NARCISSUS

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was the son of the river Cephissus in Boeotia and the nymph* Liriope. Narcissus was a very beautiful young man—so beautiful, in fact, that he fell in love with his own reflection and died. The English words narcissism and narcissistic, meaning “excessive love for oneself,” come from his story.

When Narcissus was an infant, his mother wanted to know what the future held for her son. She asked the prophet Tiresias if the boy would live a long life. As was often the case with mythological seers* and prophets, Tiresias gave an answer that was not easily understood. He said that Narcissus would live a long life if he never knew himself. The meaning of this answer did not become clear until after Narcissus had met his fate.

Narcissus grew into a young man so beautiful that many people fell in love with him. He rejected them all, causing many broken hearts. One of the saddest of these rejected lovers was the nymph Echo, who had already been punished by the goddess Hera for chattering too much. Hera had rendered Echo unable to speak. Echo could only repeat the last word of what someone else said. When Echo failed to win the love of Narcissus, she faded away until nothing was left of her but her sad voice, endlessly repeating other people’s words—an echo.

Another lover rejected by Narcissus prayed to Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance. Nemesis then brought upon Narcissus the fate about which Tiresias had warned. She condemned him to look at his own reflection in a pool on Mt. Helicon in central Greece. As he looked at his face reflected in the water, Narcissus fell more and more deeply in love with himself. Unable to tear himself away from the beloved image of himself, he wasted away and died at the pool’s edge. The gods turned him into the narcissus flower, which often blooms on the shores of ponds and pools.

Many ancient writers retold the story of Narcissus. The Roman poet Ovid gave one of the most detailed accounts of Narcissus and his fate. In the A.D. 100s, the Greek travel writer Pausanias claimed to have visited the pool on Mt. Helicon. Pausanias argued that Ovid’s version of the story was nonsense. According to Pausanias, Narcissus loved his twin sister, who died, and he simply looked at his own reflection to remind himself of her. Still, the story of Narcissus and Echo was often repeated in the Middle Ages as a warning of the dangers of vanity, or having too high an opinion of oneself. Even in the modern age, writers and artists continue to use Narcissus as a subject for poems, paintings, and sculpture. (See also Myths, Greek; Myths, Roman.)

* nymph in classical mythology, one of the lesser goddesses of nature

* seer person who foresees future events; a prophet

MYTHOLOGY AND PSYCHOLOGY

Some stories from classical mythology, repeated by many writers over the centuries, have become part of modem Western culture. The story of Narcissus is one example. Narcissus became a symbol for anyone who was more interested in himself or herself than in anything else in the world. When modem psychologists needed a word to describe that kind of personality, they turned to the story of Narcissus. In psychology, narcissism means an unhealthy or excessive self-interest.

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