Metamorphoses III:339-510 – Echo and Narcissus

Echo and Narcissus

Artist Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Nuremberg edition, 1703.

Tiresias became famous throughout the cities of Aonia for giving unfailingly accurate predictions to those who asked him about fate. The first of those to demonstrate with certain confidence the truth of his words was the sea nymph Liriope whom once the river-spirit Cephisos had raped, binding her in his curving banks and smothering her with his waves. 

When her time came, the lovely nymph gave birth to an infant who even from the first was utterly loveable; she named him Narcissus. When she asked Tiresias whether her son would live to ripe old age, he replied, “Yes, if he doesn’t meet himself.

For a long time the soothsayer’s prediction appeared meaningless. The final result proved its accuracy, though, in the form of the boy’s death and the unique madness which caused it.

When the son of Cephisos became fifteen, he could be viewed either as a boy or a youth. Many youths desired the boy while many girls desired the youth, but so harshly arrogant was the soul in that tender form that no youth nor girl could touch him.

The nymph Echo could not remain silent if someone else spoke, nor could she herself speak first. She saw Narcissus while he was netting terrified stags. At the time Echo had a body, not just a voice, but her powers of speech were as limited as they now are: she could only reply with the last word of whatever was said to her.

Juno had done this to her, because one day the goddess had gone out to catch Jove sporting with nymphs on the mountainside. Echo had deliberately held Juno in conversation while the nymphs fled to safety. After Saturn’s daughter Juno realized what’d happened, she said, “I will let you retain only the least power, the very slightest use, of this tongue with which you tricked me.”

Juno made good on her threat: from then on Echo sadly spoke the final portion of a sentence and returned the words she had heard.

Therefore when she saw Narcissus wandering odd nooks of the countryside and burned with love for him, she could only follow his track secretly. But the more she watched him, the hotter burned the flame in her. It was like seeing sulfur smeared around the ends of torches take fire when they’re touched with flame.

Oh how often she wished to come to him with sweet words and grasp him with her gentle prayers! Nature didn’t permit her to do what she wished, but she was ready to do everything which it did allow: she was waiting for him to say something to which she could reply.

Perchance the boy, drawn away from his band of faithful companions, called, “Is anyone here?” Echo responded, “One here!”

This amazed him. He looked in all directions and called, “Come here!” loudly. “Come here,” she replied.

Again he looked around but didn’t see anyone coming. “Why do you flee me?” he called, and she responded in the same words.

“Here, let’s come together,” he called, and Echo had never spoken a more heartfelt word when she cried, “Let’s come together!” She rushed through the forest, intending to suit her action to her words and throw her arms about the neck which she so desired.

But he fled when he saw her, crying, “Take your hands away from me! I’ll die before I’d give the time to you!” She could only respond, “I’d give the time to you….”

Spurned, she hid in the woods and covered her embarrassed face with leaves. Her love remained, however, and even grew with grief at her repulse. Sleepless worry thinned her body, and lack of food wore away her skin. Her juices evaporated and her whole body wasted away. For a time only her voice and her bones remained; then it was her voice alone, for her bones had turned to rock. From that day Echo hides in the forest and is never seen on the bare slopes of the hills. She is heard by everyone, but only the sound of her lives.

Thus Narcissus treated her, and not only her but the other nymphs of the streams and hillsides as well as the pubescent boys who desired him. Finally another scorned youth lifted his hands to the heavens and prayed, “Thus may he love, and may thus he be unable to gain his love!” Rhamnusian Nemesis heard the prayer and found it just.

There was a spring without a hint of mud, silvery with shining waters. Neither the shepherds nor the she-goats they tended on the hillside ever drank from it, nor did any other animal of the herd. Neither bird nor beast disturbed it, nor ever did a tree branch fall into its water. Around it grew grasses nourished by its water and a glade which shadowed it from the warming touch of the sun.

Here the boy, drawn by the look of the place and the spring, threw himself down one day, tired from hunting and the summer heat. In trying to quench his thirst he awakened another thirst: for while he drank, he was entranced by the reflection of the form he saw, falling in love with a bodiless hope. He mistook the spring for the body and stood amazed by himself, so paralyzed by his own visage that he might’ve been a statue of Parian marble.

Lying on the sward he saw twin stars–his own eyes–and hair worthy of Bacchus, worthy of Apollo; he saw youthful cheeks and an ivory neck and lovely features in which a blush was mixed with snowy whiteness. He, who was a marvel to all, marveled at all these things.

Unwisely he desired and was approved by him whom he approved. He who sought was equally sought; he both kindled love and burned with it. Oh how often he gave vain kisses to the deceitful fountain! How often he plunged his arms into those waters to grasp the neck he saw there–and grasped nothing. He didn’t know what he was seeing, but what he saw burned him. The very eyes that tricked him were the font of his desire.

Trusting fool, why do you vainly snatch at fleeting images? What you search for doesn’t exist and never did! Turn away from what you love, doomed one! What you see is merely a shadow, a reflected image. It has no separate being: it came with you and stays with you. It will leave with you–if you’re able to leave!

Neither need for food nor of sleep was able to drag Narcissus away. Sprawled on the dark vegetation he stared at the lying image with longing eyes, and through those eyes he slew himself.

Lifting himself a little, he raised his arms to the surrounding trees and cried, “Tell me, trees, what love was ever crueler? For you have seen much; many lovers have found opportunity in your shady nooks. In all the centuries of your existence do you remember anyone to have wasted away as I do? He is pleasing, and I see him; but though I see him and he pleases, nonetheless I cannot find him: it is a delusion which makes me love.

“I grieve the more because we’re separated not by a great sea nor a long road nor mountains nor walls whose gates are shut: we are barred from one another by a film of water.

“He desires to be held! So often as I bend to kiss him who lies on his back in the shimmering water, he raises himself toward my lips. You might think I could touch him. It is a tiny thing that obstructs us two lovers.

“Whoever you are, come here! Why do you deceive me, perfect youth? Where is it that you flee when I reach for you? Certainly it can’t be my beauty nor my youth that drives you away, for all the nymphs love me. You give me hope with your come-hither glances, and when I stretch my arms out to you, you seem to embrace me. When I laughed, you laugh with me; but often I saw your tears when I too was crying. You nod to me when I nod, and although I can read the words on your beautiful lips, the sounds do not reach my ears.

“I am my own love! I realized that, nor does my image deceive me. I am consumed with love of myself, and I both light the flames and bear them. What will I do? Shall I be asked for a date or ask for one–and who then will I ask?

“The thing I desire is mine already. The very completeness of my victory ensures my defeat. Oh would that I could step out of my own body! Here’s a vow that Love never heard before: I wish that I could be apart from my beloved!

“Already misery robs me of my strength. The period of my life cannot be long extended; I will be snuffed out in my prime. Death doesn’t weigh on me, for with death I will put aside my cares. But would that he for whom I yearn might live longer. For we will die two hearts together in one soul.”

Thus he spoke. As his sanity slipped away, he plunged his face into the water and disturbed it with his tears. The image blurred into the shaken surface.

“Why are you fleeing?” he cried. “Stay and do not desert your lover, cruel one! Though I cannot touch you, I should still be permitted to see you and thus add fuel to my miserable passion.”

While he grieved, he pulled his garment over his head and beat his bare breast with his alabaster hands. His stricken breast swelled with a rosy blush. It was like an apple, white in part but red in part, or the way grapes form varicolored clusters before they reach their purple maturity.

When the water cleared, Narcissus saw that loveliness again and melted like yellow beeswax in a flame or morning frost that’s warmed by the sun. He was wasted by love and eaten away by the fire within. The white-mixed-with-red color was gone, nor did he retain his energy or strength or other pleasing traits. Not even the body which Echo had loved remained.

Yet though she saw that, despite the anger and her memories, she still grieved. Each time the wretched boy called, “Alas!” she repeated his resonant cry, “Alas!” When he pounded his arms with his hands, she clapped the same grief back in reply.

The last words of the boy looking into the water he desired were, “Oh, vainly beloved youth!” The woods gave back the same words, and when he called “Goodbye,” Echo too called, “Goodbye!”

Narcissus lay his worn-out head on the green turf; Death closed his eyes, marveling at the beauty of the boy’s form.

Even after Narcissus entered the realm of the dead he spent his time staring into the water of the Styx. The Naiads bewailed him and the boys of his age dedicated their boyhood locks to him; the Dryads also wailed. Echo responded to the mourners as they prepared a bier, a pyre, and torches to light it.

But there was no body, merely a crimson stamen for the body in the midst of white petals.

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