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The Myth of Narcissus: Being Vain in Greek Mythology

Narcissus on a Pompeian fresco. Public domain.

The word “narcissistic” is often used to refer to someone who is self-centered or does not stop looking in the mirror. This word comes from the ancient Greek myth about Narcissus, a youth of incredible beauty who fell insatiably in love with his image as it was reflected in the water.

Narcissus was the son of the nymph Liríope of Tespias and the river god Cefiso. The famous seer Tirésias had told his parents he predicted that he would live for many years as long as he did not see himself.

It seemed easy to circumvent the prophecy; all they had to do was banish mirrors and other objects that might reflect his face. Otherwise, Narcissus would die.

When Narcissus was sixteen years old, he was a handsome young man who became the object of desire of all the nymphs and maidens in ancient Greece, but he always remained insensitive to their advances.

Echo’s punishment

Among the many young women injured by his attitude was a nymph named Echo, who was known for repeating what others said. She fell in love with him, but she was cursed by the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus. Echo had dedicated herself to entertaining the goddess while Zeus was being unfaithful to her.

When Hera realized that Echo’s talks were an attempt to cover up her husband’s faults and infidelities, she became angry and punished her. From that moment on, her voice was only able to repeat the words of others. Ashamed and unable to communicate, she locked herself in a cave deep in the forest.

Madly in love with Narcissus, Echo furtively followed him through the woods to make him aware of her deep feelings; however, this was impossible, due to her curse. She used her attunement to nature and animals to make them tell Narcissus that she loved him deeply.

The curse of Narcissus

Narcissus interpreted the declaration of Echo with a certain mockery and rejected it outright. Echo went to the caves to spend the rest of her life alone, sad and broken-hearted; however, before her death, she prayed to Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance and divine justice to curse Narcissus so that he would fall in love only with his own reflection.

One day, the young man went to the Stygian River to cool off a bit. He then saw his reflection in the water and fell in love with it. Like Echo desired, his obsession with his own beauty was so great that he stopped eating and drinking just to continue looking at his reflection.

His obsession bordered on madness; Narcissus got so close to the water that he ended up falling and drowning in the water. The nymphs wanted to bury him but could not locate the body anywhere. In its place appeared a beautiful flower with white petals that to preserve his memory bears the name of Narcissus.

Narcissus spent the rest of eternity in the underworld, where he remained spellbound by the image that he had so admired in the black waters of the Styx lagoon. Even to this day, the term narcissism is used to define an excessive admiration for oneself.

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