The Water Nymph by Herbert James Draper

Before I return to the narrative, I want to add a little side trip that pertains to physical beauty, and fame. To make it short, the suitors with their attraction to Narcissus is the perspective of the one who self identifies as ordinary. They can’t know what it is to have exceptional gifts; they can’t know what it means to be iconicized. Fine. You don’t know what you don’t know. Often, they innocently imagine that Narcissus’s position in life would be awesome, because they imagine there could be nothing better than having people pay a lot of positive attention to them, to be on the top of some heap, to be exceptional, to shine like the sun, to look in the mirror and see beauty.

However, it is not at all that simple. Having been attractive in my youth, I discovered from the get go the main problem with it; people are stopped at the physical level when they encounter you. This is a big drag, in a very objectifying society. You can feel them just wanting your body, like you are something that they could put on a shelf , that they could own; it’s creepy. To me, anyway. Maybe somebody knows how to deal with this in a balanced way. By the time most people would figure it out, they’re already not in the bloom of youth, as it were. Of course some people enjoy being admired for because they can feel the other’s power coming to them, as the other puts the beautiful one on a pedestal. In Jungian terms, the admirer would be projecting their own inner beauty (their inner divinity, their self-love, their inner connectedness, etc.) onto the physical form of the beautiful one.

Interesting that artists seem to imagine Narcissus as naked or almost so. It does jive with the symbolism of the soul…and of Nature in general:

So that’s it; from the perspective of the admired one, it can get obnoxious. If all kinds of random people are after you for your looks- and if there are a lot of them, then you will have to conclude that it’s your looks they are after- they just want a piece of you. They don’t care who you are, they just want your beauty. It feels like love to them, sure, but it’s infatuated love. Beauty elicits infatuation. Then you get very jaded and you have to keep turning people away, naturally. It’s a real p in the b, and kinda depressing.

So, if you know this, you can step away from the common interpretation of Narcissus being the big a*****e on account of turning suitors away. Maybe he is all proud and happy about having a lot of admirers, but the story does not raise that fact at all. It just says he spurned them. Admittedly the English word ‘spurn’ implies a harsh rejection, but as I said, it’s kind of obnoxious when people are only paying attention to you for your looks. It’s not much different from having construction workers catcall about your boobs as you walk by, something that I would spurn. But beautiful Narcissus is going to make some cosmic lemonade, here.

I left off with Echo and Juno, and Juno’s curse upon the nymph Echo. I pointed out that everybody’s relationship to Echo is really portraying their relationship with Gaia, or Terra, a Roman earth-goddess name. There’s a lot of water element in this story as a specific reference to the fact that archetypally feminine water represents soul- and Narcissus is going to morph into a soul man. There’s a bit of feminine earth element also, in the flower that Narcissus morphs into. Anyway, if you feel sorry for Echo, and think Narcissus is just some handsome cad, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Echo is the voice of Gaia herself that desires to converse with us, but cannot, as we refuse to listen.

Notice that there is an overall focus on the feminine in this story. This focus is begun very early, when Narcissus’s parentage is mentioned. Narcissus is “..born to (Liriope, Narcissus’s Mom) upon the green merge of Cephissus’s stream- that mighty River-God whom she declared the father of her boy.” Lirope is a flower-nymph, just as her son is a flower-dude, one reason he is so beautiful. Flowering, in short, means the same thing in symbolic story that is already a part of common metaphor in English; the most beautiful phase of a plant’s development, a sort of developmental apogee that can refer to human development as well. Since the Greeks, certainly, believed that beauty was a divine gift, then this flowering is a reference to “higher” consciousness.

These mythic flowers, narcissus and liriope, carry the same symbolism that has migrated from the East into Westernized culture with the lotus flower. There is no practical reason for some flowers to be as amazingly beautiful as they are, and so they reference experience BEYOND the physical. Let it also be said that flowers also represent sexual union; alchemically speaking, a developmental and creative meeting between masculine and feminine.

Liriope muscari

Above, an example of the genus Lirope, from whom Narcissus is born. I think at least some native species grow on riverbanks; that would make sense to the whole parentage of Narcissus, right? If this is nymph Liriope’s species, the purple could refer to the 6th or seventh chakra. Purple often symbolizes enlightenment, and will be referenced again at the end of the story in the form of grapes. I kinda like this white one, too;

Or maybe I just like the close up. White is also an alchemical reference to purity, truth, divine light, etc. and there will be a reference to white as Narcissus seemingly bites the dust. As for Dad, the god (Cephissus) or man who is a river has attained some measure of balance between masculine and feminine. A river has a destination, or goal, an archetypally masculine trait. However, a river is also archetypally feminine in that it is A. water (feminine element), and B. meandering, or finding its way both around obstacles, and to the lowest point. Lowest point is a gravity-oriented (earth element) job.

Alone, masculine is just goal oriented; it loves straight lines. It seeks the most direct path, which can lead to impatience, for example, for in truth the world does not always conform to our ideas of how to reach our goal. Seemingly, things can get in the way. Nature rarely does straight lines, but when it does, we can designate that as masculine. Straight stalks of flowers and trunks of trees, for example. So in regards to the elements, Narcissus’s Dad is not your typical air-and-fire masculine dude, elementally speaking. Narcissus is born of a more feminine-based lineage.

All this feminine heritage stuff is symbolically like a ton of weight pointing in a certain direction. No, it’s not saying Narcissus is gay, necessarily, though the male homosexual community has sometimes interpreted it so. It’s saying that Narcissus is born to be yin, a term that is more easily understood by folks who might be reading than “archetypal feminine” is. It’s simply put; the masculine (yang) is outward-moving. Yin is inward-moving. Narcissus is going to go inside, and connect with the feminine, which could affect his sexuality, I suppose. But the inner seeking is the point here, not his sexual proclivities.

There’s a bit more setup. In Ovid’s telling, Echo first “spied (Narcissus), as he drove, in his delusive nets, some timid stags…”

painting by Placido Constanzi

I shall ignore the symbolism of “timid stags” and “delusive nets”, however tempting, for the sake of brevity, and introduce the matter of hunters. Hunting is often a symbol of spiritual seeking, in short: this is pretty obviously so in the case of Artemis, the Greek virgin enlightenment goddess. Artemis is a hunter, yes. But her virginity implies her hunting is of an unworldly sort. It’s not that she is necessarily chaste. It’s just that back in the day the virgin goddesses and their followers were not looking for committed relationships with actual people, they were focused on spirituality, like nuns, basically. They were NOT householders. Of course hunting also refers to all the seeking for fulfillment that we do in the physical world; the metaphorical looking for love in all the wrong places. Narcissus blooms when he looks in the right place.

There is also this setup bit; “One day, when she (Echo) observed Narcissus wandering in the pathless woods…” The symbolism of “woods” and “forest” is ubiquitous in myth and fairy tale. And without any exception I have encountered, ‘woods’ means simply some aspect of our inner, unconditioned and uncivilized landscape. The symbolic story landscape shall go on to reveal any number of matters, once it’s been announced. But the mention of it is like saying “OK, now we’re talking about some inner event.” ‘Pathless’ is even more cogent to Narcissus’s story, for remember, he is the son of a river god. And again, the river god is one who is hip to the nonlinear, goal-free feminine, the aspect of the feminine described by the word ‘wandering’. The word ‘meander’ comes from a river in Turkey, which became a descriptor in the Greek lexicon. The Meander River must have notably looped and wandered. So ‘wandering’, ‘meandering’, and ‘pathless’ mean the same thing, symbolically speaking.

Narcissus and Echo by Solomon J. Solomon

Now begins a little Echo sideline, which really has little to do with Narcissus, just as the bit about Juno also has nothing directly to do with him. The pathless path is just letting us know this is probably an inner event of Narcissus’s; Echo is here to help dramatize his relationship with Nature. Echo is portrayed as very attracted to Narcissus, and many teachings speak of Gaia’s love for humans, her desire to become intimate with them. But since he’s usually busy hanging out with his buddies hunting, busy with other things, like Juno, he does not connect with Nature, with the soul of Nature. She catches him alone and he senses something, calling out several times, trying to figure out who is there. She echoes him. “Oh let us come together” is the last imitation she makes, and Echo flies out from her hiding place in the woods and tried to embrace him. Narcissus runs from her, saying “Better death than such a one should ever caress me!”

Then Echo retreats, rejected by this man; “rejected she lies hid in the deep woods… concealed in lonely caverns on the hills…her voice continues, in the wilderness; her bones have turned to stone…’tis but a voice… that lives among the hills.” Once again, this Echo bit describes the loss of human inner connection with Nature. Gaia’s nymphs and sylphs and elemental beings are no longer seen, perhaps because we have decided they are unfit companions, maybe somehow dangerous as in Juno’s story, or because we consider ourselves somehow above Nature, better than Nature, busy shaping it to our own desires, our human business much more important. We are using Nature to our own ends, that archetypally masculine goal orientation. The voice is no longer heard unless we go to “the hills” as Ovid puts it, away from human occupation and goals.

Echo by Alexandre Cabanel

So that’s the deal- Narcissus USED to be a narcissist, in the sense of ignoring Nature, though my culture is not concerned with that angle. We are still interpreting his bad behavior as referring to human relationship skills, but really it’s a cultural issue. The myth lets us know that self-obsession could start with the loss of relationship with the soul of Nature, that earth-and-water based, feminine, connection-oriented force. And, it can therefore be cured by reconnection. Narcissus goes on ‘deceiving’ female nature spirits and potential lovers;“thus he slighted many an amorous youth”. I guess it’s well known that men of the higher classes in classical Greece were not all going for the women. However, this reference to loving relationship with men is also presaging the fact that the story is about Narcissus discovering a deep inner connection with himself. Some slighted fellow implores the Gods, “If he should love, deny him what he loves!” It is Nemesis who heeds the prayer.

Nemesis; notice the wheel of life (or karma) and the griffin on her left. Griffins are wisdom animals. Looks like she has a torch for inner journeying, too.

Nemesis is a squirrely goddess to define, since she appears in so many contexts. She seems to be one of those that changed a fair bit over time and place. The usual idea is that she is a female retribution deity, punishing hubris, in particular. We tend to think of hubris as pride, as thinking too much of ourselves- the meaning that’s been attributed with the narcissist label. However, the essence or cause of hubris is ignoring “the gods”; slighting the more-than-physical, our unseen soul and spirit origins, our metaphysical selves. That’s why it is crucial in pantheistic societies to do all the regular worshipping and offering, etc; it hopefully keeps us from hoarding all our time and energy for our humancentric, civilized occupations. Although Nemesis was thought to punish bad deeds by inflicting some loss or misfortune, she is also one of the female balancing powers, along with Fortuna and Justice.

My interpretation of the role of Nemesis here is, therefore, that she is a balancing goddess. She facilitates our balancing of the physical and non-physical in this case, perhaps; the yin and the yang. She is called in to turn the tide from a constant physically focused, goal oriented experience to one with more soul-and-spirit connection.

In Ovid’s report, we next cut to the chase of Narcissus’s time by the still pool; the story will soon end. I’ll finish in the next installment, then. Adios!