Aoibheann Sweeney – Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking

My favorite stories, in Ovid’s verse, describe metamorphosis as the culmination of a relentless, heedless desire…Too often, though, metamorphosis is only a whim of the gods.

I disliked, for instance, the story of Narcissus, the boy who had fallen in love with himself. In Ovid’s version it is inseparable from the story of Echo, though in more popular versions it stands on its own. Echo was a talkative nymph, whose only sin was that she made the mistake of trying to distract Juno during one of Jove’s dalliances. In her jealous rage, Juno had taken away the nymph’s power of speech, but she had not simply turned her into a mute–she had taken from her the power to speak first. Condemned only to repeat what she heard, Echo took to hiding, it was said, in woods and mountain caves, where she grew gaunt with loneliness until, at the even crueler whim of Fate, she laid eyes on Narcissus.

Narcissus was the son of a water god, and was said to be more beautiful than the nymphs themselves. Echo fell madly in love with him, and followed him in silence for days, until at last he turned and looked behind him. “Is anybody here?” he asked. “Here!” she answered, joyfully echoing back. She must have thought herself, in that moment, beautiful again, for she stepped out into the open, and Narcissus saw the wretched, elusive creature she had become.

He turned away in horror, and Echo withered from that day forward, consumed with shame, until only her voice remained. The other nymphs, long sympathetic to her plight, demanded of the gods that Narcissus meet a similar fate, but Narcissus was too beautiful for anyone to spurn him the way he did Echo. His end was much more gentle: drinking from a pool of the water he was born from, he is said to have seen his reflection and, believing it was another water spirit, fallen in love with himself. Though the water spirit seemed to return his affection exactly, he would not approach, and Narcissus, paralyzed with longing, was riveted to the spot and turned into a flower bearing his name.

I always thought Narcissus, wasting his youth in vanity, had committed a worse crime than Echo, who was only trying to protect another nymph from Juno’s wrath. Ovid never says that Echo lied to Juno, only that she distracts her. But in the end it is Echo who is punished, doomed to live the rest of her life in the shadows, while Narcissus becomes a perennial flower, as immortal as springtime.

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