After the remarkable birth of Bacchus, Ovid breaks from his Theban cycle to introduce Tiresias, who at first seems an irrelevant distraction, but leads us into one of the best stories in the whole of the Metamorphoses told with the greatest skill: that of Echo and Narcissus.
For this, Ovid uses ingenious wordplay as part of the narrative, and to introduce a little saucy humour. In his unique full-length account of the story of Narcissus, the poet also shows insight into human psychology far in advance of his time.
From the infant Bacchus, we are taken to Jupiter and Juno, who in an idle moment are arguing over whether the man or woman gets more pleasure from sex. This incongruous topic causes them to refer the matter to Tiresias, who has apparently changed gender twice, and therefore is presumed to know both sides of the bed. When a young man, he disturbed a pair of snakes copulating, which caused him to become female. Over seven years later, he chanced upon the same event, and by striking the snakes again reverted to being male.
Tiresias sides with Jupiter’s claim that the woman derives greater pleasure than the man, and incurs Juno’s wrath. She blinds him as punishment, to which Jupiter (unable to reverse his wife’s vindictive act) compensates by giving Tiresias prophetic powers. Those are the link to the story of Echo and Narcissus, as the water nymph Liriope – who had been raped by Cephisus – brought her young son Narcissus to Tiresias for him to pronounce on his future. True to form, the prophecy is cryptic:
If he but fail to recognize himself,
a long life he may have, beneath the sun
When Narcissus was approaching manhood at the age of fifteen, Echo fell in love with him. She was a nymph who had originally been too loquacious for Juno, who transformed her power of speech so that she could only repeat the words of others:
“Your tongue, so freely wagged at my expense,
shall be of little use; your endless voice,
much shorter than your tongue.” At once the Nymph
was stricken as the goddess had decreed;—
and, ever since, she only mocks the sounds
of others’ voices, or, perchance, returns
their final words.
Ovid illustrates this wonderfully in the following passage, describing Echo in pursuit of Narcissus (I have lightly edited the translation to try to preserve the original play on words):
Presently the youth,
by chance divided from his trusted friends,
cries loudly, “Is anyone there?” and Echo, “One there!”
Replies. Amazed, he casts his eyes around,
and calls with louder voice, “Come here!” “Come here!”
She calls the youth who calls.—He turns to see
who calls him and, beholding naught exclaims,
“Avoid me not!” “Avoid me not!” returns.
He tries again, again, and is deceived
by this alternate voice, and calls aloud;
“This way! We must come together!” Echo cries,
“We must come together!” Never sound
seemed sweeter to the Nymph, and from the woods
she hastens in accordance with her words,
and strives to wind her arms around his neck.
He flies from her and as he leaves her says,
“Hands off! May I die before you enjoy my body!” Naught she answers save,
“Enjoy my body!”
Ovid then reveals the curse which afflicts young Narcissus: one youth, whom he had scorned earlier, prayed that Narcissus should never be able to win his love, which Nemesis implemented for them. This became manifest when Narcissus, slaking his thirst in a lonely pool, first saw himself: that was the moment that the young man fell in love with his own reflection.
Being unable to embrace his reflection, Narcissus pines for himself, and cannot eat or rest for his burning love for himself. Echo follows him around, watching him being consumed by this passion for himself, until he lies down on the grass and says “Farewell!” Echo repeats his valediction, and Narcissus dies.
Finally comes the transformation of the dead Narcissus into living flowers:
His Naiad sisters mourned, and having clipped
their shining tresses laid them on his corpse:
and all the Dryads mourned: and Echo made
lament anew. And these would have upraised
his funeral pyre, and waved the flaming torch,
and made his bier; but as they turned their eyes
where he had been, alas he was not there!
And in his body’s place a sweet flower grew,
golden and white, the white around the gold.
For a visual artist, Ovid’s tale of a gender-changing seer, a nymph who has become no more than an acoustic effect, and a young man who dies of self-love, are a nightmare. Despite those challenges, the story of Echo and Narcissus has inspired many of the greatest Masters, and resulted in some of the finest narrative paintings – and continues to do so even today.
That said, Tiresias has been almost completely overlooked in this role. Sadly no one has risen to the challenge of depicting his gender changes, and only Giulio Carpioni has painted Liriope Bringing Narcissus before Tiresias (c 1665).
By far the most famous painting of Narcissus with just his beloved reflection is Caravaggio’s Narcissus of 1594-96. If there is one painting that displays the virtues of masterly chiaroscuro, this is it. I also consider it one of Caravaggio’s greatest works, and perhaps one of the characters into whom the artist had deepest personal insight.
Jules-Cyrille Cavé’s Narcissus (1890) is unusual for being one of the only paintings which places the young man almost in a kiss with his reflection. Although almost unknown today, I think it is another enduring and insightful image.
There are fine depictions of Narcissus alone, but to tell Ovid’s interwoven story fully, the presence of Echo is all but essential. Such combined works seem to have reached their peak at the end of the nineteenth century.
Ludwig von Hofmann’s Narcissus from about 1900 captures Ovid’s echoing wordplay. Narcissus stoops, as if listening for the repetition of the end of his words from the near-mute Echo beside him. It is incredibly difficult for a painting to convey any sound, but I think von Hofmann has just about managed to accomplish that.
Von Hofmann was a contemporary of Lovis Corinth, painted with a not dissimilar style, and like him was a co-founder of the Berlin Secession.
Talbot Hughes’ Echo (1900) reverses the more popular scene, with the nymph splayed across most of its foreground, surrounded by narcissus flowers, and the ghostly image of a man perhaps appearing in the waterfall at the top left, with its poignant reflection. Echo is in a rocky gorge, where we would expect to hear echoes, and holding her right hand cupped against her ear. She even wears narcissus flowers in her hair.
A couple of narcissus flowers are also to be seen at the far right edge of John William Waterhouse’s Echo and Narcissus (1903), which combines the young man staring longingly at his reflection, with the forlorn and near-silent figure of Echo stood at the left.
I suspect that Waterhouse was well aware of Poussin’s justly famous Echo and Narcissus of about 1630, which shows the final moments of the story: Narcissus is asleep, nearing death, his flowers already coming into bloom beside his head. In the background, Echo looks mutely on, knowing that her love will remain unrequited. Cupid stands still, holding his torch, but his arrow points to the heavens.
These and other artists have shown how the visual arts can tell a story which revolves around sound, and the depths of human nature. They have matched Ovid’s brilliant words with equally brilliant images.
The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.