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Narcissus by Caravaggio
Narcissus gazing at his own reflection.

Narcissus or Narkissos (Greek: Νάρκισσος), possibly derived from ναρκη (narke) meaning "sleep, numbness," in Greek mythology was a hero from the territory of Thespiae in Boeotia who was renowned for his beauty. In the various stories he is exceptionally cruel, in that he disdains those who love him. As divine punishment he falls in love with a reflection in a pool, not realizing it was his own, and perishes there, not being able to leave the beauty of his own reflection. Several versions of his myth have survived: one found among the Oxyrhynchus papyri and ascribed to Parthenius; Conon, Narrations, 24, dated to sometime between 39 BC and 17 AD; Ovid's, from his Metamorphoses;[1] Pausanias', from his Guide to Greece, (9.31.7).


Roman version

In most famous version, the tale told by Ovid, thought to have been based on Parthenius' version but altered in order to broaden its appeal,[2] Echo, a nymph, falls in love with a vain youth named Narcissus, who was the son of the blue Nymph Liriope of Thespia. The river god Cephisus had once encircled Liriope with the windings of his streams, and thus trapping her, had seduced the nymph, who gave birth to an exceptionally beautiful boy. Concerned about the welfare of such a beautiful child, Liriope consulted the prophet Tiresias regarding her son's future. Tiresias told the nymph that Narcissus would live to a ripe old age, "if he didn't come to know himself."

When he had reached "his sixteenth year", (fifteen years of age, by modern reckoning) every youth and girl in the town was in love with him, but he haughtily spurned them all.

One day when Narcissus was out hunting stags, Echo stealthily followed the handsome youth through the woods, longing to address him but unable to speak first. When Narcissus finally heard footsteps and shouted "Who's there?", Echo answered "Who's there?" And so it went, until finally Echo showed herself and rushed to embrace the lovely youth. He pulled away from the nymph and vainly told her to leave him alone. Narcissus left Echo heartbroken and she spent the rest of her life in lonely glens, pining away for the love she never knew, until only her voice remained.

Nemesis heard this prayer and sent Narcissus his punishment. He came across a deep pool in a forest, from which he took a drink. As he did, he saw his reflection for the first time in his life and fell in love with the beautiful boy he was looking at, not realizing it was himself. Eventually, after pining away for a while, he realized that the image he saw in the pool was a reflection of himself. Realizing that he could not act upon this love, he tore at his dress and beat at his body, his life force draining out of him. As he died, the bodyless Echo came upon him and felt sorrow and pity. His soul was sent to "the darkest hell" and the narcissus flower grew where he died. It is said that Narcissus still keeps gazing on his image in the waters of the river Styx.[3]

Pausanias' version

Pausanias locates the spring of Narcissus at Donacon 'Reed-bed' in the territory of the Thespians. Pausanias finds it incredible that someone could not distinguish a reflection from a real person, and cites a less known variant in which Narcissus had a twin sister. Both dressed similarly and hunted together. Narcissus fell in love with her. When she died, Narcissus pined after her and pretended that the reflection he saw in the water was his sister. Some Greek tales suggest that he was sexually attracted towards his sister, and when she was alive made love to her.

As Pausanias also notes, yet another tale is that the Narcissus flower was created to entice Demeter's daughter Persephone away from her companions to enable Hades to abduct her.

Influence on culture

Тhe myth of Narcissus has been a rich vein for artists to mine for at least two thousand years, even before the Roman poet Ovid featured a version in book III of his Metamorphoses. This was followed in more recent centuries by other poets (e.g. Keats and Alfred Edward Housman) and painters (Caravaggio, Poussin, Turner, Dalí,[3] and Waterhouse). Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky used lonely Narcissus-type characters in his poems and novels, such as Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin in "The Double" (1846). In Stendhal's novel Le Rouge et le Noir(1830), there is a classic narcissist in the character of Mathilde. Says Prince Korasoff to Julien Sorel, the protagonist, with respect to his beloved:

She looks at herself instead of looking at you, and so doesn't know you. During the two or three little outbursts of passion she has allowed herself in your favor, she has, by a great effort of imagination, seen in you the hero of her dreams, and not yourself as you really are.
(Page 401, 1953 Penguin Edition, trans. Margaret R.B. Shaw).

The myth had a decided influence on English Victorian culture, via Andre Gide's study of the myth, Traite du Narcisse ('The Treatise of the Narcissus', 1891), and the work of Oscar Wilde.

In 20th century pop culture, Bob Dylan's song "License to Kill" refers indirectly to Narcissus: "Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool /And when he sees his reflection, he's fulfilled."

"Supper's Ready" by Genesis (ca. 1972), a near-23-minute epic song laden with religious and mythological imagery, refers to the myth of Narcissus as follows: "A young figure sits still by a pool / He's been stamped "Human Bacon" by some butchery tool / (He is you) / Social Security took care of this lad. / We watch in reverence, as Narcissus is turned to a flower. / A flower?" The movement is titled "How Dare I Be So Beautiful?".

Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist also starts with a reference to Narcissus.

"Narcissist" by Hedley is a song on the myth of Narcissus based in modern times.

Greek metal band Septic Flesh recorded a song about Narcissus (called Narcissus) on their album Communion.

Seamus Heaney references Narcissus in his poem "Personal Helicon"[4] from his first collection "Death of a Naturalist":

"To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity."

Although never published, the lyric to the Cocteau Twins 'b-side' "Mud and Dark" is a telling of Echo and Narcissus' story.

The lyrics to the song Reflection by Tool are partly about the Narcissus myth, about a narcissistic person looking into a reflection and pining away.

Adoption as terminology used in psychology

In 1898 Havelock Ellis, an English sexologist, used the term "narcissus-like" in reference to excessive masturbation, where by the person becomes his or her own sex object[5].

In 1899, Paul Näche was the first person to use the term "narcissism" in a study of sexual perversions.

Otto Rank in 1911 published the first psychoanalytical paper specifically concerned with narcissism, linking it to vanity and self-admiration[5].

Sigmund Freud only published a single paper exclusively devoted to narcissism in 1914 called On Narcissism: An Introduction.[6]

One of the personality disorders is called narcissistic personality disorder.

See also

Spoken word versions

The Narcissus myth as told by story tellers:
1. Narcissus, read by Timothy Carter, music by Steve Gorn, compiled by Andrew Calimach. (.ogg file)
Bibliography of reconstruction: Ovid, Metamorphoses III.340 - 350, 415 - 510 (AD 8); Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.31.7 (AD 143–176)

Modern sources

  • Gantz, Timothy (1993). Early Greek Myth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 
  • Kerenyi, Karl (1959). The Heroes of the Greeks. New York/London: Thames and Hudson. 
  • Vinge, Louise (1967). The Narcissus Theme in Western Literature up to the Nineteenth Century. 


  1. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk III:402-436
  2. ^ "This early version - a Greek poem - probably dates from the mid-first century BC and differs from the oft-quoted account by the Roman poet Ovid written about half a century later. 'Following this discovery it is becoming increasingly clear that the myth was altered by Ovid to broaden its appeal,' said the Oxford scholar who discovered the poem, Dr Benjamin Henry of the university's classics faculty." POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online, published in the BBC History Magazine, Vol. 5 No. 5 (May 2004), p. 9 [1]
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ Cf. Ibiblio, Internet Poetry Archive: Text of the Poem Personal Helicon
  5. ^ a b Millon, Theodore, Personality Disorders in Everyday Life, 2004
  6. ^ Freud, Sigmund, On Narcissism: An Introduction, 1914

External links

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