Who Was Narcissus?
The story of Narcissus and its meaning.
Posted March 22, 2018 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
[Article revised on 16 May 2021.]
A person with narcissistic personality disorder has an extreme feeling of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, and a need to be admired. He is envious of others and expects them to be the same of him. He lacks empathy and readily lies and exploits others to achieve his aims. To others, he may seem self-absorbed, controlling, intolerant, selfish, or insensitive. If he feels obstructed or ridiculed, he can fly into a fit of destructive anger and revenge. Such a reaction is sometimes called ‘narcissistic rage’, and can have disastrous consequences for all those involved.
The Myth of Narcissus
Narcissistic personality disorder is, of course, named for the Greek myth of Narcissus. I’ve long been fascinated by this myth and its meaning—and I think I may finally have cracked it.
First, let’s remind ourselves of the myth. In Ovid’s version, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty. As a child, Narcissus had been prophesied by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’.
One day, Echo followed Narcissus through the woods as he hunted for stags. She longed to speak to him but dared not utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, the youth cried out, ‘Who’s there?’ to which she responded, ‘Who’s there?’ When at last she revealed herself, she leapt to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and cast her off. Echo spent the rest of her days pining for Narcissus, and slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice.
Some time after his encounter with Echo, Narcissus went to quench his thirst at a pool of water. Seeing his own image in the water, he fell in love with it. But each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear. Narcissus grew ever more thirsty but would not leave or disturb the pool of water for fear of losing sight of his fine features. In the end, he died of thirst, and there, on that very spot, appeared the narcissus flower, with its bright face and bowed neck.
So what could this myth mean? On one level, it is an admonition to treat others as we would ourself be treated—and in particular to be considerate in responding to the affections of others, which, as with Echo, are often so raw and visceral as to be existential. Poor Echo had no self and no being outside of Narcissus, and after being rejected by him ‘slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice’. Even her voice, the only thing that remained of her, was his rather than her own.
On another level, the myth is a warning against vanity and self-love. Sometimes we get so caught up in our being, in our ego [Latin, ‘I am’], that we lose sight of the bigger picture and, as a result, pass over the beauty and bounty that is life. Paradoxically, by being too wrapped up in our self, we actually restrict our range of perception and action and, ultimately, our potential as human beings. And so, in some sense, we kill ourself, like so many ambitious or self-centred people. Treating other people badly, as Narcissus did, is a sure sign of still being trapped in our self.
Teiresias prophesied that Narcissus would ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself ’, because to truly know ourself is also to know that there is nothing to know. Our self, our ego, is nothing but an illusion, nothing more substantial than the unstable reflection that Narcissus tried in vain to kiss. Ultimately, Narcissus’s ego boundaries dissolved in death, and he merged back into creation in the form of a flower—the daffodil, which, like us, flowers too early and too briefly, and sometimes too brashly, if it flowers at all.
Echo had not enough ego, and Narcissus far too much. The key is to find the right and dynamic equilibrium, to be secure in our self and yet to be able to dissociate from the envelope that we happen to have been born into.
In Greek myth, the hero—Æneas, Heracles, Odysseus, Orpheus, Theseus—has to die and travel through the underworld before re-emerging as a hero. He has to conquer himself, to die to himself, to become more than merely human.
For nothing is harder than to come back from hell.
Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Myth and other books.