Ovid's Metamorphoses, Pausanias's Description of Greece
Son of Cephissus and Leiriope
Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus (pronounced seh-FYE-suhs) and the nymph (female nature deity) Liriope (pronounced luh-RYE-uh-pee). He was a handsome Greek youth whose beauty ultimately led to his death. A prophet named Tiresias (pronounced ty-REE-see-uhs), who could see the plans of the gods, told Liriope that her son would enjoy a long life as long as he never knew himself or saw his reflection. Although Liriope did not understand the prediction at the time, its meaning eventually became clear.
Narcissus was so handsome that both women and men fell in love with him, but he rejected all of them. One of his admirers was the nymph Echo (pronounced EK-oh), who had been cursed by Hera (pronounced HAIR-uh) to repeat only the last words spoken to her. Ameinias (pronounced uh-MYE-nee-uhs), another admirer, was so devastated when Narcissus rejected him that he killed himself. Before doing so, however, Ameinias called on the gods to punish Narcissus. They caused the beautiful youth to gaze into a pond at his reflection. He fell in love with his own image and drowned trying to touch it. In other accounts of the story, Narcissus killed himself out of sorrow and frustration. The gods then changed him into the flower that bears his name.
Narcissus in Context
The earliest forms of the myth of Narcissus focus on his rejection of an older male admirer. It has been suggested that this myth was meant to warn young boys about the dangers of rejecting male companions. In ancient Greece, relationships between adolescent boys and older men were common among the wealthy classes, and were considered normal, healthy, and masculine. Men and boys often exercised and performed athletics in the nude together, and soldiers fighting together often formed bonds as couples. These relationships existed in addition to traditional male-female marriages.
Key Themes and Symbols
An important theme in the myth of Narcissus is vanity. Narcissus is aware of his own beauty and rejects everyone who wishes to become his partner, considering them unsuitable. This vanity leads to a punishment that matches his personality: only a vain person could fall in love with his own reflection as Narcissus does. Narcissus can be seen as a symbol of beauty that cannot be possessed; no one is ever worthy of his love, except himself.
Narcissus in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
As a symbol of beauty, Narcissus has long been a popular figure in art and literature. Some artists who have painted depictions of Narcissus include Caravaggio, Nicolas Poussin, and John William Waterhouse. Salvador Dali's painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) is a clever double-image that shows a water-gazing Narcissus becoming transformed into a hand holding a flower.
The name of Narcissus appears in contemporary life. The term “narcissist” refers to someone who is vain or overly self-absorbed, as was Narcissus. Narcissus is also the name of a genus of flowering plants known also as daffodils.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Some critics of modern society proclaim that people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, or concerned only with themselves, especially with their physical appearance. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research sites that seem to speak to people's concern with their physical appearance. What are some of the “ideal beauty” images these sites try to project? Are these ideal images attainable by most people? What effect do you think a narcissistic attitude has on society as a whole?
Perhaps because of its contribution to debates about the nature of representation and the relationship between what is seen and what is real, the myth has been very popular as a subject in art, both during and since the classical period. About fifty murals depicting Narcissus survive from Pompeii alone. The best-known work from the modern period representing the myth is probably Salvador Dali's Metamorphosis of Narcissus. It is also a significant myth in psychological work. Narcissus' love for his own reflection is the origin of Freud's idea of narcissism as a stage in the development of the ego. Lacan saw primary narcissism as concerned with the creation of awareness of the body as body; he also drew attention to the fragmentation of the body in this myth, with Echo as voice alone, and Narcissus as the gaze. Derrida suggested that Freud was himself Narcissus, the man fascinated by his own image.
See also mythology and the body.
Narcissus, the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Leiriope, was an extremely good-looking Greek youth. His beauty ultimately led to his death. A prophet named Tiresias told Leiriope that her son would enjoy a long life as long as he never knew himself or saw his reflection. Although Leiriope did not understand the prophecy at the time, its meaning eventually became clear.
nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful
prophet one who claims to have received divine messages or insights prophecy foretelling of what is to come; also something that is predicted
Narcissus was so handsome that many women and men fell in love with him. He rejected all of them. One of his admirers was the nymph Echo, who had been cursed by Hera* to repeat only the last words spoken to her. Ameinias, another admirer, was so devastated by Narcissus's indifference toward him that he killed himself. Before doing so, however, Ameinias called on the gods to punish Narcissus. They caused the beautiful youth to gaze into a pond at his reflection. He fell in love with his own image and drowned trying to touch it. In other accounts of the story, Narcissus killed himself out of sorrow and frustration. The gods then changed him into the flower that bears his name.
See also Echo; Greek Mythology; Tiresias.
nar·cis·sus / närˈsisəs/ • n. (pl. same, -cis·si / -ˈsisī; -sē/ , or -cissuses ) a bulbous Eurasian plant of a genus that includes the daffodil, esp. (in gardening) one with flowers that have white or pale outer petals and a shallow orange or yellow cup in the center. • Genus Narcissus, family Liliaceae (or Amaryllidaceae): many species and varieties, in particular N. poeticus.
Narcissus (in Roman history)
Narcissus, d. AD 54, secretary of the Roman Emperor Claudius I. A freedman with great influence, he revealed to Claudius the intrigue of Messalina and expedited her death (AD 48). The woman that Narcissus chose for Claudius' next wife was, however, passed over in favor of Agrippina the Younger, who was hostile to Narcissus. After Claudius' death she drove Narcissus to commit suicide. In the course of his lifetime Narcissus amassed a huge fortune.
Nar·cis·sus / närˈsisəs/ Greek Mythol. a beautiful youth who rejected the nymph Echo and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. He pined away and was changed into the flower that bears his name.