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  • Writer's pictureAnca

Echo and Narcissus

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Echo was beautiful. Of course she was beautiful. She was a nymph. And all nymphs were beautiful, lively and gracious female creatures. They inhabited enchanted woods and places where the gods roamed around.  But even among them, Echo was not just an ordinary nymph, but a favorite of Artemis. Artemis was the goddess of chase and often took Echo along in her hunting spree. She was fit, enthusiastic and an apt huntress. Yet, Echo had a failing; she was a little too fond of talking and whether just an endless chat or a heated argument, Echo would not cease until she had the last word. 



One day, Hera was looking for her husband who was known to amuse himself among the nymphs. Well, amuse himself to say the least. Zeus was quite enthralled by their female graces and often took nymphs as consorts and fathered their children. And the nymphs welcomed his attentions and advances. But this time, Hera was in a vengeful mood and she would not take her husband frolicking with the nymphs. She came down looking for him. The nymphs, aware of Echo's loquacious nature, sent her forward to Hera so that they could make their escape from the queen of the gods. 

But Hera was no fool and when she discovered her treachery, she passed sentence upon Echo: "You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with which you have cheated me, except for that one purpose you are so fond of reply. You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first."

Echo was thus doomed to become the last word anyone spoke yet, never say anything herself. 

As Echo chased across the mountains, she saw a young man who went by the name Narcissus one fine day. He was also engaged in a chase and he was beautiful and young. She loved him from the first sight and followed in his footsteps. Oh, how she longed to talk to him, to address him, and to charm him with the wit of her conversation. But it was not in her power to do so! So she waited impatiently for him to speak first, with her answer ready for him.

Her following of him did not go unnoticed to Narcissus. One day, when he was separated from his companions, he shouted aloud: "Who's here?" Echo sweetly and longingly replied: "Here". Narcissus looked around but he saw no one. He called out loud again: "Come". But Echo could only faintly answer "Come." As no one came,  Narcissus called again: "Why do you avoid me?" and Echo followed: "Why do you avoid me?"

"Let me just see you. Come to me" said Narcissus. The maid answered from all her heart but in exactly the same words. Only her words carried the desperation and longing of unspoken desires. She hastened towards the man ready to throw herself at him.  But upon seeing her, he jumped back and exclaimed: "Hands off! I would rather die than you should have me!" 

"Have me!" she said. But it was all in vain. He left her and she went to hide her disappointment and embarrassment in the recesses of the woods. From that time onwards, she lived in caves and among mountain cliffs. Her womanly form shrank away, her bones turned into rocks and all that was left was her voice. With that she was still ready to reply to anyone who calls her and she still keeps the habit of having the last word, even when that word is a repetition of someone else's word. And we remember her to this day, as her name, echo, has come to mean any reflection of sound. 

Narcissus cruelty towards Echo was not unique. He treated most nymphs with detachment and coldness. He shunned them all as he did to Echo. And they were mad with love and longing for him. He did not care one bit. One day, the nymphs came together and calling to Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, they  cursed him that he should feel what it was to feel in love but meet no return of affection. 

And so it happened that one day, by a clear stretch of water, where the shepherds did not drive their flocks, nor the beasts of the forest ever came, neither leaves or branches defiled it, that the young and beautiful Narcissus came. Fatigued with hunting, heated and thirsty, he stopped down to drink and saw his own image in the water. 

He took the image for a beautiful water spirit living in the lake. He stood there gazing in admiration at the bright and lively eyes, at the curly locks, at the rosy cheeks, the parted full lips. The very vision of health and perfection. And Narcissus was in love. 

He fell in love with the reflection of himself. He brought his lips to the water surface to kiss it. He plunged his arms for an embrace and the image disappeared. It fled at his touch, but after a moment it returned intact, renewing his fascination. He couldn't tear himself away, losing all thoughts of food and friendship. He hovered over the water's brink, gazing upon the image, and cried out to the imagined spirit: "Oh, beautiful creature, why do you refuse me? Surely my face could not repel you. All the nymphs love and want me. I see it in your gaze that you're not indifferent to me. When I smile, you smile upon me. Let me have you!"

Narcissus's cheeks were streaked with hot tears of desperation. His tears fell into the water and disturbed the beautiful image. As he saw it disappear, he cried out: "Stay, even if I may not touch you. I can at least gaze upon you. That will be my consolation, oh, beautiful spirit!" And so he cherished and fed the flame that consumed him. He lost his colour, vigour, and beauty, which the nymphs found so charming. Echo stayed by him and faithfully repeated his wailings.

He pined away and died and on the place by the lake, where his mortal body lay, a beautiful flower sprung. We call the flower Narcissus, recalling the story of the foolish youth.


classic painting of man admiring his reflection in the water
Narcissus by Caravaggio

Even in death, no more than a shade when it passed the Styx river to the underground, it leaned over the boat to catch a last glimpse of itself. 

The nymphs mourned Narcissus, and Echo mourned him most.




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