The myth of Echo and Narcissus in Greek mythology

Echo and Narcissus

Echo and Narcissus | Painting by classical French Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) Écho et Narcisse (ca. 1629–1630)

From a mortal (Hyacinth) that was turned into a flower, a statue (Galatea) that was brought to life to a lyre player (Orpheus) who journeyed to the underworld to get his bride back, Greek mythology brims with tragic love stories.

One such heartbreaking encounter with love befell the mountain nymph (oread) Echo. Primary extracted from Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the classical version of the story of Echo and Narcissus details how Echo’s love for a beautiful Boeotian hunter named Narcissus went unrequited. From this story came the mental disorder narcissism (coined by English physician Henry Havelock Ellis), a psychiatric condition that makes the individual become unhealthily self-absorbed and unable to empathize.

Note: The classic version of the myth of Narcissus and Echo comes from Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Written around the 8 AD, Metamorphoses consists of a total of 15 books with more than 250 myths, mainly Greek and Roman myths.

Who was Echo?

Typical of many nymphs in Greek mythology, Echo spent her days in the company of other nymphs, playing in the fields and the woods around Mount Cithaeron. A beautiful nymph, Echo was quite popular among the gods due to her friendship with Greek goddess Artemis, the goddess of the moon and hunting. Echo did however have a bit of bad side: she was real blabbermouth, and she always liked to have the last word in everything.

Zeus, king of the gods and known philanderer, capitalized on Echo’s talkative nature and tasked her to distract his wife Hera while he enjoyed the company of pretty nymphs. The goddess Hera had followed Zeus into the woods of the nymphs. Just as Hera was about to confront her philandering husband, Echo stepped in to distract the queen of Mt. Olympus. This allowed Zeus to escape. Upon realizing the truth, Hera cursed Echo, taking away the voice of the nymph. Echo could only utter the last words of people’s statement. Unable to have any meaningful conversation with anyone, Echo would roam the woods distraught until she crossed paths with a beautiful hunter called Narcissus. The nymph was quickly taken aback by the beauty of Narcissus.

Who was Narcissus?

Narcissus

Narcissus was an extremely handsome young man who constantly rejected the love advances from many women and nymphs. Image: Narcissus by Hungarian painter Gyula Benczúr

Born to the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, Narcissus was a hunter who grew up in Thespiae in Boeotia (present day Karaburun, Izmir, Turkey).

Echo and Narcissus in the woods

On one of his hunting expeditions with his friends, Narcissus mistakenly stumbled off and became separated from his hunting companions. He wandered into the woods of the nymphs. Sensing that someone was following, Narcissus immediately called out, asking if there was anyone there. All the hunter heard were his last words being yelled back at him. It was at that moment that Echo came out from her hiding place and took a few steps toward Narcissus.

Even though Echo could not properly communicate her interest in the young man, she did use a lot of body language to express her feelings to Narcissus. Repulsed by Echo’s bold move, Narcissus quickly pushed her away and out rightly rejected Echo’s love advances. Narcissus fled the scene, and Echo was engulfed by a heavy dose of sadness.

Echo withers

Returning to her cave in the mountain, Echo’s sadness grew with every passing day. She refused eating or drinking anything, as she could not get her mind of Narcissus. She would remain in that state until she faded and died. What was left of the mountain nymph was her voice. Echo’s passing was mourned by her fellow nymphs, who begged Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution, to avenge Echo’s death.

Nemesis avenges the death of Echo

Narcissus

Narcissus in Greek mythology | Image: Narcissus by Caravaggio

Nemesis answered the prayers of the nymphs and cursed the young hunter who rejected Echo’s love. Nemesis set out to give Narcissus a dose of his own medicine. The goddess to curses Narcissus to be self-absorbed.

One day, as Narcissus roamed the woods around the very cave that Echo had passed away, he came by a water spring. Extremely thirsty, the young hunter bent down to quench his thirst. As he tried scooping water from the spring, he spotted his reflection in the water. And just like Echo had been taken aback by Narcissus’s beauty, Narcissus’ was entranced by the image in the water. He is said to have instantly fallen in love with image. Although the image smiled back at him whenever he smiled, whenever he tried to grab hold of it, the image disappeared. Narcissus stayed by the image, as he could not bear the thought of leaving it. Hours soon turned into days, and days into weeks. He stopped eating and drinking until he died.

The myth goes on to say that a white and yellow flower sprouted at the spot where Narcissus died. The nymphs in the area decided to name the flower after Narcissus. This explains why there is a flower called narcissus, also known as daffodil.

Other myths

Echo and Narcissus

Also known as daffodil, the narcissus flower has conspicuous flowers with six petal-like tepals surmounted by a cup- or trumpet-shaped corona.

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.

In one account of the myths, Echo was so saddened by Narcissus’ rejection that she prayed to Aphrodite (Venus in Roman mythology), the Greek goddess of love and lust, for death. Aphrodite answered her prayer but she decided to keep Echo’s voice alive. This explains why echoes are still been able to heard in hollow places, especially in caves.

In a different version, Echo is the one guilty of unrequited love, as she rejects the love advances of Pan, the Greek god of pastures, shepherds, and flocks. Pan caused the shepherds in the region to go insane. Those shepherds then killed Echo by ripping her into pieces. Gaia (Earth) brought the dismembered body parts of Echo and gave her proper burial. Gaia forgot to collect Echo’s voice. Therefore her voice remained scattered around all over the world, still saying the last words that other people have said.

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