This retelling of Echo and Narcissus from "Tell it again" at "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"


A retelling by J. Kearns

A nymph, who is only permitted an echo for a voice, falls in love with Narcissus, who becomes captivated by his own reflection.

Cephissus, the River of Gardens, encircled with winding stream the blue Nymph, Leiriope, Face of the Lily, and in time they had a child. Desiring to know her son's destiny, Leiriope went to Teiresias, a reader of signs.

Teiresias was blind, and as to the cause of his blindness, some say he once surprised the Queen of Heaven, Athene, in her bath, deprived of clothes and jewels, and so witnessed her as she truly was, without concealing veil. Another goddess might have slain him, but Athene instead placed her hands upon Teiresias' eyes, at once blinding him to the physical world while giving him inner sight as compensation, for that is the way it was with those blinded.

Others say that Aphrodite and the three Charites, Pasithea, Cale and Euphrosyne, were arguing as to who was the most beautiful, and calling upon Teiresias for a decision he awarded the prize to the fair Cale. Infuriated, Aphrodite turned Teiresias into an old woman, but Cale took him to Crete and gave him a beautiful head of hair.

A few days later, Hera was arguing with Zeus over his infidelities, which he defended with the excuse that, "The sensual pleasure you women derive from love is greater than that had by men."

As Teiresias had the distinction of knowing what it was to be both a man and a woman, he was summoned to settle the dispute. When Teiresias agreed with Zeus, stating, "If the parts of love-pleasure be counted as ten, thrice three go to women, one only to men," Hera struck him blind. And it was Zeus who then compensated Teiresias with both inner site and the extended life of seven generations. So some say--but it's Hera who was the goddess gifted with the ability to bestow the gift of prophecy as she chose.

There is of course another history explaining Teiresias' double-sexed nature. Its report is that on Mount Crooked Woman (or Cyllene) he happened upon two serpents copulating. They attacked him and he struck with his staff, killing the female. Immediately he became a woman and for seven years is given as having lived as a harlot, which may mean he acted as a temple prostitute, which was a sacred thing amongst his peers. The end of those seven years came when he happened upon the same sight on Mount Crooked Woman, but this time when he struck with his staff he killed the male serpent, and Teiresias became a man again.

Regardless, those who know what it is to see and feel as both a man and a woman, are counted in various cultures as having inner sight. And in many cultures and myths, serpents are given as having powers of foresight. Here the two blend, so Teiresias, having killed both male and female serpents, became both male and female and gained the foresight of a seer, as if able to see into the future of the seventh generation.

Leiriope, the beautiful blue Lily, was the first to consult Teiresias after he was granted the gift of inner sight, so her son by the River of Gardens must have been born not long beforehand. When she asked Teiresias the destiny of her son, he answered that this son would live to a ripe old age, providing that he never knew himself.

Leiriope perhaps didn't know whether to be glad or dejected. Many never truly see themselves. Perhaps most do not. Determined at least to face the practical challenges, she made certain her son never saw a mirror, an easier thing in those days than now when mirrors are everywhere.

An echo is much like a mirror, reflecting back sound rather than image.

Time passed and Hera was suspicious of Zeus' affairs, of which he had many. It might seem peculiar that Hera, whose name means "protectress", would be as vengeful and suspicious as she is often given as being. Goddesses were once revered then were later demoted in power and status by cultures who honored gods instead. But Hera is in particular associated with the marriage bed, and as its protectress she is concerned with fidelity. And the further Bright Sky Zeus ranged, the more children he inspired in his lust, his power increasing so there was no domain in which his rule wasn't felt. It is perhaps this power hungry, patriarchal god who destroys other cultures and beliefs, which inspires Hera's suspicion and anger.

Aware he was fond of entertaining himself with the more playful and youthful of the woodland spirits, Hera, suspicious of Bright Sky's absence, was looking for him when she was detained by the woodland nymph, Echo. Echo was known for her love of talking and her insistence on always having the last word, and at first the Protectress thought little of Echo's eagerness and her reluctance to let her pass by. Then Hera realized that Echo's delaying her was a trick, that Echo had used her delight in argumentiveness and having always the last word to provide the other nymphs an opportunity to escape, and she was infuriated.

"Your tongue has cheated me," Hera said to Echo, "and because you have used it to cheat me, from this day on you forfeit the use of it, except for the art of which you're so fond--talking back. You may no longer initiate speech. You no longer have the pleasure of speaking your mind. You may still have the last word, indeed you are bound to have the last word, but it will only be a remnant reflection of what others have said and nothing more."

After this, Echo saw a youth hunting stags in the forest and fell in love with him. She tried calling to him, but it was no use. So, unable to speak first, she followed the youth, waiting for him to take notice of her.

The youth--whose name was Numb, was the son of the river spirit Cephissus, and the nymph, Liriope--was the same that Teiresias had said should never know himself lest he die, and little did Echo know that he who was called Narcissus by the Greeks had such an unresponsive nature that he was immune to love, rejecting the companionship of both men and women with a hardness of heart that had driven many to distraction.

It took a while, but, eventually the youth sensed he wasn't alone in the woods. He called out, "Is anyone here?"

"Here," Echo called back to him.

Numb, looking about, didn't see anyone else with him, so he called out, "Come!"

Echo eagerly answered, "Come!"

"Why do you shun me?" Numb called again.

"Why shun me?" Echo answered.

"Come, join me," the youth said.

At this, Echo hurried forward, but as she approached, Numb withdrew, not permitting her to touch him. "I would rather die than you should have me," he said to her now.

"Have me," Echo implored, but the youth had already fled.

Rejected, Echo withdrew and went to hide her embarrassment in the caves and mountain cliffs. Grief-stricken, she kept to herself, and her form wasted and shrank away until finally her flesh had gone, her bones had become as rocks, and all that was left of her was her voice and its remnant whispers repeating the words of others.

Another suitor of Numb was Ameinius, whose name means unpausing. Numb, disdaining him as well, sent Ameinius a sword. And Ameinius did as Numb's gift intimated he should do. He went to Numb's house and on his threshold he killed himself with the sword, but called upon the powers to avenge his death. Nemesis heard.

Not long thereafter, Numb was out hunting at Donacon in Thespia, when he came upon a well in the forest, the surface of which was absolutely smooth, sleek as polished silver. No birds or animals ever disturbed the water of this particular well by coming to drink from it. Even the fallen leaves and branches seemed to avoid it, so that the well was pristine and absolutely still. The grass around it, however, was fresh and green, and the well was cool, sheltered by rock walls from the sun. Such a well might well inspire suspicion, but tired, thirsty from hunting, Numb stooped to take a drink, and for the first time saw himself reflected back on the surface of the water. Unaware the image was that of himself, thinking the reflection instead to be a water spirit, for the first time in his life Numb felt longing and was entranced.

Numb sought to touch the spirit, which fled, then returned to stare back at him with the same longing. So Numb attempted to embrace the spirit, which also reached its arms out toward him, then fled, again only to return and reflect back to the youth the same longing.

"Why shun me when you don't look indifferently upon me," Numb asked himself. "When I stretch out my arms, you respond to me in kind. Your feelings are my feelings. There is no difference between us, yet my hand sinks through you as though you aren't there and the water wears your mask. Youth, why do you flee so I'm unable to hold you?"

So captivated was he that Numb forgot about food or rest. Pining away for the spirit, Numb lost care for all else, ceased to be aware of all else, lay paralyzed beside the well gazing into a reflection that was powerless to do anything other than reciprocate, but only as a mirror reciprocates, without initiative, without true response, without heart for another, disdaining to give of itself as he had always done. Despising itself. And the grief-stricken Echo, kept close throughout his agony, remembering as he had been, and repeating after him, "Alas! Alas!"

At last, Numb died beside the well, never having moved from beside it. The water spirits, who were his sisters, came for him, to carry him to the funeral pyre, but found no body, only the flower, Narcissus.

Retelling by j. m. Kearns based on Robert Graves and Bullfinch.

Copyright 2004 j m Kearns

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