Long ago, a boy grew up so beautiful that he met a terrible death, made worse because everyone said it was his own fault. The myth of Narcissus has come down to us as a cautionary tale about a singular youth in love with his reflection. Examined more closely, the death might find a different, darker explanation.
The lovely Liriope was the mother of Narcissus, a water nymph and minor deity, who in her person and her form held all the qualities of a quiet, out-of-the-way spot on the river Cephissus, in Boeotia, central Greece. The river-god had raped her. His surging course ran where he wanted, and he showed her no consideration when he forced new life upon her.
Go warily into the world of ancient Greece, full of gods and deities, not just one. They were born at different times and places, just like mortals. None of them existed before the world of time and space began. Their kingdoms, principalities and powers waxed and waned. Their alliances and rivalries cascaded down from Mount Olympus and spilled into mortal lives. Gods, humans, animals and plants intermingled and intertwined. Truth and lies, peace and violence, love and hatred lived side by side and inside every god. None was purely good. The strong owed nothing to the weak. The weak could only get out of harm’s way, offer the right sacrifices and beg for favour or for pardon. The gods did not love humanity.
Narcissus was born on a grassy river bank, outside the city of Thespiae. From the beginning, he was a stranger in the city whose inhabitants devoted themselves especially to the cult of Eros. The Greek writer and traveller Pausanias observed:
Of the gods the Thespians have from the beginning honoured Eros most, and they have a very ancient image of him, an unwrought stone.
Eros was a mighty god, among the first to be created. Eros means desire. Not a chubby boy like Cupid, he united in himself a force which toppled purpose, will and reason. The ancient poet Hesiod, who knew Boeotia well, stands among the oldest of our sources:
Eros, fairest among the deathless gods… unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men’.
Like all Greek gods, his nature was divided; he did both good and evil. Desire drove creativity, devotion and self-sacrifice, but also spawned destructiveness, disloyalty and hatred. Desire was contagious and unpredictable. Myths of Eros tell of accidents, where his arrows miss their mark and strike unintended blows with chaotic consequences.
The boy Narcissus inherited his mother’s beauty. When he was fifteen she took him with her to ask a question of Tiresias, the blind prophet and seer of Thebes. The prophet had second sight. His predictions made his name renowned through ancient Greece, and other prophets took it for themselves. Liriope asked him if her son would enjoy long years and ripe old age. ‘Only if he fails to recognise himself’, he answered. Neither Liriope nor anyone else understood this answer at the time.
Like other oracles and magicians, Tiresias sought his answer from another realm above the gods, which conceived and bore all beings, space and time. At its entrance, the Fates spun the cloth of life, measured its allotted length and cut it off with shears. To glimpse the pattern in the cloth was to glimpse the fated stories of everything from birth to death, rebirth or transformation. Prophecies, like glimpses, were brief and enigmatic. Myths told the fateful patterns on a grand, heroic scale. Human life was cut from the same cloth. The patterns and stories stitched cities and their provinces together, they instructed children about the world and interpreted life and death to adults. The myths guided rulers, informed priests and regulated the community so that desires, rivalries and violence would not tear it all apart.
By his sixteenth birthday, Narcissus looked every bit the son of two divinities. Still a boy with lustrous hair and glittering eyes but also now a man with strength and fiery resolution, he shimmered in the light as boy and man combined. All who saw him felt a pang of sensual love. Eros was at work with arrows at his bow. Many of his followers, young men and women, felt his gold-tipped arrow and saw Narcissus next. They felt aflame with love, their desire was ablaze and they offered up themselves to beautiful Narcissus. Narcissus touched none of them. Perhaps he felt Eros’s other arrow with a tip of lead that killed desire. The crowd that stalked Narcissus resented his refusals, and in their tender pride they blamed him for despising them and Eros, the city’s favourite god. A contagious yearning spread. Which young man or woman would win the proud Narcissus, make him swallow his refusals and take his body as their prize? One youth, Ameinias,
…kept insisting and beseeching. Narcissus did not yield and sent him a sword instead. He did away with himself at Narcissus’ doorway, after beseeching the god to avenge him.
The hunting of Narcissus was lethal and getting out of hand.
A similar pattern unfolded in the countryside. One day, Narcissus went out hunting deer. A young nymph, Echo, caught a glimpse of him and her heart was fired with love. Despite her youth, she already knew a thing or two about desire. Some time before, Jove, the greatest pagan god, was philandering with nymphs on a mountainside. Echo, meanwhile, detained Jove’s jealous goddess wife in idle conversation so her sister nymphs could get away unseen. Later, the goddess undeceived crippled Echo’s voice as punishment — she could never start a conversation but only speak the final words another person spoke. Echo pursued Narcissus on the hunt. By chance he called out: ‘Anyone here?’, and she could echo: ‘Here’. Through more such fragmentary responses, she approached him, and emerging from the woods, tried to throw her arms around his neck. Narcissus rejected her and bolted off. Despairing, she withdrew from forest life and went to dwell in caves. There, she wasted away, and her bones turned into stone. Only her voice survived for all to hear, echoing in the hills. Narcissus, dead to desire himself, had caused another death.
Another day, Narcissus went out to hunt again. He came upon a clear and silvery pool, never visited by shepherds with their herds, not used by birds or wild animals, not warmed by sunlight, nor its surface ever broken by dropping leaves or branches. Magicians used such pools to learn of things to come. A boy would serve as medium to focus in a trance upon the water. A poisoned pool, not far from Thespiae, killed blind Tiresias, the seer. Through such a pool as this, Bacchus the god went down into the underworld. Pools invite reflection, introspection and remembrance. They call to mind departed souls of soldiers and civilians. Rivers flow with life, but pools require no pulse.
Tired and thirsty from hunting in the heat of the day, Narcissus lay down. As he drank from the pool, he saw a body and a face in the water. He saw glittering eyes and lustrous hair, and a strong and resolute body with ivory skin. He saw the beauty that others had desired, and he longed for it himself. He kissed the water, reached in his arms but the pool took his love away. He recognised himself in what he saw. Recall the prophecy of blind Tiresias. Long life and ripe old age were promised to Narcissus only if he ‘failed to recognise himself’. Now with his self-perception the promise lapsed, and he lost his will for food and rest. His sorrow sapped his strength, his tears rippled the pool and his lover did not return.
Stricken with grief, he tore his robe. He beat his chest and raised red welts on his ivory skin. He died, and as he passed into the Underworld, he paused at a pool by the river Styx and gazed once more upon himself. Mourned by the nymphs who loved him, they prepared a funeral pyre but could not find his body. In its place grew a flower of white petals around a cup of gold — the white narcissus, the daffodil.
A death without a body and events without a witness trouble inquiring minds. Narcissus went out hunting and disappeared — he was missing, but not proven dead. Nobody saw what happened, but we are told of a dark, reflecting pool, a torn robe and red welts on the chest. What caused his death? Ancient writers disagreed. Ovid said, as told above, he fell in love with his reflection and starved himself to death. Conon, slightly earlier, said he felt remorse and killed himself:
Finally, at a loss and thinking he was suffering justly for having insulted the love of Ameinias, he did himself in. The locals believe that the narcissus flower first sprang up on that ground where the blood of Narcissus was spilt.
Probus, somewhat later on, declared his death a murder. This careful Roman writer, well-informed, must have had his reasons. The absent body and absent witnesses might conceal a cause of death thought better left unsaid. Human sacrifice was known in ancient Greece, and in the very city where the mob pursued Narcissus:
In Thespiae is a bronze image of Zeus Saviour [the Roman Jove]. They say about it that when a dragon once was devastating their city, the god commanded that every year one of their youths, upon whom the lot fell, should be offered to the monster. Now the names of those who perished they say that they do not remember.
An untameable desire for Narcissus had overcome its people. Followers of Eros chased after him. Each of them saw that others chased him too, confirming how desirable he was — even worth dying for, as the suicide of Ameinias, the youth Narcissus rejected, seemed to show. How could this devastating madness be brought to an end? The Thespian tradition held the answer. They could consummate their passion in a sacrifice. Narcissus had no family in the city; he did not love their favourite god and his presence caused disorder. The offspring of a nymph and river-god might even be connected with a devastating dragon. The rejected youth had prayed to be avenged. To sacrifice Narcissus would grant that prayer and put out the blaze of wild desire and calm the city down.
Narcissus as a sacrifice has a dark and haunting reasonableness not lightly swept away. Can we really ask the myth how Narcissus truly died? History will most likely keep its answer to itself. Analogy, however, could propose that either form of death served the same purpose. Consider the Old Testament ritual of Atonement:
Two goats were selected. One was given … to Azazel. This demonic spirit was seen to dwell in the wilderness, the realm of death.. The sins of the people were placed upon this goat by the high priest. This goat was now seen to be accursed… It was sent out into the wilderness to return sin to its source. This second goat, the goat for Yahweh, was sacrificed and its blood was taken to purify the physical sanctuary, the tabernacle, and later the temple.
The God of Israel abhorred all human sacrifice, but the gods of ancient Greece did not. Narcissus could be the exiled scapegoat carrying off the sins of Thespiae, dying at the pool in the wilderness. Narcissus could be the pure and virgin offering that cleansed the city of its madness, dying at the altar. Either way, Eros was appeased.
Narcissus did not fight against his death. At the pool of reflection, a place of dangerous communion with spirits from the underworld, he recognised himself and felt desire. Struck by a gold-tipped arrow, he felt the force of Eros. It was a force of love but, like the love of poor Narcissus, was deformed and incomplete, and so ended in death.
…I die before my prime.
Nor is death sad, for death will end my sorrow.
Would he I love might live a long tomorrow!
But now we two — one soul — one death will die.
Narcissus went by choice to his ritual death. He saw himself as others did, a worthy sacrifice or willing scapegoat.
Myths still touch on real things and symbolise a pattern revealed in human lives. In the story of Narcissus, frustrated desire demanded a deadly appeasement. Narcissus broke no law and died an innocent. Desire, not love, made Narcissus die. Desire meant getting what you wanted, as the ancient gods had done. Love meant giving yourself away as Christ had done — giving up desire for your neighbour’s body, life, spouse, property, good reputation or whatever else they have, and loving your neighbour as you love yourself.
Ovid, Metamorphoses (written about 15 BC-1 AD), is the main source used for the myth, see the verse translation by A.D. Melville (1986), Oxford, 2008, and the prose version by Brookes More at https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses3.html#5,
For the extract quoted at Narcissus’s death Melville, p.65
Pausanias, Description of Greece (c. 143-176 AD), Book 9, [9.27.1] XXVII. at https://www.theoi.com/Text/Pausanias9B.html#16, also source of human sacrifice in Thespiae.
Hesiod, Theogyny (c.750-650 BC), 116, at https://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodTheogony.html
Bernd Manuwald, ‘Narcissus bei Konon und Ovid’, Hermes, 1975, vol. 103, no. 3, pp. 349-372
Conon, Narrations (c.36 BC-8 AD), no. 24 https://topostext.org/people/10943
Max Nelson, ‘Narcissus: Myth and Magic’, The Classical Journal, vol. 95, no. 4, 2000, p. 374, suggests Narcissus, the virgin boy, was a medium who never recovered from the trance, also the source of Probus’s opinion about Narcissus’s death.
Conon, Narrations, 24 at https://topostext.org/people/10943, particularly concerning the story of Ameinias
Marcus Valerius Probus, Commentary on Virgil’s Eclogues, cited in Max Nelson, p. 380
Erin Brantmayer, ’Giving Up the Ghost: The Development and Origins of Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece’, MA Thesis, Brandeis University, Boston, 2018
On atonement in Old Testament: Fr. Stephen de Young, ‘Why the Law was Given, and by Whom’, The Whole Counsel, blog, 5 March 2020, at https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/wholecounsel/2020/03/05/why-the-law-was-given-and-by-whom/ and Leviticus, 16:8-10 and 20-22, NRSV
For more on scapegoating and desire, see R. Girard, The Scapegoat, Baltimore, 1989, esp. chapter 10, and Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Maryknoll, 2001