The story of Narcissus has been a big inspiration for people from different fields, starting from art and literature to philosophy, psychology, and sociology.
This is because it contains a lot of elements that have strong roots in our lives. Like love, beauty, and self-identification.
I will try to present a new perspective on the story of narcissus and light up things that everyone takes for granted. In my opinion, those myths are some kind of a code or a letter from people with great insight to anyone willing to contemplate them and look for the key hidden between the lines.
About the book
It is almost impossible to say which version of the myths is the original, since they reached us through different sources. I built my article on a version from Metamorphoses book 3. The author’s full name is Ovidius Naso. He was born on March 20, 43 BC in Sulmona, which is now known as Abruzzo. He attended school in Rome and traveled to Greece to complete his studies.
Metamorphoses is a continuous poem in fifteen books. It is his longest work and contains different stories linked by a common theme, which is The transformation (metamorphosis).
The stories are sometimes linked by a geographical location or a common character.
Tiresias, for example, had a prophetic vision and gave answers (faultless answers) to people who wanted to know the future or destiny of their loved ones.
We see him in different stories and also the tale of how he gained foresight is directly before the story of Narcissus. The mother of Narcissus, Liriope, consulted him to know the future of her beautiful newborn and Tiresias said that Narcissus would live to a great old age only if he never comes to know (discover, recognize) himself.
The story of Narcissus
She was a water nymph. She gave birth to Narcissus after Cephisus (river-god) impregnated her by force within a winding brook and nearly drowned her.
At the age of sixteen, Narcissus had already gained a lot of admirers of both genders, yet he had little feelings for girls as much as for boys. Consequently, one of his admirers raised prayers to the great heavens. A Nemesis cursed Narcissus to love himself and to fail in his great love, as the prayer said.
He expressed his rejection of the love of Echo when she was trying to hug him with a very important sentence. He said: ‘may I be dead before you throw your fearful chains around me’.
Narcissus was wandering inside a deep forest when he bent to drink from a silver-clear pool. After, he saw his reflection and became enchanted by his charm. He could not speak. He lay down to look deeper.
Narcissus didn’t crave food or water. He stood there trying to catch the shadow, knowing that it was him, but at the same time, it wasn’t. It is like when two lovers say we are one. Narcissus said: “I am he, I sensed it and I’m not deceived by my own image“. He knew he was going to die. Narcissus died weakened and melted by love and his body was transformed into a flower with white-brimmed petals surrounding a golden heart.
How Salvador Dali interpreted the story of Narcissus
Metamorphosis of Narcissus (Métamorphose de Narcisse) is an oil-on-canvas painting by Salvador Dali, where he interpreted the story of Narcissus.
At first glance, you will notice the existence of some elements that didn’t exist in the story. That hand holding the egg, the chessboard with the sculpture, and the dog beside the gigantic hand. We see how the hand has a very similar shape to the body of Narcissus. In addition to the egg in the place of his head. During the transformation, his body was the vehicle that brings the flower of Narcissus, his immortality to this world.
From all that, we see a lot of things to think about. First of all, we have that mysterious connection between water and Narcissus.
- He was the son of a god-river and a water-nymph.
- His mother got pregnant in the water.
- His water reflection was his undoing and he died and transformed beside the water.
- The water helped him recognize himself and feel love like he never had before.
The other thing is reflection. Echo was reflecting Narcissus’s voice or words and she had an actual body. But narcissus rejected her for a reflected image that didn’t have a body!
We can’t say that Narcissus never saw his reflection in the water before, while he was trying to drink on a different occasion. But the special thing about this pool is its clearness, ‘Where never a shepherd came, nor goats, not cattle, nor leaf, nor beast, nor bird fell to its surface‘.
It reflected a pure image of Narcissus where he saw his true self, his smiles, and tears, his enthusiastic eyes. He fell in love with the purity of his image. And what multiplied his emotions was the reflection of love he saw in the water.
Metamorphosis between destiny and choice
The subject of metamorphosis is present in the majority of myths and religious stories. There are a lot of people who have become something else like stones, different animals, or even a constellation, or they have just lost a sense or gained an additive one.
Like Tiresias, he lost his sight but gained foresight. Or Echo, who lost her ability to speak her own words. Often, this happens because they piss off someone with great power like gods, and maybe in matters where they don’t have a real choice.
This image of helpless little creatures who have no say in what their life is going to be like, the boat of fate is taking them wherever it wants, and they never manage to escape it.
The Metamorphosis of Gregor Samsa
We see how it changed in literature, in the story of Kafka when the character Gregor Samsa was transformed into a monstrous vermin (a gigantic insect), and this didn’t happen because of some curse from a powerful creature but because of the choices he made under the pressure of emotions he had for his family.
He chose to sacrifice the life he wanted, to pay their debts. The vermin is an unclean animal not suited for sacrifice.
Gregor Samsa became no good for them. He died and they left his body to the maid to throw it away and they went to enjoy their day out.
Something inside him became rotten as a consequence of his choices, so it started to expand until he found himself transformed.
Why him, not others?
What made Narcissus reject all his admirers and fall in love with himself? Someone would say it is a curse, even though inside every curse there is a gift… a cure if you remove the ‘s.
Let’s take the example of the story of Tiresias. The gods took his sight. At the same time, it gave him foresight and access to know the future of people and also to live 7 times more than a normal human can.
So his transformation wasn’t that tragic, neither was that of Narcissus.
A revengeful desire was the cause of Narcissus’s agony, but eventually, he became immortal. Narcissus saw more than that reflected image and it made him realize something. After all, he saw it in the water and we noticed how he had a very strong connection with water.
When he resembled Echo’s arms to fearful chains, Narcissus gave us the reason why he didn’t take any lover. Fearful and chains are telling us briefly how Narcissus saw the love of others to him: a prison of fear. When we love someone, we try to own him out of fear of losing him.
But when love touched Narcissus’s free spirit, he didn’t have any revengeful thoughts or bad wishes and didn’t yell with bad prayers. He wanted to escape himself, to go away from his body. His love was pure, just like the pool, but he preferred death over a life of agony.
Cultural Significance in Anthropology
The relationship between Narcissus and our current society can be summarized in three words: Narcissistic personality disorder.
What we have from Narcissus today is simply his name, which was attached to a personality disorder. The term narcissism, as Freud said in his paper, is derived from a clinical description and was chosen by Paul Näcke in 1899 to designate someone who treats his body in different ways in order to obtain complete satisfaction.
But this notion was developed through time and we find now in DMS V that narcissistic personality disorder is a personality disorder with a long-term pattern of abnormal behavior characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.
From another angle, if we’re talking here about the obsession of Narcissus with his reflection, this era would be the age of Narcissus. People are getting obsessed more and more with their photos and videos shared on the internet. We’re showing up what we have and we seek admiration in the form of “views, likes, and shares”, and it is a closed-loop. The more you get views, the more you’re successful in the eyes of society, the more you will stay lying there craving the illusion.
The hidden key in the story of narcissus?
Apparently, the story of Narcissus will leave us with more questions than answers, but the first thing that came to my mind is: Are we at some point like Narcissus and the outside world is our pool? We are charmed by everything we see. We crave the illusion. Especially in our time with all the social media and people sharing every detail in their lives.
If you think about it, we can’t see ourselves with our two eyes. We can see some parts of our bodies, but we go through our lives seeing the outside world and others. Even when we want to see ourselves, we see a reflection in a mirror or on another surface on the other side of us…as if it is someone else.
If I define myself from a reflection I see on the other side, then I will always be identifying myself from everything I see there.
How can I know that my mirror reflection is not distorted by how I see others, and how I see society? Just like Jean-Paul Sartre said:‘ people who live in society have learned how to see themselves in mirrors, as they appear to their friends ‘.
If Narcissus did see how he appeared to others, then how was this supposed to be the means of knowing himself? Or does the clearness of the pool mean it purifies all those veils that society put on him?
If I ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
When I look back at my childhood, I always see myself trying to mimic girls in my class. I didn’t manage to be like them and I lost myself in the way. In fact, I didn’t know I had a self to lose, I just wanted to it and be like them… to fit in. I don’t know why, but it reminds me of Narcissus when he was looking at his reflection. The only difference is, I was looking for a reflection.
It is like trying to find yourself in a mirror but ignoring or forgetting your being, maybe from a lack of self-awareness, being unaware that there is something reflected, some essence, your base matter you could use to build this image you want to show to the world, it is like a state of permanent hypnosis.