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Who was Narcissus?

Narcissus is fascinated by his own reflection in the surface of the water. Oil painting by Peter Paul Rubens, 17th century.

Narcissus is fascinated by his own reflection in the surface of the water. Oil painting by Peter Paul Rubens, 17th century.

Narcissus was a son of the Boeotian river-god Cephissus and Liriope, the water-nymph. The famous seer Tiresias predicted that he would live for a long time "as long as he did not know himself." Narcissus grew up and at the age of sixteen, he was a beautiful boy who turned the heads of both men and women. He was, however, so arrogant that he was completely indifferent to other people's charms. Then the talkative nymph, Echo, who constantly imitated everyone but could not be the first to speak, fell passionately in love with him. With her noteworthy, parrot-like talent, Echo tended to keep talking whenever Zeus was making love to other nymphs. Narcissus very curtly rejected poor Echo, after which the girl languished completely. Her body faded away, her bones turned to stone, and only her voice, the echo, remained. Narcissus rejected many others after Echo.

One of his rejected suitors wished the boy would himself one day experience unrequited love. This wish was granted. One warm summer's day, when Narcissus was resting from the hunt by a lake with a glassy, smooth surface, he became fascinated by his own reflection in the water. He fell passionately in love with this beautiful reflection which, of course, constantly evaded him. Narcissus stayed close to the water. He was no longer capable of eating or sleeping and suffered greatly because his beloved reflection immediately reacted to his grin and answered his approaches, but then evaporated.

Obsessed by his love for himself, Narcissus pined away, so that even the rejected Echo became sad and tried to imitate his cries of despair. Finally, Narcissus died of a broken heart. Even in the kingdom of the dead, he remained under the spell of his own reflection, which he could admire in the black waters of the Styx, the river of the under world. Today he lives on in the term "narcissism,"which denotes morbid self-love.

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