Context of the Echo and Narcissus myth
Stories that survive the ages must matter. Find out why.
As with almost all of ancient Greek mythology, the story of Echo and Narcissus exists in a bunch of different forms. Actually, get this: scholars discovered a previously unknown version of the story at Oxford in 2004. Yeah, this one's alive and kicking.
But the fact remains that most people who read this myth will read Ovid's version. Why? Because Ovid was just that good. The Metamorphoses is easily one of the best collections of ancient mythology available. It was also one of the most widely read books of the entire Middle Ages. (Believe it: here at Shmoop, we have mountains of books from that time period that mention it.)
Quick pause for some biographical info about Ovid:
Plubius Ovidius Naso (yep, that's Ovid) was born on March 20, 43 B.C.E., about 90 miles outside of Rome. He had the good fortune to be born into money (his father was rich) which, at that time, meant he received an excellent education. To his father's irritation, Ovid used his education to write poetry. Here's an abbreviated list of what he wrote:
- The Loves
- The Heroides
- The Art of Love
- The Cure for Love
- And, of course, The Metamorphoses
Ovid was exiled from Rome in the year 8 C.E. We don't know for sure why he was exiled—it may or may not have had something to do with his poetry. Regardless, he is considered hands down one of the best poets of the Roman era.
So, what's up with The Metamorphoses then? For a truly in depth discussion you should check out our coverage of the book itself. In short, Ovid's masterpiece is a collection of poems written in fifteen books (whew) and completed in the year 8 C.E. The poems make up a pseudo-history (fake history) of the world. They start at the creation of the universe and end with the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar, on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.E.
In writing The Metamorphoses, Ovid drew tons of material from the myths and legends laid down by poets before him. What made his work so unique—other than his super-brill poetic style—is that he stuffed all of the myths he could find into one place. We might say that The Metamorphoses is the first encyclopedia of ancient mythology. (Topped only by Shmoop, of course.)
It comes as no surprise, then, that The Metamorphoses has had a huge influence on literature for the last 2,000 years. Major authors throughout history, including people like Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, credit this work as a source of inspiration. Ovid is like a literary version of Elvis: everybody has heard of him.
The Echo and Narcissus story is part of book three of The Metamorphoses. It's one of many, many stories about unrequited love that made it into the collection. What makes Echo and Narcissus stand out, then? Well, the main character loves himself, not someone else.
Because of his love for himself, Narcissus made a huge splash in certain areas of literature, notably as inspiration for the character of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. If he didn't already have a huge ego, we'd give him a high five for that one.