How It (Supposedly) Went Down
The Short Story
Echo falls in love with Narcissus, but Narcissus isn't into it. Echo proceeds to pine over Narcissus until her body withers away and only her voice is left. Meanwhile, Narcissus stops for a drink at a small pond. When Narcissus sees his reflection in the water of the pool he falls hopelessly in love—with himself. Unable to capture his reflection, Narcissus stays by the pond until he starves to death. Pretty straightforward, really.
The Less Short Story
Just FYI, this summary is based on a version of the story written by the Roman poet, Ovid. The story is included as part of The Metamorphoses, a book that Ovid wrote about the origins and history of Roman culture.
Okay, onto the summary.
- The myth of Echo and Narcissus opens with a short section about the prophet, Tiresias.
- Turns out Tiresias actually spent seven years as a woman (He interrupted two snakes while they were mating, and they turned him into a girl.) But that's a different story.
- Anyway, at the beginning of this story, Narcissus's mother, Liriope, asks Tiresias if her son will live to old age. Tiresias answers, "Yes, if he never knows himself."
- What the stink is that supposed to mean? We're not sure yet, but keep this prophecy in mind—it'll come in handy later.
- The story fast forwards, and suddenly Narcissus is sixteen years old. Isn't it great how stories are able to skip the boring stuff? The first fifteen years of Narcissus's life, for instance—terribly boring.
- Anyway, Narcissus is sixteen and he's out hunting deer when he's spotted by a young nymph named Echo.
- Here Ovid takes a moment to introduce us to Echo. To do this, he tells us a short story inside the story we're already reading. We can say that he's using a frame narrative, which means that one story forms a frame around another story. Sort of like the frame around a photo.
- Here's what goes down in Echo's mini-story:
- Echo is a sexy young mountain nymph (a spirit who lives in the mountains) whose only downfall is that she talks too much.
- One afternoon, Hera comes looking for Zeus, afraid that he's out frolicking with the nymphs again. Zeus does a lot of frolicking, if you know what we mean.
- As it happens, Echo is on hand to stall Hera with mindless chatter so that Zeus can escape. But when Hera realizes that she's being played, she's not psyched.
- As a punishment, Hera takes away Echo's voice so that she is only able to repeat whatever she hears. Like, say, hearing your own echo in a canyon. Hint, hint.
- Okay, now let's get back to the larger story.
- Echo falls hopelessly in love with Narcissus the moment she sees him, but because of Hera's curse, she can't say anything. Literally.
- Instead, Echo follows Narcissus around the forest, waiting for him to speak.
- One day, Narcissus loses track of his hunting buddies. (We had no idea that he had any hunting buddies—they weren't mentioned before now. Oh well.) He calls out to the woods, hoping his friends will hear.
- Echo gets super excited and immediately takes the opportunity to repeat the words. The two then have a weird conversation that ends when Narcissus yells "Let's get together."
- Echo repeats the words and jumps out of a bush, ready to get busy on the spot. But Narcissus is completely freaked out, and yells at Echo to stay away.
- In fact, he says something like "I would die before I let you have me." Pretty harsh, huh? Yeah, we thought so too.
- Echo runs away crying, and hides in a cave. What else can you do when someone says they'd rather die than be with you? (Oh, Echo is partly at fault, sure. Stalking people and jumping out of bushes is just creepy. But there's no forgiving Narcissus either.)
- Feeling ashamed and unwanted, Echo stays hidden. Unfortunately, she continues to pine for Narcissus. No matter how long she waits, her love doesn't fade.
- Eventually she gets grossly skinny with hunger, and over time her body literally withers away, becoming dust. Her bones turn to stone, leaving only her voice. (Are you picturing this in your head?)
- Her voice lives on, wandering the world and repeating whatever it hears. And—ta-da!—this is where echoes come from.
- Now, while Echo has been wasting away, Narcissus has been out hunting deer and breaking hearts.
- Echo is by no means the only woman (or man) captured by his charms, but Narcissus refuses them all.
- To be honest, we're not sure why. Ovid writes that Narcissus is too proud to accept a lover, but man, this is one major game of playing hard-to-get.
- Whatever the case, one of Narcissus' rejected lovers finally appeals to the gods for justice. Nemesis, goddess of vengeance, hears the call and responds. It's on.
- Narcissus grows tired and thirsty from hunting. He stumbles upon a small clearing with a silver pool at its center. Fresh grass grows around the pool, and tall trees keep it well shaded from the sun. The surface of the water shines, and it's clear that no man or animal has disturbed the pool in many years.
- If you ever come across a place like this, run. It's obviously a trap.
- Sadly, Narcissus doesn't know it's a trap. He kneels in the grass, stretching out his hands for a drink, and BAM. He catches sight of his reflection in the water and falls completely in love.
- Remember what Tiresias said at the beginning of the story? "As long as he never knows himself…" Oops.
- At first Narcissus isn't smart enough to realize that the guy in the water is his reflection. Although, in all fairness, the ancient Greek world was full of some weird stuff. Maybe he thought he was looking at a water spirit or something.
- In any case, he really wants to get his hands on his new love. He lowers his head and tries to kiss the image. He dips his arms into the pool and tries to grasp it.
- Nothing works, obviously. Confused, Narcissus starts talking to his reflection. He tries to convince it to love him by explaining how many nymphs and young girls have fallen for him.
- FYI: this is not a good strategy. Of course, Narcissus is just babbling at his reflection, so it doesn't really matter.
- Narcissus grows hungry, but his obsession with the figure in the water keeps him from moving. (Sound familiar? Something very similar just happened to Echo if you remember…)
- He smiles, and the figure smiles. He speaks, and the figure seems to be speaking. Come on, Narcissus, figure this one out.
- At first, Narcissus takes these as signs that the figure likes him. But slowly and painfully, he realizes that the figure is just his reflection. Wah wah.
- You would think at this point that he would just get up and walk off. Nope. He is literally so obsessed with himself that he chooses to stay and die.
- According to Ovid, Narcissus wastes away from hunger, much like Echo. Other versions of the myth say that he stabbed himself. Ovid's version is nicer, but dead is dead.
- In a moment of cheesy dramatics, Narcissus rips off his shirt and beats on his chest like a gorilla.
- And here's where it gets really good.
- "Alas," Narcissus cries.
- "Alas," cries the voice of Echo, hiding in the forest.
- Yep, Echo is there to watch him die. Narcissus cries out one last lament—"Farewell, dear boy. Beloved in vain"—and Echo repeats these words as Narcissus lies down in the grass and dies.
- As you might have guessed, young girls and nymphs all over the world mourn the death of Narcissus. Together they build a pyre (a big pile of wood) so that they can burn his body.
- But when they go looking for his body by the pool, all they find is a flower. The Narcissus flower to be precise, better known to us as the daffodil.
- The end.