“Tis spring when a young man’s fancy turns to love!”
Imagine living in world without mirrors, never even catching your reflection while passing a window. The most you might see is a distorted image in a disk of polished bronze or a dim unrecognised face peering back at you from the depths of a limpid pool.
Narcissus was a Greek youth, and like all Greek youths remembered in myth, he was beautiful – which probably says a lot more about the myth-makers than young Greek men of the time. One day bending to drink at a pool he caught sight of the most stunning creature he had ever seen staring back at him from the cool still waters. At that instant, smitten by capricious Cupid, he fell hopelessly and helplessly in love… with himself.
Unable to tear himself away from his beloved’s adoring gaze, the boy stayed staring at his reflection. Sick with love, unable to eat or drink, he wasted away, until all that remained was a delicate pale flower growing besides the water, gazing lovingly at its own reflection. Slender and tall as the youth it once was, its petals were white as his skin and at its heart a crown golden as his hair.
Echo was a nymph much lauded for her gift of mimicry until one day – as these things go – her comic gift offended Hera, Queen of the Gods. Hera famed for having no sense of humour (and married to the serial adulterer Zeus who could blame her) cursed Echo – leaving the poor girl only able to repeat back the last words she heard.
Dejected, Echo hid away in the wild woods. Here she spied the beautiful Narcissus out hunting. Captivated by his beauty, she longed to speak, but due to Hera’s curse could not utter a word.
When Narcissus realised he had lost his hunting party he called out, and Echo repeated his words. Thinking it was his friends, he called for them to come to him. Echo joyfully responded, rushing out to Narcissus, repeating his words back to him. Believing she was mocking him, Narcissus rudely spurned her, and Echo fled in humiliation.
Despite his rejection, Echo’s love for Narcissus only grew. As Narcissus lay dying, wasting away, consumed by his impossible love, he looked at his reflection and said ‘Oh beautiful boy, I loved you in vain, farewell.’
Given that all Echo could do was repeat his last word, at least she got to say ‘Farewell’ to the object of her unrequited passion. Unable to leave him, Echo too eventually began to waste away. Her beauty faded, her skin turned to dust and her bones to stone, until all that remained was her voice.
Echo and Narcissus is a marvelously modern tale with a strong moral – which is not just… ‘Girls don’t fall in love with gay guys because to put it bluntly you’re barking up the wrong tree.’
The story has a universal message.
At some time, we all fall in love with someone who is totally wrong for us. Remember love does not have to be sexual. Perhaps we see reflected in them what we desire to be. We ape, we echo and lose ourselves in infatuation, until we become nothing but shadows or pale reflections.
And in the end we have only ourselves to blame… for both Echo and Narcissus were free to walk away at any time.