Echo & Narcissus
Once, there was a magical wood nymph called Echo. Not quite humans, not quite gods, the nymphs lived in the mountains, rivers, streams, lakes, and the forests. They were very kind and very beautiful. Perhaps the most gentle and most kind of them all was Echo. She had a good and loving heart. She was very musical and had a beautiful voice. She played and ran and climbed and jumped in the mountains and forests all day. She swam in the lakes and - well, she was very, very talkative.
Everyone loved the nymphs. Who wouldn’t? They were fun, kind and easy to be with. They never made you feel horrible. Someone who especially liked spending time with them was Zeus, the king of the gods, and they loved having him come to visit. But when he went to see them, Zeus would never invite his wife, Hera, and that made her cross because she felt left out.
One day, Zeus said to Echo, “If Hera comes looking for me, tell her you haven’t seen me.” Now, that was not a very fair thing for him to do. First of all, no-one said “no” to Zeus. He was the king of the gods and the most powerful being of all! But to lie to Hera, queen of the gods - well, as you can imagine, that would be a very scary thing to do. Zeus had put Echo in an impossible situation. She just had to hope that she didn’t see Hera at all, and wouldn’t have to lie!
Echo decided she would go somewhere quiet where Hera wouldn’t see her. She found a shady glade under an olive tree. There was just enough sunlight for it to be warm, and there was a small lake to lie beside, listening to the calming sound of the water as the fish swam and the dragonflies buzzed and the birds tweeted in the sunlight. After a while, Echo began to sing to herself. The life of a nymph was wonderful, and she knew how very lucky she was.
She had seen human beings a few times, and it seemed to her that their lives were not so simple. Sometimes they were mean, sometimes they were unkind, sometimes they were selfish. She found it very hard to understand why they would choose to do that to one another - nymphs, you’ll remember, chose always to be kind. And she smiled at her thoughts about humans, and wished for them that they could find more kindness in their lives.
“Who are you?! Where is my husband?!” An angry shout burst through Echo’s daydreams. She sat up at once. It was Hera, queen of the gods!
“I’m Echo,” she said, curtseying low. “Oh, no,” she thought - “now I have to choose: to disobey Zeus and reveal his visit to the nymphs, or to lie to Hera!” She decided to try and do neither: not disobey Zeus and not lie to Hera. She would use her best skill - her chattiness.
“My Queen,” she said, “I am honoured to meet you. You are even more beautiful in the flesh than I ever imagined! Your hair is so radiant, only the glow of your cheeks and the light in your eyes could surpass its beauty.” She didn’t take a breath - she had to keep talking, hoping that other nymphs or Zeus would hear her and he would go or Hera would get bored and walk away… “I have heard so many tales of your power, Your Majesty, how you and your brothers and sisters escaped your father Cronos, what a wonderful mother you are to all mortals as well as your own children and how you - ”
“BE QUIET!” shouted Hera. “I know he’s here. And you are trying to stop me from finding him with all this senseless chatter and meaningless noise.”
Echo was terrified. She knew how powerful and vengeful Hera was. Hera had punished Hercules just because he was Zeus’s son and not hers. How her anger at not winning a beauty competition had caused the terrible Trojan War. How she had turned a woman called Lo into a cow because Zeus had tried to kiss her. Echo saw there was not one scrap of kindness in Hera’s face. She was missing something that every nymph had: compassion - caring for other people’s feelings. Echo saw that Hera only thought about herself and never about the effect she had on others.
Echo’s was not just very talkative - she always had to have the last word. She just couldn’t stop herself - “But, my lady -” she said - and then stopped. Because no sooner were those words out of her mouth, she immediately knew she had made a very big mistake.
Hera narrowed her eyes and said, “You’ve used your words to try to cheat me. I curse you so you can never use words again. Unless…. yes! I will let you have your beloved last word: you can only repeat what has just been said to you. You can never speak first.” And she stormed off to find Zeus.
And that is what happened. Echo could only echo - the sound is named after her! She had lost her beautiful voice. She had loved talking and singing and it had been taken away from her because she tried to please both Zeus and Hera. Over time, she became more thoughtful, and of course, quieter, and that changed her life a lot. Her friends were still her friends, and her hobbies were still her hobbies. She became a very good listener, which made her friendships all the stronger, because her talking didn’t get in the way of understanding others.
Now, all this time, a human child had been growing up. His name was Narcissus. He was a very beautiful baby: everyone said so. When he was born, a wise woman told his mother that he would live to a great old age - as long as he never saw his own reflection. His mother didn’t believe in prophecies so she forgot all about it and never passed on the warning.
Narcissus grew up to be more handsome than anyone could have imagined. But do you think this was a blessing?
Everyone was always nice to him. He got everything he wanted. He never had to try. He didn’t know what it was like to be told “no”. He didn’t know what it was like to have people be unkind. He didn’t know what it was like to be disliked. He was so beautiful, people just wanted to be near him. Do you think that was a good life?
You remember what Hera lacked? It was compassion: a care for other people’s feelings. Guess who else had no compassion? That’s right. Narcissus. Because of the choices he made, Narcissus didn’t care at all about people’s feelings. People fell in love with him all the time and he thought this made him better than them. How wrong can you be? Narcissus had made himself numb inside and he loved no-one. Until….
One day, Echo was in the forest and she saw Narcissus. She, too, fell in love. But of course, she could not speak to him! She could only echo! So she followed him and his friends as they walked through the mountains, hoping that he would say something that she could echo back. After a few days, she found him on his own and she brushed the dry grass so it made a sound.
“Who’s there?” called Narcissus, turning to see.
“Who’s there?” said Echo
“Come closer!” said Narcissus. “Come closer!” said Echo and she ran towards him, smiling. But when he saw the smile on her kind and beautiful face, he frowned. Here was another idiot, falling in love with him. In his mind, it made him immediately better than her and he could not love her. “Go away!” he said, cruelly and he turned his back on her.
“Go away….” whispered Echo and she backed into the trees, sad and hurt.
Now we know that Echo was not the first to have been treated so badly by Narcissus. And it makes me sad to say she was not the last. One by one, the other nymphs saw him and fell in love, and he was as nasty and unkind to them as he was to Echo.
Something had to change. A young girl who was one of Narcissus’ many rejected admirers said a prayer to the goddess Nemesis. Nemesis’ job was to make sure that everything was fair, and put any mortal who got too arrogant back in their place. “Oh, Nemesis,” prayed the girl, “Please stop Narcissus causing so much pain with his cruelty. Perhaps if he knew what it felt like to love and not be loved back, he might treat people better….”
Deep in the forest was the small lake where Echo had met Hera. And one day, Narcissus stumbled upon it after a day in the hot sun.
“Just what I need!” he said. “A drink!” He bent down to scoop up some water in his hands and just as he did so, he saw his own reflection.
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “A water spirit!” and he forgot all about drinking. He stared at the image he saw in the water. Its eyes were just perfect! Its cheeks so healthy and rosy! Oh, its hair! More beautiful than the gods themselves! Narcissus’ heart was stolen - for the first time in his life. All he wanted was to look at this creature. All he wanted was to spend time in its company. All he wanted was to be loved - just as he now loved.
He bent closer to kiss the creature in the water, and he tried to put his arms around it - but as soon as he touched it, it was gone! He almost wept! “Don’t go!” he pleaded and when the water stopped moving, the creature was back. And every time he tried to make contact, the creature abandoned him, making Narcissus all the more desperate for its love.
This went on for days. And days. And the days turned into weeks. All Narcissus could do was stare at himself. He didn’t eat or drink or wash and before too long, he was dead. Killed by his love of himself.
When Echo and the nymphs came to take away his body to the land of the dead, all they found was a circle of yellow flowers. They are called Narcissus. You might know their other name: daffodils.
1. Would Narcissus’ admirers keep loving him once they got to know his personality?
2. What did the nymphs have that Hera and Narcissus, for all their power and beauty, did not have?
3. Was Narcissus right to think that being loved by someone made him better than them?
4. Did Narcissus have a good life because he was so beautiful? How could it have been a better life?
5. If you were given a difficult choice between telling on someone powerful and lying to someone powerful, what could you do?