“Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse, oil on canvas, 1903. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In these political days, much is said about Narcissists and Narcissus. It would be good to remember the myth in order to avoid our typical game of finding a foreign noun or story, applying it to describe a specifically North American (usually deplorable) phenomenon, and then projecting the flaws we have confined in that concept on alien others.

The story is found in Book III of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The water-nymph Liriope, mother of Narcissus, once asked the ancient seer Tiresias how long her child would live. “To old age,” he replied, “if he does not come to know himself.” At sixteen years old Narcissus’ beauty enchanted both boys and girls, but

that slender figure

of proud Narcissus had little feeling

For either boys or girls.[1]


Study for Echo from “Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse, black chalk on blue-gray paper, circa 1903. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Once when hunting deer in the woods, Narcissus was seen by a curious girl with “a queer voice” who could only repeat the ends of sentences. Instantly she was “fired with love,” and came from behind sheltering trees to embrace the boy. Narcissus ran away while admonishing her:

“No, you must not touch—

Go, take your hands away, may I be dead

Before you throw your fearful chains around me.”

Rejected, Echo pined away and became a shadow of her former self, remaining only a voice that repeated other voices in forests, hills and valleys.

Note please, that even at the vital age of 16, Narcissus did not entertain himself by grabbing boys or kissing girls. Lovesick and in pain, one of his rejected suitors raised a curse to heaven:

“O may he love himself alone …

And yet fail in that great love.”

His prayer was heard by the Greek divinity Nemesis, goddess of justice and retribution.


“Echo and Narcissus” by Nicolas Poussin, oil on canvas, circa 1630. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Weary of the hunt, Narcissus entered deep into the forest, and bent to drink from a serene pool. He fell in love with his own reflection and could not walk away from it. Half-mad, tears falling on the veiled surface of the water he exclaimed:

Look! I am he; I’ve loved within the shadow

Of what I am, and in that love I burn,

I light the flames and feel their fires within;

Then what am I to do? Am I the lover

Or beloved? Then why make love? Since I

Am what I long for, then my riches are

So great they make me poor.

It is said that Narcissus wore away with love, “fading in the heat / Of secret fires.” Echo the ill-fated one—still resentful but in pity—attended his final hours.

As he crossed the narrows

Of darkest hell he saw the floating image

Of his lost shade within the Stygian waters.

His sisters of the rivers and forest mourned him, and burned his lifeless body at a funeral pyre. A “flower of gold with white-brimmed-petals” remained among the ashes.

For the life of me, I see no beauty like that of the young Narcissus in the Narcissists that populate our contemporary politics—most of them are old, fat and ugly. They are not followed by love-smitten boys and girls, but rather by grim, greedy, covetous crowds. These Narcissists do not die for love, even for love of their own miserable selves; they rather trick others into dying for them to protect their accumulation of riches. And when they pass away to their Happy Golf Club in the Sky they do not leave behind a golden flower, but only the vulgar stench of their self-interest.

Narcissus is not their reflection, but rather an ancestral memory of wounded humanity by which our political clowns are found to be wanting.


[1] All quotes are from Ovid, The Metamorphoses, trans. Horace Gregory (New York: Mentor Books, 1960), 95-100.


White Narcissus. (Credit: Flickr/ Juni)

One comment

  1. I have it on good authority, Ovid himself, that there is no “Happy Golf Club in the Sky” upon their passing. As Twain, I believe, remarked, “They call it golf because all the other four letter words were used up.” However, these modern day Narcissists do leave behind an imprint, a stench, a history of behavior that will require repair and healing that will stretch far into the future.


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