Narcissus: Origin Story of The Narcissist In Greek Mythology

— By Dr. Sandip Roy.

The term ‘narcissism’ originates from the ancient myth of Narcissus.

Narcissus is a fascinating figure in Greek mythology. His tale first appeared in Book 3 of the poet Ovid’s epic Metamorphosis.

His story of unrequited love and self-love has inspired artists, poets, and psychologists.

Handsome Hunter Narcissus

Narcissus was a hunter from Thespiae in Boeotia, born to the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope.

A blind fortune-teller predicted that Narcissus would live long, but only if he never recognized himself.

“Thus, having become very famous in the cities of Aonia, the one (Tiresias) gave irrefutable responses to those who consulted him. The first to test the authenticity of his words was the blue Lirìope, whom Cefiso had one day pushed into a bend in his current, imprisoned in the waves and raped. When she got pregnant, the beautiful nymph gave birth to a child who aroused love from birth, and called him Narcissus. Asked if the little boy would see the distant days of late old age, the soothsayer replied: “If he doesn’t know himself.” For a long time the prediction seemed meaningless, but then the outcome of things, the type of death and the strange passion confirmed it.”

— Metamorphosis (Ovidio)

As he grew, so did his fame as an extremely handsome man with impeccable hunting skills.

Narcissus’ Youthful Arrogance

Narcissus became the object of many men’s jealousy and the dream of many women’s desires.

Narcissus by René-Antoine Houasse, 1688-1689
Narcissus by René-Antoine Houasse, 1688-1689 (Source: Wikimedia)

In his youthful arrogance, he turned down all romantic advances.

This made people accuse him of having hubris—excessive pride—which was a grave sin in Greek mythology. They said Narcissus thought no one was good enough for him.

Heartbreak of Echo

Narcissus captivated Echo. She was a nymph — a minor female deity In Greek mythology connected with water and forests.

But she was cursed with the ability to only speak by repeating the last words spoken to her.

One day, she approached Narcissus to tell him her love for him. But her curse made it hard for her to express herself.

Narcissus rejected her, harshly.

Echo, severely heartbroken, ran and hid herself in the forest. Her life of complete solitude was filled with just her own echo as company.

Revenge of Nemesis

Greek gods often dealt severe punishments to people who hurt others out of their hubris.

Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, was moved by Echo’s sorrow.

She decided to punish Narcissus with her full wrath.

Pool of Water

One day, while walking in the woods, he felt thirsty. Nemesis lured him to a pool of water that was as clear as silver.

In those days, before mirrors existed, one of the few ways people could see their reflections was in clear water.

As Narcissus bent down to drink, he caught sight of his reflection in the water.

Narcissus Falls In Love With Himself

Narcissus was unaware of his own exceptional beauty. So, he thought the image was of a beautiful spirit living in the water.

Narcissus reached out his hand into the water to touch the spirit, but it dispersed as wavelets formed.

Perplexed, he waited until the water calmed down and the spirit reappeared.

He tried to touch it once more, but the image on the water surface dispersed again.

The Tragic End

Narcissus stood transfixed, falling deeply in love with the handsome spirit in the pool.

Unable to leave, he sat gazing at it for days and weeks, forgetting his thirst and hunger, pining for it to come out.

He couldn’t pull himself away because he was enchanted by his own beauty — it was like no one he had ever seen before.

Finally, realizing the spirit could not reciprocate his love, Narcissus wilted away and died.

The Transformation

The mountain nymphs mourned Narcissus and went to bury him. But they could not find his body.

In death, Narcissus had turned into a gold and white flower. This flower was named Narcissus, by another name, Daffodil.

The Narcissus flower symbolizes unrequited love and the consequences of excessive self-love.

The Lesson of Narcissus

Narcissus thought the spirit in the reflection was more beautiful than any man or god. Hopelessly enamored, he fell in love with it, dismissing everything else.

This wasn’t mindful self-love, but a blinding love with a false self-image.

This obsession with his self-image led psychologists to adopt his name to describe narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Narcissists have a similar unhealthy and destructive obsession with their own perfect image.

Narcissus could never understand that the reflection was his own. So, in truth, he fell in love with his self-image. That is what narcissists do — be in love with their grandiose self-image.

Echo, Narcissus, And Psychology

There are two main types of narcissism, grandiose and vulnerable.

Today, we think that grandiose narcissism has characteristics of the male character of Narcissus. And the vulnerable narcissism has features of the female character of Echo.

  • Narcissism in males appears to be more commonly associated with grandiosity, exhibitionism, entitlement, and inflated self-esteem.
  • Narcissism in females appears to more commonly reflect the feminine form displayed by Echo, characterized by shame, hypersensitivity, and low self-esteem.

In 1898, Havelock Ellis coined the term ‘Narcissus-like’ to illustrate an autoerotic sexual condition in males, where they see the self as a sexual object. It was based on the myth of Narcissus.

Around 1911, Otto Rank started writing exclusively on narcissism, based on his studies of female patients. Rank saw narcissism as a feeling of self-admiration and vanity, not exclusively sexual.

Then came Freud. His 1914 essay “On Narcissism: An Introduction” marked narcissism as a stage of psycho-sexual development.

Due to Freud, generations believed that narcissism was a universal stage that every child went through. It was a part of self-preservation, and also an indicator of a disturbing pathological character — sexual perversion. This was later proven wrong.

Kernberg (1975) and Kohut (1977) were the most prominent theorists in the concept of narcissism.

Kernberg’s theory of narcissism reflected themes of grandiosity and aggression, a pathology he believed to be a subtype of a borderline personality configuration.

Kohut’s idea of narcissistic pathology is more focused on vulnerability, shame, and depression.

Final Words

Narcissus is sometimes called the god of vanity. His story taught people about the dangers of extreme pride and selfish self-love.

That idea of over-selfishness from history has changed to a perversion, and then to a personality disorder.

Today, the word narcissist loosely means someone who’s too focused on their own interests or problems.

This blind self-focus may be explained by a core feature of narcissism — low empathy. These people cannot clearly recognize or feel another person’s emotional state.

√ Also Read: Narcissistic Projection: Know It & Handle It (With Examples)

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