himself in a pool then fell in love with himself and, not being able to find consolation, he died of thirst at the pool, for if Narcissus had reached to take a drink, he would have shattered his own image into thousands of pieces.

It is said that Narcissus still keeps gazing on his image in the waters of the river Styx.

An alternate story claims that it is silly for a man to fall in love with his own reflection. Instead, it asserts that Narcissus had a twin sister who was exactly alike in appearance. When she died, he used to go to the spring, and knowing that it was his reflection that he saw. There he found some relief for his love, because the image reminded him of his sister.

The flower that Narcissus turned into later was used when Hades abducted Persephone as "a snare for the bloom-like girl". Persephone was attracted by the sweet scent of the narcissus, and gathered the flowers.

Spoken word versions

The Narcissus myth as told by story tellers:
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Bibliography of reconstruction: Ovid, Metamorphoses III.340 - 350, 415 - 510 (AD 8); Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.31.7 (AD 143–176)

Modern sources

See also

Kenny Hotz

External links

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