Narcissus: Origin Story, Myths, Meaning, & Symbols
When English physician Havelock Ellis coined (in 1898) the term narcissism – a mental disorder that results in the patient becoming too self-absorbed and having an inflated sense of self-image – he most definitely had the Greek mythological figure Narcissus in mind. Born to the sea nymph Liriope and the river god Cephissus, Narcissus was an exceptionally handsome young man who ended falling in love with his own reflection in a river. In the myth, this Greek character was destined to achieve greatness provided he did not recognize himself. Unfortunately, Narcissus got consumed by his immense physical attributes and ended up paying a dear price for it.
Birth story and family
The son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, Narcissus grew up in Boeotia (modern day Karaburun, Izmir, Turkey). In the works of the Byzantine poet Tzetzes, Narcissus right from an early age took to rejecting every form of love advances.
Narcissus’s father Cephissus was the son of Pontus, a primordial sea god and the son of Gaia, and Thalassa, also a primordial sea deity. Narcissus’ mother, Liriope, was a Boeotian naiad (a sea nymph). In the myth, Liriope is seen as the daughter of a Boeotian river god. Her name means “face of the narcissus”.
After the birth of Narcissus, his mother sought to find out what the future held for he extremely handsome child. The seer she consulted with told her that Narcissus was destined to achieve great feats provided he never discovered himself.
In some version of the story, Narcissus was born after Cephissus raped the Boeotian nymph Liriope.
According to Roman poet Nonnus of Panopolis, Narcissus was the offspring of Selene, the Greek goddess of the Moon, and the handsome Aeolian hunter Endymion.
Narcissus’ name stems from the Greek word Narkissos, which later came to be used for the daffodil flower.
According to Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud narcissism tends to be a pretty normal phenomenon in a child’s development; however the real concern comes when that disorder perpetuates beyond puberty.
Narcissus and Echo
The story of Narcissus and Echo is captured in detail in Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the story, Echo, a mountain nymph, is recruited by Zeus, king of the gods and a known philanderer, to strike up a conversation with the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus. This was Zeus’ way of leading Hera, a goddess known for her depthless jealousy, off the trail of his love affair with the nymphs. Upon realizing the ruse, an enraged Hera bitterly punished Echo by taking away her voice. From that day onward, Echo could not speak; however, she could only utter the last words of people’s utterances.
Did you know: The word “echo” in the English language comes from the Greek mythical character the nymph Echo?
Fate was still not through with Echo. Ovid goes on with the story of how Echo comes to fall head over heels for the beautiful but self-absorbed Narcissus. A young hunter from Boeotia, Narcissus had taken a wrong turn and found himself separated from his hunting friends. Narcissus ended up coming into contact with Echo, who could not have any meaning exchange with the young man. In the ensuing confusion, Echo, who could not speak, stepped toward Narcissus only for her unspoken love advances to be rejected by Narcissus.
Distraught, the speechless nymph fled the scene and locked herself deep in cave. Echo neither ate or drank anything, and she gradually withered away until there was nothing left but her voice (an echo).
In a different story about Echo, the nymph rejected the love proposal of Pan, the Greek god of pastures and flocks. Echo’s rejection infuriated Pan, who then made the shepherds insane. Those shepherds subsequently ripped Echo to shreds.
Upon hearing the tragic story of Echo, Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution and revenge, sets about to exact steep punishment on Narcissus. Nemesis curses Narcissus to be forever self-absorbed with himself, causing him to fall madly in love with his own reflection. One day, as Narcissus strolled by a river near Echo’s cave, he saw the most beautiful image he’d ever seen in the river. Unbeknownst to Narcissus the image was actually his own reflection in the river.
Narcissus stared at the image for days, which gradually turned into weeks and then months. The young man was so obsessed with his own reflection that he refused eating or drinking. In the end, Narcissus, just like Echo, gradually fades away and dies. From the spot where he died sprouted a gold and white flower (daffodil).
Such was Narcissus obsession with his self-image that even as he crossed the Styx – a river between the land of the living and the underworld – he continued to look at his reflection.
Following the death of Narcissus at the banks of the river, a white and yellow flower sprouted. That flower later came to be called the narcissus flower, also known as daffodil or jonquil. A perennial flower which generally grows in the spring, narcissus plant can be categorized under the amaryllis family, Amaryllidaceae.
Narcissus and Ameinias
Ancient Greek grammarian Conon’s version states that Narcissus rejects the love advances of a young man called Ameinias. Like Echo, Ameinias is heartbroken and commits suicide. But before taking his life, Ameinias beseeched the gods to punish Narcissus. The gods teaches Narcissus a lesson by making him fall in love with his own image. He ends up taking his life as the image in the pool does not reciprocate his love.
More Narcissus Facts
Much of the myths about Narcissus comes from Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, particularly in Book III.
In one of the myths, Echo was so heartbroken by Narcissus’s rejection that she prayed to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, for death.
Narcissus’ story is believed to be associated with an ancient Greek belief that staring at one’s own reflection could result in bad luck.
In a different account, Greek writer and geographer Pausanias states (in Description of Greece) that Narcissus was driven to gaze at his reflection in the river because he wanted to remember the features of his dead twin sister.
In an earlier version of the story, Narcissus rejects the love of a youth called Ameinias. In that case as well, he incurs the wrath of the gods for rejecting Ameienias.
For millennia, the Greek myth of Narcissus has inspired a great number of artists and authors. Famous Italian painter Caravaggio (1571-1610) painted Narcissus in 1597/1599.
In the Greek poet and grammarian Parthenius of Nicaea’s version of Narcissus story, the handsome man losses his will to live after rejecting Echo’s romantic advances. He subsequently commits suicide.
The character Narcissa Malfoy in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter fantasy series is said to be named after the Greek mythical figure Narcissus.