Comparing the Different Versions of Narcissus

This article was written as one of our assignments for Introduction to Western Literature.

     Narcissus, known in Greek Mythology, was a man of striking beauty that had attracted many admirers. But to his arrogance, he disdained those who loved him and spurned them all, causing some to commit suicide, while some others calling on the goddess Nemesis to avenge him. Their prayers were answered when Narcissus was led to a forest, where he saw his own reflection in a pool. Allured by the great beauty in the water, the young hunter could not resist but gazed at his own reflection. Narcissus eventually withered away by the pool. His body disappeared and all that was left was a narcissus flower.

Several versions of the myth have survived from the ancient sources, while the one written by Ovid in 8AD is generally considered the classic version (commonly known as “Echo and Narcissus.”) In this version, a mountain nymph called Echo was featured. It is said that she saw Narcissus in a forest and immediately fell deeply in love with him. However, after revealing her identity and attempted to embrace him, Echo was rejected and told to leave him alone. Since then Echo concealed herself in lonely caverns until nothing but an echo sound remained of her. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, noticed Narcissus’s behavior and decided to punish him. She lured him to a pool where he saw his own reflection and so led to his death.

It can be noticed that many versions of the myth follow this pattern: Narcissus, who attracted many admirers with his shocking beauty but rejected them all, was dead shortly after seeing his own reflection in a pool. Examples of this pattern in the myth have been provided in the following, some of which with different characters or altered plots.

For instance, the creation by Parthenius of Nicaea in 50BCE features much of the same plot as Ovid’s, but in the end Narcissus committed suicide because of knowing that he could never be with his own reflection, instead of withering away like we were told in the classic version. One interesting version of the myth by Conan came out around the same time as the version of Parthenius of Nicaea, featuring a male admirer named Ameinias, who would pursue Narcissus but was then given a sword. In the end the man committed suicide with the sword and, before he died, he prayed to the gods to give Narcissus a lesson for all the pain he provoked. As it is in the classic version, Narcissus was attracted to a pool and eventually died there. It is worth noticing that Conan, the author of this version, had the same idea of how Narcissus died as the way portrayed in Parthenius of Nicaea’s version since both creations stated that Narcissus did commit suicide. There is another story about Narcissus, less popular than the others, but not without some support. It is said that Narcissus had a twin sister; they were exactly alike in appearance, it was not long before Narcissus realized his love for her, but then the girl died. Since then Narcissus had stayed by the pool and stared deeply into the water, knowing that it was his reflection that he saw, but in spite of this knowledge finding some relief for his love in imagining that he saw, not his own reflection, but the likeness of his sister.

The reason we still have a variety of versions existing would most probably be the differentiated opinions towards how the plot should be. The editor of the renowned Pausanias, Description of Greece mentioned in the book that “It is utter stupidity,” he wrote, “to imagine that a man old enough to fall in love was incapable of distinguishing a man from a man’s reflection.” Such a statement can support the versions that end the story with Narcissus committing suicide; the identical-twin-sister version, accordingly, is a rationalized version given by Pausanias. In the classic version, Echo didn’t pray for Narcissus’ death; rather, another nymph (whose name we don’t know) did, according to Metamorphoses Book III, whereas some other versions simply mentioned one admirer of his implored the Gods to punish him, and many more did not mention at all. Conan’s version which features Ameinias could therefore be the only existing version that has specified the admirer who did damn Narcissus.

Browsing through different sources, it can be easily noticed that numerous differences are present in them. These are the diverse stories told and passed down by people across different time and space, therefore it is of great treasure to access and preserve these thousand years myths. The story of Narcissus thrives up to nowadays, it has been much influential to both ancient and contemporary cultures, inspiring many great literature, film, music as well as visual art adaptations. The term “Narcissism”, borrowed from the name Narcissus, is now broadly used in Psychology and Sexology to associate with unnatural or excessive self-admiration. Though the end of Narcissus’ story isn’t really the happily-ever-after kind, it has been very educational and interesting that every generation could know a little bit more about Narcissus and his story when reading Greek Mythology.



Narcissus (Narkissos),
Narcissus (mythology), Wikipedia
Different Ancient Versions of the Myth,
Narcissus And Echothe House of Cadmus, Perseus Digital Library
PAUSANIAS 9. 23 – 40,
Pausanias, Description of Greece
The myth of Narcissus, Metamorphoses Book III
Ameinias (mythology),Wikipedia
Pausanias’ Description of Greece – Perseus – Tufts University

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