At the last High Desert Mythological RoundTable, where I recently told the myth of Narcissus and Echo, Narcissus was uniformly scorned, even reviled. Echo garnered what sympathy there was to be had and if there was anything heroic in the story, folks agreed, it washer steadfast devotion. I accept that, if we decide that the myth is "about" narcissism. And of course it is, on one level. Narcissism is a preoccupation with the self that makes intimate relationships with others impossible. Maybe it's about co-dependency too. Echo loved the sound of her own voice and Narcissus loved his own image. But Echo can't live without him and Narcissus needs only himself. She expresses herself through him. They seem perfectly matched in a way.
Interestingly, Narcissus and narcissism are etymologically related to the Greek "narc" as in narcotic, meaning "numbness." There is some uncertainty over the actual, literal flower (which may or may not have been the one we now call "narcissus") but according to the myth-based literature, the narcissus flower is a cure for frostbite and afflictions of the ears, although apt to give a headache.
Isn't this stuff great?
But disdain for Narcissus and his narcissism is the interpretation we've been somewhat conditioned to reach for, beginning with Ovid, the ancient Roman poet who popularized the myth of Narcissus and Echo in the Metamorphoses, and then Freud, who defined the psychological syndrome and provided the mythological namesake in 1914. Since Freud, the term "narcissistic" has been widely employed and carries a lot of meaning in a society that is, as many of us experience it, shallow, self-absorbed, and alienating. We're pretty familiar with the idea of narcissism, and it is one of those psychological conditions that, by definition, one observes in others (and perhaps projects) but cannot see in oneself. Ahem.
How else might we read this myth? What does the story tell us? Narcissus was born beautiful and inspired love from the start. He experienced the reactions of others to him, but he did not truly grasp this capacity in himself (which was his defining characteristic) until he experienced it himself, until he saw himself in the pool of water. There is self-love. But since Narcissus discovers himself, we could also say that the myth is "about" self-awareness. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell likens Narcissus at the pool to the Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree. Deep self-awareness, Campbell observes, the realization that one IS, and the understanding that the essence of oneself and the world are ONE is a necessary stage, although not the goal. Narcissus did not get beyond this point. But he seems to have not known who or what he was until he saw his own face reflected in the pool (world?). Could he truly know himself without this experience?
At this point I must ask, is there any other well known myth in which human beings are discouraged from self-knowledge and rewarded with death?