After my last Flower Power subject, the daffodil, it seems natural to follow it with the narcissus. The daffodil’s botanical name is Narcissus pseudonarcissus and it is just one of 14 different narcissus species.
You probably know that Narcissus is a slang name for a young man who fusses over his appearance as if in love with himself. This use has been around for centuries. I’m sure we all know a young gay man just like it (not one that’s been around for centuries, but one who fusses over his appearance – but then, who knows)!
The story of its origin goes back to the famous legend which has been told and retold many times. But the full story of Narcissus includes a gay angle which is often overlooked in favour of the famous Echo episode. Here’s my version.
Narcissus was the son of Cephissus, a river god, and a nymph called Leiriope. After his birth Leiriope went to a prophet to ask what kind of future the boy would have. The prophet was Tiresias, a remarkable human who was punished by Hera by being turned into a woman for 7 years. After been married and had children, Tiresias was turned back into a man. He’s a perfect candidate for his own blog post. Tiresias told Leiriope that Narcissus would have a long life, but his doom would come if he ever saw his own reflection. Startled by this Leiriope removed all mirrors and reflective surfaces from the home. Narcissus grew up without ever knowing what he looked like.
As it happened Narcissus grew up to be drop-dead gorgeous, and everyone told him so. Soon he had all the men and women drooling over him, especially one young lad called Ameinias. No matter how much he pleaded he couldn’t persuade Narcissus to become his lover. In the end Narcissus sent a dagger to Ameinias as a gift. Ameinias took this as a sign to keep out the Narcissus’s life and for him to kill himself, so he stabbed himself.
Then we come to the more famous episode of Narcissus and the nymph Echo. She earned the anger of Hera by distracting her whenever her husband Zeus sneaked off for a bit of extra-marital activity. So Hera, sick of Echo’s distracting chattering, ordered that Echo would never speak her own words again but only repeat words spoken to her instead.
One day Echo saw Narcissus in a woody glade and fell madly in love with him. She flung herself at him. Startles at first, Narcissus asked her who she was, but all he got from her were echoes of his own words. Very unsettled by this Narcissus pulled away and ran off with Echo in hot pursuit. She lost track of him in the winding canyons and in his sadness wasted away to nothing, leaving only her voice to repeat the words of others.
As for Narcissus, well he was glad to escape but needed to cool down from all the running, so he stopped by a pool to refresh himself. Looking into the still water he saw a face he’d never seen before. He was instantly attracted to it, but when he reached out to touch it the face disappeared into ripples. He didn’t realise it was his own reflection, having never seen it before.
Unable to look away from his reflection, as the prophet said at his birth, his fate was sealed. Transfixed by his own beauty Narcissus was unable to eat or drink. Being half-god, half-nymph, he couldn’t die like a mortal, and, like Echo, wasted away to nothing. In place of his body a bed of new flowers grew. Mountain nymphs named the flower after him.