The Nymph Echo was deprived of the faculty of speech by Hera, who caught her in flagrante delicto with Zeus. Echo could only repeat another’s words. She wandered in the forest until one day she came upon an incredibly handsome boy named Narcissus and fell in love with him at first sight. Narcissus paused to drink from a clear pool of water but became entranced by his own reflection. He spoke to it saying, “I love you!” Echo repeated his words but to no avail. As if hypnotized, he just gazed at his own image, never leaving, eating, or drinking until finally he pined away and died. A narcissus flower sprang up where he died, and the word narcissism entered the language. Echo, too, pined away for love, leaving only her echo behind.
That’s a particularly famous myth, but it’s only half of it—and the latter half at that. Narcissus was not an ordinary mortal boy. He was radiantly handsome because he was a woodland spirit, the son of river spirit Kephisos and the Nymph Leiriope “Lily Face.” Modern mythology books emphasize his rejection of Echo, but by the time she met him, he couldn’t help himself. He wasn’t narcissistic: he was cursed.
The ancient Greeks would have recognized Narcissus’ fascination with his reflection as the motif of a horror story. For the ancient Greeks, dreaming about seeing your own reflection (in a mirror or in water) was a death omen. In modern Greek folklore, the ailing are discouraged from looking in mirrors.
Narcissus was not narcissistic, but he was arrogant or perhaps too immature to appreciate deep emotions. He mocked the sincere love that he had inspired in another, thus insulting the spirits of love, not least Aphrodite. The lover Narcissus repeatedly rejected was not Echo— whom he was too entranced to even notice— but a male suitor, Amenias. Narcissus did not reject him gently or nicely. He taunted him. Narcissus’ harsh rejection of Amenias was what originally lost him sympathy in this myth.
Narcissus finally gave Amenias a gift of a sword, a deliberately ironic gift, considering the phallic imagery. Humiliated and suffering unrequited love, Amenias used the gift to commit suicide right in front of Narcissus’ home, cursing Narcissus as he died. Another popular ancient Greek belief was that deathbed curses were particularly lethal and virtually impossible to break. Narcissus’ doom was sealed.
A temple dedicated to love was erected at the site of his death. Narcissus is invoked by those who have previously rejected a lover but would now like a second (or third or fourth) chance.
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses – Written by : Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.