Narcissus: Classic Greek Icon of Extreme Self-Love

Narcissus and Echo (1903), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation by John William Waterhouse
Narcissus and Echo (1903), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation by John William Waterhouse, Walker Art Gallery.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

Narcissus is a legendarily handsome young man in Greek mythology and the basis of a fertility myth. He experiences a particularly extreme form of self-love which leads to his death and transformation into a narcissus flower, fit to attract the goddess Persephone on her way to Hades. 

Fast Facts: Narcissus, Greek Icon of Extreme Self-Love

  • Alternate Names: Narkissus (Greek)
  • Roman Equivalent: Narcissus (Roman)
  • Culture/Country: Classical Greek and Roman
  • Realms and Powers: The woodlands, no powers to speak of
  • Parents: His mother was the nymph Liriope, his father the river god Kephisos
  • Primary Sources: Ovid ("The Metamorphosis" III, 339–510), Pausanius, Conon

Narcissus in Greek Mythology 

According to Ovid's "Metamorphosis," Narcissus is the son of the river god Kephissos (Cephissus). He was conceived when Kephissos fell in love with and raped the nymph Leirope (or Liriope) of Thespiae, ensnaring her with his winding streams. Concerned for his future, Leirope consults the blind seer Tiresias, who tells her that her son will reach old age if he "never knows himself," a warning and an ironic reversal of the classic Greek ideal, "Know thyself," which was carved on the temple in Delphi. 

Narcissus dies and is reborn as a plant, and that plant is associated with Persephone, who collects it on the way to the Underworld (Hades). She must spend six months of the year underground, which results in the changing season. Therefore, Narcissus' tale, like that of the divine warrior Hyacinth, is also considered a fertility myth.

Narcissus and Echo

Although a stunningly beautiful young man, Narcissus is heartless. Regardless of the adoration of men, women, and mountain and water nymphs, he spurns them all. Narcissus' history is tied up with the nymph Echo, who was cursed by Hera. Echo had distracted Hera by keeping up a constant flow of chatter while her sisters were dallying with Zeus. When Hera realized she'd been tricked, she declared that the nymph would never be able to speak her own thoughts again, but could only repeat what others said. 

One day, wandering in the forest, Echo meets Narcissus, who had been separated from his hunting companions. She tries to embrace him but he spurns her. He cries "I would die before I would give you a chance at me," and she answers, "I'd give you a chance at me." Heartbroken, Echo wanders off into the forest and eventually mourns her life away to nothing. When her bones turn to stone, all that's left is her voice answering others lost in the wilderness.

Echo and Narcissus, 1630, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), oil on canvas
Echo and Narcissus, 1630, by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), oil on canvas. G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

A Fading Death

Finally, one of Narcissus' suitors prays to Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, imploring her to make Narcissus suffer an unrequited love of his own. Narcissus reaches a fountain where the waters are unruffled, smooth and silvery, and he stares into the pool. He is instantly smitten, and eventually recognizes himself—"I am him!" he cries—but he can't tear himself away. 

Like Echo, Narcissus simply fades away. Unable to move away from his image, he dies from exhaustion and unsatisfied desire. Mourned by the woodland nymphs, when they come to gather his body for burial they only find a flower—the narcissus, with a saffron-colored cup and white petals.

To this day, Narcissus lives in the Underworld, transfixed and unable to move from his image in the River Styx. 

White daffodils on a rustic wooden background.
White daffodils on a rustic wooden background. Marfffa / Getty Images Plus

Narcissus as a Symbol

To the Greeks, the narcissus flower is a symbol of early death—it is the flower gathered by Persephone on her way to Hades, and it is thought to have a narcotic fragrance. In some versions, Narcissus is not transfixed by his image out of self-love, but instead mourns his twin sister.

Today, Narcissus is the symbol used in modern psychology for a person afflicted with the insidious mental disorder of narcissism.

Sources and Further Information

  • Bergmann, Martin S. "The Legend of Narcissus." American Imago 41.4 (1984): 389–411.
  • Brenkman, John. "Narcissus in the Text." The Georgia Review 30.2 (1976): 293–327.
  • Hard, Robin. "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology." London: Routledge, 2003.
  • Leeming, David. "The Oxford Companion to World Mythology." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology." London: John Murray, 1904.