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Myths & Legends #1: Echo and Narcissus

Echo and Narcissus is one of my favourite stories in Greek mythology of all time, dating back from childhood, and is the very reason I have John William Waterhouse’s beautiful piece depicting the two on my wall at home. I was fixated with Narcissus as a child, a man so beautiful he sparked desire in both men and women alike, and always thought to myself that there were indeed a few Narcissus’ attending my very school at that time. Kirsty and I both adore mythology to the high heavens, particularly greek, and so I would love to share and remind ourselves of this fantastical tale from the masterpiece that is Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Tiresias’ fame of prophecy was spread
through all the cities of Aonia,
for his unerring answers unto all
480 who listened to his words. And first of those
that harkened to his fateful prophecies,
a lovely Nymph, named Liriope, came
with her dear son, who then fifteen, might seem
a man or boy–he who was born to her
485 upon the green merge of Cephissus’ stream–
that mighty River-God whom she declared
the father of her boy.–
she questioned him.
Imploring him to tell her if her son,
490 unequalled for his beauty, whom she called
Narcissus, might attain a ripe old age.
To which the blind seer answered in these words,
“If he but fail to recognize himself,
a long life he may have, beneath the sun,”–
495 so, frivolous the prophet’s words appeared;
and yet the event, the manner of his death,
the strange delusion of his frenzied love, confirmed it.
Three times five years so were passed.
Another five-years, and the lad might seem
500 a young man or a boy. And many a youth,
and many a damsel sought to gain his love;
but such his mood and spirit and his pride,
none gained his favour.
Once a noisy Nymph,
505 (who never held her tongue when others spoke,
who never spoke till others had begun)
mocking Echo, spied him as he drove,
in his delusive nets, some timid stags.–
for Echo was a Nymph, in olden time,–
510 and, more than vapid sound,–possessed a form:
and she was then deprived the use of speech,
except to babble and repeat the words,
once spoken, over and over.
Juno confused
515 her silly tongue, because she often held
that glorious goddess with her endless tales,
till many a hapless Nymph, from Jove’s embrace,
had made escape adown a mountain. But
for this, the goddess might have caught them. Thus
520 the glorious Juno, when she knew her guile;
“Your tongue, so freely wagged at my expense,
shall be of little use; your endless voice,
much shorter than your tongue.” At once the Nymph
was stricken as the goddess had decreed;–
525 and, ever since, she only mocks the sounds
of others’ voices, or, perchance, returns
their final words.
One day, when she observed
Narcissus wandering in the pathless woods,
530 she loved him and she followed him, with soft
and stealthy tread.–The more she followed him
the hotter did she burn, as when the flame
flares upward from the sulphur on the torch.
Oh, how she longed to make her passion known!
535 To plead in soft entreaty! to implore his love!
But now, till others have begun, a mute
of Nature she must be. She cannot choose
but wait the moment when his voice may give
to her an answer.
540 Presently the youth,
by chance divided from his trusted friends,
cries loudly, “Who is here?” and Echo, “Here!”
Replies. Amazed, he casts his eyes around,
and calls with louder voice, “Come here!” “Come here!”
545 She calls the youth who calls.–He turns to see
who calls him and, beholding naught exclaims,
“Avoid me not!” “Avoid me not!” returns.
He tries again, again, and is deceived
by this alternate voice, and calls aloud;
550 “Oh let us come together!” Echo cries,
“Oh let us come together!” Never sound
seemed sweeter to the Nymph, and from the woods
she hastens in accordance with her words,
and strives to wind her arms around his neck.
555 He flies from her and as he leaves her says,
“Take off your hands! you shall not fold your arms
around me. Better death than such a one
should ever caress me!” Naught she answers save,
“Caress me!”
560 Thus rejected she lies hid
in the deep woods, hiding her blushing face
with the green leaves; and ever after lives
concealed in lonely caverns in the hills.
But her great love increases with neglect;
565 her miserable body wastes away,
wakeful with sorrows; leanness shrivels up
her skin, and all her lovely features melt,
as if dissolved upon the wafting winds–
nothing remains except her bones and voice–
570 her voice continues, in the wilderness;
her bones have turned to stone. She lies concealed
in the wild woods, nor is she ever seen
on lonely mountain range; for, though we hear
her calling in the hills, ’tis but a voice,
575 a voice that lives, that lives among the hills.
Thus he deceived the Nymph and many more,
sprung from the mountains or the sparkling waves;
and thus he slighted many an amorous youth.–
and therefore, some one whom he once despised,
580 lifting his hands to Heaven, implored the Gods,
“If he should love deny him what he loves!”
and as the prayer was uttered it was heard
by Nemesis, who granted her assent.
There was a fountain silver-clear and bright,
585 which neither shepherds nor the wild she-goats,
that range the hills, nor any cattle’s mouth
had touched–its waters were unsullied–birds
disturbed it not; nor animals, nor boughs
that fall so often from the trees. Around
590 sweet grasses nourished by the stream grew; trees
that shaded from the sun let balmy airs
temper its waters. Here Narcissus, tired
of hunting and the heated noon, lay down,
attracted by the peaceful solitudes
595 and by the glassy spring. There as he stooped
to quench his thirst another thirst increased.
While he is drinking he beholds himself
reflected in the mirrored pool–and loves;
loves an imagined body which contains
600 no substance, for he deems the mirrored shade
a thing of life to love. He cannot move,
for so he marvels at himself, and lies

'Narcissus' by Caravaggio

‘Narcissus’ by Caravaggio

with countenance unchanged, as if indeed
a statue carved of Parian marble. Long,
605 supine upon the bank, his gaze is fixed
on his own eyes, twin stars; his fingers shaped
as Bacchus might desire, his flowing hair
as glorious as Apollo’s, and his cheeks
youthful and smooth; his ivory neck, his mouth
610 dreaming in sweetness, his complexion fair
and blushing as the rose in snow-drift white.
All that is lovely in himself he loves,
and in his witless way he wants himself:–
he who approves is equally approved;
615 he seeks, is sought, he burns and he is burnt.
And how he kisses the deceitful fount;
and how he thrusts his arms to catch the neck
that’s pictured in the middle of the stream!
Yet never may he wreathe his arms around
620 that image of himself. He knows not what
he there beholds, but what he sees inflames
his longing, and the error that deceives
allures his eyes. But why, O foolish boy,
so vainly catching at this flitting form?
625 The cheat that you are seeking has no place.
Avert your gaze and you will lose your love,
for this that holds your eyes is nothing save
the image of yourself reflected back to you.
It comes and waits with you; it has no life;
630  it will depart if you will only go.
Nor food nor rest can draw him thence–outstretched
upon the overshadowed green, his eyes
fixed on the mirrored image never may know
their longings satisfied, and by their sight
635 he is himself undone. Raising himself
a moment, he extends his arms around,
and, beckoning to the murmuring forest; “Oh,
ye aisled wood was ever man in love
more fatally than I? Your silent paths
640 have sheltered many a one whose love was told,
and ye have heard their voices. Ages vast
have rolled away since your forgotten birth,
but who is he through all those weary years
that ever pined away as I? Alas,
645 this fatal image wins my love, as I
behold it. But I cannot press my arms
around the form I see, the form that gives
me joy. What strange mistake has intervened
betwixt us and our love? It grieves me more
650 that neither lands nor seas nor mountains, no,
nor walls with closed gates deny our loves,
but only a little water keeps us far
asunder. Surely he desires my love
and my embraces, for as oft I strive
655 to kiss him, bending to the limpid stream
my lips, so often does he hold his face
fondly to me, and vainly struggles up.
It seems that I could touch him. ‘Tis a strange
delusion that is keeping us apart.
660 “Whoever thou art, Come up! Deceive me not!
Oh, whither when I fain pursue art thou?
Ah, surely I am young and fair, the Nymphs
have loved me; and when I behold thy smiles
I cannot tell thee what sweet hopes arise.
665 When I extend my loving arms to thee
thine also are extended me — thy smiles
return my own. When I was weeping, I
have seen thy tears, and every sign I make
thou cost return; and often thy sweet lips
670 have seemed to move, that, peradventure words,
which I have never heard, thou hast returned.
“No more my shade deceives me, I perceive
‘Tis I in thee–I love myself–the flame
arises in my breast and burns my heart–
675 what shall I do? Shall I at once implore?
Or should I linger till my love is sought?
What is it I implore? The thing that I
desire is mine–abundance makes me poor.
Oh, I am tortured by a strange desire
680 unknown to me before, for I would fain
put off this mortal form; which only means
I wish the object of my love away.
Grief saps my strength, the sands of life are run,
and in my early youth am I cut off;
685 but death is not my bane–it ends my woe.–
I would not death for this that is my love,
as two united in a single soul
would die as one.”
He spoke; and crazed with love,
690 returned to view the same face in the pool;
and as he grieved his tears disturbed the stream,
and ripples on the surface, glassy clear,
defaced his mirrored form. And thus the youth,
when he beheld that lovely shadow go;
695 “Ah whither cost thou fly? Oh, I entreat
thee leave me not. Alas, thou cruel boy
thus to forsake thy lover. Stay with me
that I may see thy lovely form, for though
I may not touch thee I shall feed my eyes
700 and soothe my wretched pains.” And while he spoke
he rent his garment from the upper edge,
and beating on his naked breast, all white
as marble, every stroke produced a tint
as lovely as the apple streaked with red,
705 or as the glowing grape when purple bloom
touches the ripening clusters.
When as glass
again the rippling waters smoothed, and when
such beauty in the stream the youth observed,
710 no more could he endure. As in the flame
the yellow wax, or as the hoar-frost melts
in early morning ‘neath the genial sun;
so did he pine away, by love consumed,
and slowly wasted by a hidden flame.
715 No vermeil bloom now mingled in the white
of his complexion fair; no strength has he,
no vigor, nor the comeliness that wrought
for love so long: alas, that handsome form
by Echo fondly loved may please no more.
720 But when she saw him in his hapless plight,
though angry at his scorn, she only grieved.
As often as the love-lore boy complained,
“Alas!” “Alas!” her echoing voice returned;
and as he struck his hands against his arms,
725 she ever answered with her echoing sounds.
And as he gazed upon the mirrored pool
he said at last, “Ah, youth beloved in vain!”
“In vain, in vain!” the spot returned his words;
and when he breathed a sad “farewell!” “Farewell!”

'Écho et Narcisse' by Nicolas Poussin

‘Écho et Narcisse’ by Nicolas Poussin

730 sighed Echo too. He laid his wearied head,
and rested on the verdant grass; and those
bright eyes, which had so loved to gaze, entranced,
on their own master’s beauty, sad Night closed.
And now although among the nether shades
735 his sad sprite roams, he ever loves to gaze
on his reflection in the Stygian wave.
His Naiad sisters mourned, and having clipped
their shining tresses laid them on his corpse:
and all the Dryads mourned: and Echo made
740 lament anew. And these would have upraised
his funeral pyre, and waved the flaming torch,
and made his bier; but as they turned their eyes
where he had been, alas he was not there!
And in his body’s place a sweet flower grew,
745  golden and white, the white around the gold.

'Narcissus' by Angela Joseph

‘Narcissus’ by Angela Joseph