The tale, like most tales in mythology, begins with Zeus’s desire to frolic with the mountain nymphs while hiding from the jealous eye of Hera, his wife. Some versions say that Zeus tasked Echo with distracting Hera with her chatter (it came to her naturally, says Ovid), and some claim that she was no more than an unwitting accomplice, but regardless of what is true, Hera curses Echo that she would lose her most prized possession: her ability to speak.
In the words of Thomas Bullfinch:
Echo was a beautiful nymph, fond of the woods and hills, where she devoted herself to woodland sports. She was a favourite of Diana, and attended her in the chase. But Echo had one failing; she was fond of talking, and whether in chat or argument, would have the last word.
One day Juno was seeking her husband, who, she had reason to fear, was amusing himself among the nymphs. Echo by her talk contrived to detain the goddess till the nymphs made their escape. When Juno discovered it, she passed sentence upon Echo in these words: “You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with which you have cheated me, except for that one purpose you are so fond of – reply. You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first.”
Enter Narcissus, an extremely beautiful son of a God and a nymph. Both women and men of Thespia desired him, they say, but he had no inkling for romance or love. Wherever he went, he left broken hearts in his wake. The cursed Echo chances upon him and falls in love with him, but unable to speak to him, she’s reduced to repeating the last words of whatever Narcissus says.
One day the youth, being separated from his companions, shouted aloud, “Who’s here?” Echo replied, “Here.” Narcissus looked around, but seeing no one, called out, “Come.” Echo answered, “Come.” As no one came, Narcissus called again, “Why do you shun me?” Echo asked the same question. “Let us join one another,” said the youth. The maid answered with all her heart in the same words, and hastened to the spot, ready to throw her arms about his neck.
He started back, exclaiming, “Hands off! I would rather die than you should have me!” “Have me,” said she.
But it was all in vain. Spurned by Narcissus, Echo retreats into the mountains, and with time her body shrivels away, until all that is left of her is her voice. Even today, if you go to the mountains and raise your voice to call out to her, she will answer.
What happens of Narcissus, though? He too is cursed (in some versions by Apollo, in others by Artemis) to fall in love with something he cannot have, so that one day, when he comes across a reflection of himself in a clear pool, he becomes consumed by desire for himself. But every time he tries to touch the object of his love, the water gets disturbed and the reflection becomes checkered.
He fell in love with himself. He brought his lips near to take a kiss; he plunged his arms in to embrace the beloved object. It fled at the touch, but returned again after a moment and renewed the fascination. He could not tear himself away; he lost all thought of food or rest. while he hovered over the brink of the fountain gazing upon his own image.
His tears fell into the water and disturbed the image. As he saw it depart, he exclaimed, “Stay, I entreat you! Let me at least gaze upon you, if I may not touch you.” With this, and much more of the same kind, he cherished the flame that consumed him, so that by degrees be lost his colour, his vigour, and the beauty which formerly had so charmed the nymph Echo.
This love for himself would accompany him after his death, too. When his shade passes over the River Styx on its final journey to the underworld, it is said that it repeatedly leans over the ferry to catch a glimpse of itself in the waters.
The nature of desire
The story of Narcissus of course tells us of the folly of being self-obsessed. But doesn’t it also reveal the very nature of human desire? No matter how much we have, we yearn for something we cannot get. The unattainable and the unattained fill our beings, and like Echo we waste away obsessing about them, forgetting to notice the things that we do have. In Narcissus we see a reflection of ourselves, forever spurning the attention of friends and seeking the approval of strangers.
What is your favourite story of unrequited love? They say everyone has a memory of one that got away. Do you too?