The Myth of Narcissus and Echo
Synthesized by Peter Roseman

Some of my work is focused on helping partners of the addicted as well as well as of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).   Most seem to know that there is a Greek myth out there somewhere about some guy called “Narcissus,” but it seems that few really know the story.  I’ve talked about those with Narcississtic Personality Disorder and their CoDependents in other articles on my site and thought that it would be a good idea to pull together the various Greek and Roman versions of this classic, in order to better understand the mythology from which the narcissistic syndrome is conceptualized.  While it is can be sadly melodramatic, it’s also a pretty entertaining story as well.  Enjoy…

Echo was a beautiful nymph, fond of the woods and hills, where she devoted herself to woodland sports.  She was a favorite of Diana, the huntress, and attended her in the hunt.  But Echo had one failing: she was fond of talking, and whether in chat or argument, would always have the last word. 

Now, Zeus, the King of the Olympian gods, was known for his many love affairs. Sometimes the young and beautiful Echo would distract and amuse his wife Hera with long and entertaining stories, while Zeus took advantage of the moment to ravish the other mountain nymphs.  Echo by her talk detained the goddess till the nymphs made their escape.  But when Hera discovered the trickery she punished the talkative Echo saying,  “You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with which you have cheated me, except for that one purpose you are so fond of—reply. You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first.”  Thus, all Echo could do was repeat the voice of another.

There came a time when she, Echo, saw the beautiful youth Narcissus as he hunted upon the mountains. She fell in love with him immediately, vain though he was, the son of the blue nymph Leiriope of Thespia.  The River god Cephisus had once encircled Leirope with the windings of his streams, and so trapping her, had seduced the nymph. Narcissus was their child.

Concerned about the child’s welfare, Leirope went to consult the oracle 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.”

Narcissus was beautiful as a child and grew even more so as he matured. By the age of sixteen he had left a trail of broken hearts, from rejected lovers of both sexes. Narcissus wanted nothing to do with falling in love with anyone and rebuffed all attempts at romance.

O how Echo, longed to address him in the softest accents, and win him over to converse…but by the power of Hera, this would not possible.  On a day when Narcissus was out hunting stags, Echo stealthily following the handsome youth through the woods and  longing to address him, Narcissus finally heard the footsteps.  Shouting, "Who's there?", Echo answered "Who's there?”  Narcissus looked around, but seeing no one, called, “Come out.”  Echo answered, “Come out.”  And no one came.  Narcissus called again, “Why do you shun me?”  She asked the same question.  “Let us join one another,” said the youth.  And so it went, Echo answering with all her heart his same words until finally she showed herself and rushed to embrace the lovely youth.

The maid hastened to the spot, ready to throw her arms about his neck.  But Narcissus startled backward exclaiming, “Hands off!  I would rather die than you should have me!”  “Have me,” said she; but it was all in vain.  He left her, and she went to hide her blushes (tears) in the recesses of the woods. 

She spent the rest of her life in lonely glens, pining away for the love she would never know, until only her voice remained.  Her form faded with grief, till at last all her flesh shrank away.  Her bones were changed into rocks and there was nothing left of her but her voice.  And with it,  she continues to reply to anyone will call to her, and continues to have the last word to this very day.

Narcissus’ cruelty to Echo was not the only instance. He continued to shun the rest of the nymphs, male and female alike, as he had done poor Echo.  The young man Ameinius was one of Narcissus' most ardent admirers, and repeatedly vied for his attention. The arrogant youth responded by sending his suitor a sword, telling him to prove his adoration.  Ameinious proceeded to plunge the sword into his heart, committing suicide to demonstrate his love, but not before he beseeched the gods to punish the vain Narcissus. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge heard the plea and granted the prayer of a pierced heart.  Narcissus would indeed fall in love, but a kind a love that couldn't be fulfilled.

“There was a clear fountain, with water like silver, to which the shepherds never drove their flocks, nor the mountain goats resorted, nor any of the beasts of the forests; neither was it defaced with fallen leaves or branches, but the grass grew fresh around it, and the rocks sheltered it from the sun. Hither came one day the youth, fatigued with hunting, heated and thirsty.”

He stooped down to drink, and saw his own image in the water thinking it was some beautiful water-spirit living in the fountain.  He stood gazing with admiration at those bright eyes, those locks curled like the locks of Bacchus or Apollo, the rounded cheeks, the ivory neck, the parted lips, and the glow of health and exercise over all. He fell into immediate love with the image.  He brought his lips near to take a kiss; he plunged his arms in to embrace the beloved object. It fled the touch, but returned again after a moment and renewed the fascination. 

For hours he sat enraptured by the spring, and at last recognizing himself but tortured by the realization that he could never possess the object of his infatuation. Narcissus was tormented, much as he had tormented all those who in the past had been unlucky enough to fall in love with him.  He talked with the supposed spirit: “Why, beautiful being, do you shun me?  Surely my face is not one to repel you.  The nymphs love me, and you yourself look not indifferent upon me.  When I stretch forth my arms you do the same; and you smile upon me and answer my beckonings with the like.” 

His tears fell into the water disturbing the image.  As he saw it depart, he exclaimed, “Stay, I entreat you!  Let me at least gaze upon you, if I may not touch you.”  With this, and much more of the same, he cherished the flame that consumed him, so that by degrees he lost his color, his vigor, and the beauty which formerly had so charmed the nymph Echo. 

She kept near him, however, and when he exclaimed, “Alas! alas!” Echo answered him with the same words. He pined away and died; and when his shade (spirit) passed the river Styx, it leaned over the boat to catch a look of itself in the waters. The nymphs mourned for him, especially the water-nymphs; and when they smote their breasts Echo smote hers also. They prepared a funeral pyre and would have burned the body, but it was nowhere to be found; but in its place a flower, purple within, and surrounded with white leaves, which bears the name and preserves the memory of Narcissus

It is also told that finally unable to stand his reconcilable agony Narcissus plunged a dagger in his heart and died, calling out a last goodbye to his reflected image. Where his blood soaked the earth sprung up the white narcissus flower with its red corollary.

Like it?  

If you live in the Lansing Michigan area, please feel free to email or call me with any questions or comments at the address below.

Peter Roseman, Psy.S.
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