|Greek and Roman Mythology > Echo and Narcissus
Echo and Narcissus
she devoted herself to woodland sports. She was a favorite 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."
This nymph saw Narcissus, a beautiful youth, as he pursued the
chase upon the mountains. She loved him, and followed his
footsteps. Oh, how she longed to address him in the softest
accents, and win him to converse, but it was not in her power.
She waited with impatience for him to speak first, and had her
answer ready. 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. He left her, and she went
to hide her blushes in the recesses of the woods. From that time
forth she lived in caves and among mountain cliffs. Her form
faded with grief, till at last all her flesh shrank away. Her
bones were changed into rocks, and there was nothing left of her
but her voice. With that she is still ready to reply to any one
who calls her, and keeps up her old habit of having the last
Narcissus was cruel not in this case alone. He shunned all the
rest of the nymphs as he had done poor Echo. One day a maiden,
who had in vain endeavored to attract him, uttered a prayer that
he might some time or other feel what it was to love and meet no
return of affection. The avenging goddess heard and granted the
There was a clear fountain, with water like silver, to which the
shepherds never drove their flocks. Nor did the mountain goats
resort to it, nor any of the beasts of the forest; neither was it
defaced with fallen leaves or branches; but the grass grew fresh
around it, and the rocks sheltered it from the sun. Hither came
one day the youth fatigued with hunting, heated and thirsty. He
stooped down to drink, and saw his own image in the water; he
thought it was some beautiful water=spirit living in the
fountain. He stood gazing with admiration at those bright eyes,
those locks curled like the locks of Bacchus or Apollo, the
rounded cheeks, the ivory neck, the parted lips, and the glow of
health and exercise over all. 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.
He talked with the supposed spirit: "Why, beautiful being, do you
shun me? Surely my face is not one to repel you. The nymphs
love me, and you yourself look not indifferent upon me. When I
stretch forth my arms you do the same; and you smile upon me and
answer my beckonings with the like." 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 he lost his color, his vigor, and the beauty which
formerly had so charmed the nymph Echo. She kept near him,
however, and when he exclaimed, "Alas! Alas!" she answered him
with the same words. He pined away and died; and when his shade
passed the Stygian river, it leaned over the boat to catch a look
of itself in the waters. The nymphs mourned for him, especially
the water-nymphs; and when they smote their breasts, Echo smote
hers also. They prepared a funeral pile, and would have burned
the body, but it was nowhere to be found; but in its place a
flower, purple within, and surrounded with white leaves, which
bears the name and preserves the memory of Narcissus.
Milton alludes to the story of Echo and Narcissus in the Lady's
song in Comus. She is seeking her brothers in the forest, and
sings to attract their attention.
"Sweet Echo, sweetest nymph, that liv'st unseen
Within thy aery shell
By slow Meander's margent green.
And in the violet-embroidered vale,
Where the love-lorn nightingale
Nightly to thee her sad song mourneth well;
Canst thou not tell me of a gentle pair
That likes thy Narcissus are?
Oh, if thou have
Hid them in some flowery cave,
Tell me but where,
Sweet queen of parly, daughter of the sphere,
So may'st thou be translated to the skies,
And give resounding grace to all heaven's harmonies."
Milton has imitated the story of Narcissus in the account which
he makes Eve give of the first sight of herself reflected in the
"That day I oft remember when from sleep
I first awaked, and found myself reposed
Under a shade on flowers, much wondering where
And what I was, whence thither brought, and how
Not distant far from thence a murmuring sound
Of waters issued from a cave, and spread
Into a liquid plain, then stood unmoved
Pure as the expanse of heaven; I thither went
With unexperienced thought, and laid me down
On the green bank, to look into the clear
Smooth lake that to me seemed another sky.
As I bent down to look, just opposite
A shape within the watery gleam appeared,
Bending to look on me. I started back;
It started back; but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love. There had I fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warned me: 'What thou seest,
What there thou seest, fair creature, is thyself.'"
Paradise Lost, Book IV
The fable of Narcissus is often alluded to by the poets. Here
are two epigrams which treat it in different ways. The first is
"ON A BEAUTIFUL YOUTH STRUCK BLIND BY LIGHTNING:
"Sure 'twas by Providence designed,
Rather in pity than in hate,
That he should be like Cupid blind,
To save him from Narcissus' fate"
The other is by Cowper:
"ON AN UGLY FELLOW
"Beware, my friend, of crystal brook
Or fountain, lest that hideous hook.
Thy nose, thou chance to see;
Narcissus' fate would then be thine,
And self-detested thou would'st pine,
As self-enamored he."