Wednesday, 12 September 2012


There is a fine balance between self confidence and pride, and closer still to vanity, that ancient sin. But their are many forms of pride, from those that empower to those that destroy. Here is the story of one young man whose vanity earned the wrath of many, the pity of some and the ruin of one.

Painting by Benczúr Gyula
A long time ago, in the Boeotian realm of Thespiae, a boy was born to the River God Cephissus and the Naiad Liriope. Even in infancy the other nymphs, Dryads and Naiads and Oreads, of the mountain vales and forest glades could see majesty in the young boy's form. Such a sight to behold as baby became boy! His fair mother cared deeply for her boy, and sought out the legendary seer, Tiresias (the very same soothsayer who revealed the truth to Oedipus - for this story please click here), '"fam'd far and near for knowing things to come", for comfort as to his fate. Liriope asked the prophet if her son would enjoy a long life, or was doomed to a short one. Seeing the gift of beauty the gods had empowered the boy with beyond all other mortals, the wise sage replied "If e'er he knows himself he surely dies". "Long liv'd the dubious mother in suspence, 'till time unriddled all the prophet's sense". So the boy grew older yet, and his handsome visage stronger yet. Narcissus was the name his mother had given him, and all who set eyes upon him were stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of him. His sixteenth year began, and the list of maids who had declared their adoration for him swelled greater yet, each confession another brick in his tower of pride, each doomed to fail.

Painting by Alexandre Cabanel
Then, one day as Narcissus hunted in the forest glades, one of the Oreads, the mountain nymphs, caught sight of him for the first time. Echo was her name, and this moment would forever haunt her destiny. Poor Echo was a cursed being. For it was the sport of Zeus the Thunderer and King of the Gods to make merry with the many nymphs of the world in secret, when Hera his wife's gaze would be averted. Many times would she have caught her husband in the act were it not for stories Echo would tell her, to delay her coming. The time came one day when the deception was laid bare before the fearsome Queen of Olympus, and the roots of the mountains shivered before her fury. "That tongue, for this thy crime, which could so many subtle tales produce, shall be hereafter but of little use". Forever would the nymph be cursed, unable to speak except the words used by others. It is from Echo's name that the aural effect today takes its name. Now Echo clapped her eyes upon the perfect youth stalking the undergrowth. Young Echo was overjoyed to see Narcissus for once alone, for usually he was trailed by a vast entourage of sycophants. But, with tears of frustration, she was unable to speak and put her feelings into words.

Long did she follow him through the woods, desperate to open her heart to Narcissus. Then, at last Narcissus is aware of her presence. Turning to see her, he laughed at her pitiable obsession, and bid her turn away. Crushed by his words, the tearful Echo took to melancholic days in solitary caves, shady glades of the woods and other dark places of despair. But the vengeful goddess Nemesis was angered by Narcissus, and wove her plans of retribution:

                           " There stands a fountain in a darksome wood,
                              Nor stain'd with falling leaves nor rising mud;
                              Untroubled by the breath of winds it rests,
                              Unsully'd by the touch of men or beasts;
                              Hogh bow'rs of shady trees above it grow,
                              And rising grass and cheerful greens below... "
                                        - THE FOREST CLEARING

So fair Narcissus, weary from his long hunt, came to the forest clearing. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he knelt at the side of a crystal pool of cool water. As he bent down to splash water on his heated face, a new kind of warmth flooded through him, as he saw a being of astonishing beauty before him. Such a handsome youth, the very image of the Olympians! Sparkling eyes, hair that Apollo himself would be loath to show. So Narcissus was consumed by the fire that was his own, though he knew not who the perfect being was in truth.

Narcissus Transfixed
Painting by Caravaggio
Long did Narcissus lie there, staring into the pool, thinking not of sleep or food, as his body wasted away, entranced by the passion afire within the calm ripples. To the trees of the glade Narcissus cries, languishing for he cannot ever reach his beloved, cruelly separated as they are by the surface of the pool. "When my arms I stretch, he stretches his. His eye with pleasure on my face he keeps, he smiles my smiles, and when I weep he weeps. When e'er I speak, his moving lips appear to utter something, which I cannot hear". Then the hammer blow falls, when fair Narcissus sees the truth laid bare. "It is myself I see! The happy delusion is a part of me!" A terrible sorrow gripped the proud youth for the vanity of his desire. So totally entranced was he with his own image, he did declare "I wish him absent whom I most desire, and now I faint with grief; my fate draws nigh; in all the pride of blooming youth I die. Death will the sorrows of my heart relieve!" So Narcissus turned back to the pool, as his warm tears splashed upon the surface. Now the image is but ripples and flashes, and the boy's sorrow grows "whither dost thou fly?" he laments. The Autumn began to fade, and the glorious features began to dwindle in Narcissus's form. All those things which made him desired slipped away, but there was one nearby the pool who stood there still. For Echo could not bare to leave his side, and her tears for Narcissus flowed:

                           " She saw him in his present misery,
                              Whom, spight of all her wrongs, she griev'd to see.
                              She answer'd sadly to his moan,
                              Sigh'd back his sighs, and groan'd to ev'ry groan:
                              'Ah youth! belov'd in vain,' Narcissus cries;
                              'Ah youth! belov'd in vain,' the nymph replies.
                              'Farewell', says he; the parting sound scarce fell
                              From his faint lips, but she reply'd, 'farewell'.
                              Then on th' wholesome earth he gasping lies,
                              'Till death shuts up those self admiring eyes... "
                                          - THE FATE OF NARCISSUS

So Narcissus breathed his last, transfixed forever by his own reflection, and ever after one who possesses such vanity has been known as Narcissistic. Echo's heart was broken. Out of respect for her the other Naiads and Dryads sought to gather the boy's remains, but upon reaching the shore of the pool, found not bones and flesh there. In his place stood a stalk of verdant green, crowned with golden blossoms, that most majestic plant which now bears his name...

United Kingdom

Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A series of poems of Classical Mythology, written by an erudite Roman)

United States

Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A series of poems of Classical Mythology, written by an erudite Roman)

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