On Thomas Moore’s interpretation of the myth of Narcissus
Moore suggests that the myth is about Narcissus growing into fullness and self-knowledge; that it is about the pain of growing that accompanies insight. I had previously assumed that the myth was simply a warning against pride and vanity; I like how the story points to the role the more-than-human world can play in showing us the larger truth of things and leading us towards transformational insights.
Here is Ovid’s story:
Narcissus is the son of a river god and a nymph. Water is his element. At his birth, blind Tiresias the seer predicts, “He will live to a ripe old age – provided he never comes to know himself.”
Narcissus grows into a ravishingly beautiful youth of sixteen. He is like a classical statue: flawless, cold, impenetrable like marble. He has many admirers who flock around him, yet none can ever get close to him – his pride is hard. One of his followers is a nymph called Echo. She can only say the words she has just heard. Narcissus is scathing of Echo and rejects her advances which hurts her so much that she actually disappears. All that remains of her is her voice.
Narcissus breaks many hearts. Another of the people he has scorned curses him:
“May he fall in love and not have what he loves.”
The goddess Nemesis hears this prayer and decides to intervene.
Narcissus goes walking into the forest, into the shadows. Deep in the heart of the woods he comes across a pool, still and dark. It is stiller and deeper than any other pool. He bends down to the water to drink, and is captivated by the face he sees there. At once he is filled with a deep longing for this creature. He wants to possess it. He has never seen or felt anything like this before. He reaches forward, and disturbs the water but the beautiful figure eludes his grasp.
Narcissus longs to be united with the image he has found. Now, like the lovers he spurned, he pines and suffers intensely. He is tormented by the fact that he is so close to this face and yet cannot reach it. He draws back, searching for guidance. He calls out to the trees that surround him:
“Has anyone ever had as much longing as I have?”
His grief is awakening his soul, and as he talks to nature he acknowledges its soul and brings it to life as his own soul awakens. Suddenly he realises: “It’s me!”
Having fallen in love with an image he thought was someone else, Narcissus now sees that the image is his reflection. Yet now he has a view of himself as someone else – a loveable soul. The boundaries of his identity have expanded. He is as mysterious and deep as the pool.
“What I long for I have.”
Then Narcissus realises that he is dying. He beats his chest in his grief, and his previously hard exterior flushes red. Love consumes him like a fire, transforming him and generating his soul in its heat. He surrenders to his fate, lies down by the pool, and melts like wax into the earth. As he sinks down into the Underworld he continues to gaze at the beloved image in the waters of the River Styx.
In the place where he had lain on the earth, a beautiful flower springs up. It has soft, pale petals with a blazing heart: the narcissus.