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Who was Narcissus in Greek Mythology?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Narcissus was one of the many tragic figures of Greek mythology. In this lesson, we'll see what led him to this fate, and see how he became the ultimate symbol of unrequited love.

Narcissus

Generally, if someone compares your looks to a figure from Greek mythology, it's a compliment. After all, many Greek deities and heroes were famously good-looking. At the same time, however, that attractiveness often came with a price.

The most famous example of this in Greek mythology is the story of Narcissus, the man who fell in love with his own reflection. He had the looks of a Greek god, but also the vanity of one, and in the end he became the ultimate victim of unrequited love.

Narcissus, as painted by Caravaggio
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In Greek Mythology

The story of Narcissus dates back to ancient Greece. It was said that this young man was the son of a nymph named Liriope, and the river deity and personification of the river, Cephissus. Narcissus was raised in Boeotia (a region in central Greece) and grew into an extremely handsome youth. However, he never found anyone he thought was as attractive as he was; he left a string of broken-hearted girls (and a few young men) everywhere he went.

Narcissus' mother was once warned by a seer, Teiresias, that the young man would live a long life, as long as he never got to know himself. The meaning of this was unclear, until one day Narcissus happened to see his own reflection in the water. He had finally found someone he found truly attractive: himself. He tried to kiss the image, but only created a ripple in the water that hid the reflection. Obsessed with his love for his own image, but never able to touch it, he wasted away and eventually died of hunger and thirst. At that spot, a flower bloomed which is now known as the narcissus plant, or the daffodil.

One species of narcissus plants
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Obviously, this is not a cheery story. So, what did this Greek tragedy mean? For one, it's worth noting that the ancient Greeks believed seeing one's own reflection to be unlucky. That message is certainly reinforced here. More significantly, however, may be a moral against vanity. In the Greek world, pride and self-obsession detracted from piety and admiration of the gods. Greek mythology is replete with characters whose lack of piety is met with cruel fates, and Narcissus is no exception. Also common in Greek mythology is the tendency to associate moral stories with things in nature. Anyone who saw a narcissus flower would be reminded of the story.

Narcissus in Rome and Beyond

While the story of Narcissus is Greek, it doesn't seem to have been one of their most popular stories. It was actually the ancient Romans who took this story and elaborated it. In fact, the most famous and detailed version of the Narcissus story comes from the Roman poet, Ovid.

In Ovid's version, Narcissus is pursued by the nymph Echo. Echo can only repeat words that are said to her (possibly as a result of a curse Hera placed on her when Echo helped other nymphs seduce Zeus). When Narcissus encounters Echo in the woods, he cruelly spurns her affection. The poor nymph dies of heartbreak, leaving only her voice behind. So, when you hear an echo, it's actually the voice of Echo herself, repeating your own words back to you. In Ovid's version, it's only after this exchange that Narcissus finds his reflection in pool or spring in the woods, falls in love with it, and wastes away.

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