By Daniel Mendelsohn
Who could resist a myth about irresistibility? Just the name of Narcissus seduces: its shimmering triple repetition of sibilant s sounds are like an aural analog for the act of reflection that lies of the heart of the story. It is among the best known of all the myths that have come down to us from antiquity, and has proved irresistible to millennia of poets, painters, psychoanalysts and cultural critics.
And yet the Greeks themselves seemed to have been able to resist him. Unlike other psychologically troubled young men whose stories were to prove so “good to think about” for the Greeks, Narcissus—unlike Achilles or Oedipus or Pentheus—was never the subject of an Archaic poem or Classical tragedy. The name, to be sure, has a solid provenance: the –issos ending indicates a very ancient, even pre-Greek origin (think “Knossos”), and the flower itself, whose pharmacological potential is suggested by the narc- root in the name, appears in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, where it’s one of the blooms being plucked by the virginal Persephone just before her uncle Hades plucks her to be his bride. From the start, then, “narcissus” involved erotic fascination and erotic disaster.
But the myth of Narcissus as we are familiar with it is relatively late. The earliest versions we know of date to the first century B. C. E., when the dying Roman Republic was morphing into the Empire. A number of Greek writers living under Roman rule at that time (including one, Parthenius of Nicaea, who ended up teaching Vergil) used the myth to explain the origin of the flower: punished by the gods for spurning all suitors, the beautiful youth kills himself, and the eponymous flower springs from his blood. It was Ovid, a Roman poet in love with Greek literature, who heterosexualized the story, twining it with that of the nymph Echo (more hopeless pining)—and gave the punishment of Narcissus its now-familiar, psychologically suggestive twist: the boy wastes away pining for himself, becomes nothing because of a beauty he can never possess.
The irresistible symbolic allure of the mirror, of reflection, which so excites our imagination today, explains why the Greek dramatists had no use for Narcissus. Tragedy, after all, is relentlessly communal and social in its concerns, exploring the dark tensions between grandiose heroes and the larger societies into which they should fit (but never quite do: that’s the tragedy). Narcissus, by contrast, is utterly non-social, non-political. Indeed, the story’s preoccupation with mirroring and self-regard, with the individual stripped of wider context, makes it feel so modern to our individualistic, atomized age.
Hence like Greek civilization itself, Narcissus’s myth has roots deeply grounded in a past so ancient we don’t even know where it begins, while its beautiful flowers are the subject of endless, and endlessly productive, contemplation.
Daniel Mendelsohn is the author of the international bestseller The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million; two collections of essays and criticism, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken and Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture (2012), which was shortlisted for the PEN Art of the Essay Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.