BMCR 2003.09.21

Il mito di Narciso. Immagini e racconti dalla Grecia a oggi

, , Il mito di Narciso : immagini e racconti dalla Grecia a oggi. Saggi ; 853. Torino: G. Einaudi, 2003. xii, 222 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 22 cm.. ISBN 8806157272. EUR 16.00.

After the The Myth of Helen. Images and Narratives from Greece to Today,1 the second book of the new series “Mythologica” supervised by Maurizio Bettini and edited by Einaudi is now available: The Myth of Narcissus. Images and Narratives from Greece to Today. The main characteristic and novelty of the series is its threefold plan consisting of 1) the re-narration of the myth by the scholar and writer Maurizio Bettini, 2) a detailed analysis of the myth in an historical, philological and anthropological essay, 3) a gallery of pictures with concise explanation.

Such a plan — here enriched with an appreciated section dedicated to the texts discussed in the essay (pp. 181-195) — proves to be very useful when dealing with a character like Narcissus, whose fame is mainly due to the overlapping and reciprocal influence of textual and iconographic sources. Thanks to the modern and clever conception of the series, the reader can follow the complex process of myth-making by reading a re-adaptation of the myth in the beautiful story narrated by Maurzio Bettini (pp. 5-33), which takes place at the Fanny Café in Berkeley and stretches from late antiquity to the present by the mean of a letter the nine-thousand seven-hundred twenty-years-old Narcissus writes to Echo. Reading the documented essay by Ezio Pellizer (pp. 37-207) one discovers how the myth developed from the 1st century B.C. to more recent times and recognizes its importance and meaning according to different media and audience. Finally, Stefano Chiodi and Claudio Franzoni (pp. 211-15) complete the book by analysing few pictures, engravings and statues reproduced in the book and quoted by Ezio Pellizer. An index helps to find the numerous references to famous and sometimes almost unknown authors (pp. 219-22).

Pellizer’s interest in Narcissus dates back to 1984 when he started being intrigued by the meaning of the mirror and the double.2 In this book Pellizer resumes his previous ideas and formulates attractive new ones. He avoids repeating what is commonly known and focuses his attention on “more peculiar, interesting and noteworthy details” (p. 37). Thus psychological approaches are deliberately left aside and only rarely quoted.3

The essay is divided in three chapters: 1) “Stories of Wells and Nymphs” (“Storie di acque e ninfe”, pp. 42-76), 2) “Stories of Tears and Mirrors” (“Storie di lacrime e specchi”, pp. 77-114) and 3) “Symbols” (“Simboli”, 115-62). In the first two chapters Pellizer gives account of the main sources about the myth of Narcissus from Konon (1st century B.C.)4 and Ovid (chap. I) to Virgil, Hyginus, Statius, Lactantius Placidus, Philostratus, Callistratus, Ausonius, Plotinus, Vibius Sequester, the Narrationes Ovidianae, Mithographus Vaticanus II, the rhetor Severus, the Suda, Planudes, Boccaccio and Dante (chap. II). Different elaborations of the myth can be found in the last chapter (the texts of Jean Ruz,5 Calderón de la Barca, Battista Guarini, Apostolo Zeno, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Oscar Wilde, an engraving by Alexandre Betou, the oils on canvas by Edward Burne-Jones, Nicolas Poussin and Paolo Caliari the Veronese, and the comic strips by Luciano De Crescenzo), yet Pellizer’s main concern is to discover what “Narcissus really saw or what he strived to see in the mirror of the clear spring” (p. 38). He investigates the symbolic correspondences he pointed out in all the studied sources: a) one’s love for himself (pp. 150-51), b) heroic nudity (p. 151), c) water (pp. 151-53), d) fire (pp.153-54), e) flower (pp. 154-55), f) haunt (pp. 155-56) and the link between mirror, double and portrait (pp. 156-62), in which he clearly explains the anthropological problem of the coexistence of identity and alterity, of duplicity and unity and the possible fear such coincidence of contraries can generate. “The mirror recalls the notion of double, by making appear an “other” who is at the same time “identical”. It can create monstrous geminations, which call for the exploration of all the combinations of duality“, by producing a series of effects which express a multiple and scary universe to be penetrated only by the means of sight” (p. 157). From Konon onwards, whoever came across the myth of Narcissus tried to understand what Narcissus saw in the water; Pellizer tracks all the variants and gives his own explanation (p. 135). According to Pausanias (pp. 71-72) Narcissus mirrors himself in order to see the dead twin sister he is in love with. In Pentadius Narcissus falls in the river while trying to reach his father (pp. 103-104). Vibius Sequester states that Narcissus saw himself reflected by the water of the spring Liriope, i.e. he saw himself by looking at his mother (p. 105), and Calderòn de la Barca agrees with this last version by making Liriope stand behind Narcissus’s shoulders so that he can see the reflection of his mother instead of his face (p. 129). Finally, in Betou’s engraving (fig. III p. 133) Narcissus seems to stare at the nymph’s vulva reflected in the river.

In the first pages Pellizer studies where and when the story was believed to take place. The reader becomes immediately acquainted with the territory of Boeotia where Narcissus’s father (the river Kephisos), mother (the nymph and spring Liriope) and grandmother (the nymph and city Lilaia) dwell and where — according to Pausanias III 31, 7-8 (text. 3, p. 189) — in the midst of the reeds ( Donakòn) sprang the “well of Narcissus” (pp. 43-45, p. 89). The setting of the myth is very important since in Boeotia the cult of Eros was particularly strong and desire is a constant element of Narcissus’s stories. Pellizer identifies a development in the myth: in Konon there is no trace either of Echo or any female lover, but Narcissus is depicted as a boy unwilling to be an eromenos of a certain Ameinias in the well-known contest of Greek juvenal homosexual relations. Narcissus is another “black hunter”6 who, overvaluing his beauty and chastity and thus despising the power of Eros, refuses to grow; he denies being a lover, a future husband and father. Therefore, Narcissus is condemned to a wrong and awful love, the love for himself. “Active and passive coincide and at this stage the logic of reciprocity, of exchange, of the “corrispondenza d’amorosi sensi” explodes into absurdity” (p. 68). Narcissus, notwithstanding his insane passion, kills himself with the same sword used by Ameinias, who cursed Narcissus before committing suicide. From his blood the flower narcissus springs and Eros is finally avenged. The curse (pp. 64-66) and homoerotic context are still present in Ovid ( inde manus aliquis despectus ad aethera tollens, Met. III 404), though there seems to be an hysteron proteron in the description of the relations — both homo- and heterosexual — Narcissus avoids (pp. 57-58). Ovid enriches Konon’s version7 by adding the figure of the nymph Echo and the prophecy of Teiresias at Narcissus’s birth (pp. 53-55). Unlike Konon, Ovid is in fact very interested in the infancy of Narcissus. In addition, there is no trace of a bloody death: Narcissus dies from starvation and consumption. Stricto sensu there is no metamorphosis either, since the disappearance of Narcissus’s body is simply symmetrical to the growing of the flower. Pellizer finds very pertinent parallels for Echo in the myth of Lara (pp. 60-62) and for Konon’s version in the story of Timagoras and Meletes (Paus. I 30, 1-2; text 1bis, p. 182 and pp. 143-44). The introduction of Echo duplicates the motif of visual reflexivity in that of a vocal reflexivity (p. 61) and transforms an ancient tale about male rituals of passage and right sexual behaviour into something else.

The book is very rich and touches very many noteworthy themes like the Platonic theory of love (pp. 118), Plotinian philosophy (pp. 99-100), the power of sight (pp. 117-21), curses (pp. 64-66), the fear of images reflected by mirrors and their relation with ghosts and dreams (p. 157), the metamorphosis into flower (pp. 137-40, 154), the love for statues and portraits (p. 161). In addition, Pellizer refutes any possible attempt to link Narcissus to Dionysus on the basis of “by chance and meaningless” references (pp. 79-80, 89, 98, 102, 154)8 and tries to disentangle the problem of the Tanagra statue (pp. 96-99): is it the first reproduction of Narcissus or not?

This is a beautiful book, which was very much needed even though the bibliography on Narcissus was already immense. Unfortunately, now and then Pellizer alludes to topics he will not discuss further: we would like to know more about the “Silent Narcissus” of Eretria in Eubea (pp. 75-76) who was buried in Attica and seems to turn into a revenant, a sort of Erinys.9 The reader is reminded of the opposition tears // water (p. 142), but there is no trace of the consequent and noteworthy opposition of salty water // sweet water, fruitful // barren.10 Furthermore, though the scholar speaks extensively about horses and springs, there is no reference to the story of the mare-Demeter who mirrored herself in the river Styx.11 But probably this is the fate of all the charming books: the reader — like Narcissus at the spring — would never stop staring at the pages and wait for an answer to all his questions!


1. Maurizio Bettini – Carlo Brillante, Il mito di Elena. Immagini e racconti dalla Grecia a oggi, Einaudi : Torino, 2002, pp. 238.

2. E. Pellizer, “L’eco, lo specchio e la reciprocità amorosa”, Quad. Urb. Cult. Cl. 46, 1984, pp. 21-35; “Narciso e le figure delle dualità”, in M. Bettini (ed.), La maschera, il doppio e il ritratto: le strategie dell’identità, Laterza : Roma-Bari, 1991, pp. 13-19; La peripezia dell’eletto. Racconti eroici della Grecia antica, Sellerio : Palermo, 1991, chap. II, pp. 46-58.

3. The weakness of S. Freud’s theory is demonstrated at p. 154. Freud is also quoted at pp. 147-48 as the father of Narzißmus, which was to be considered from then on as a form of homosexual inversion. More valuable are the studies of Joyce McDougall, “Narcisse en quête d’une source”, Nouv. Rev. Psychanal., 13, 1976, pp. 293-311 (p. 104) and Denise Braunshweig – Michel Fein, Eros et Antéros, Payot : Paris, 1971 (p. 106) about parent-son relations, though Pellizer carefully takes his distance.

4. Konon is an obscure Greek mythographer who presumably lived during the last part of the first century B.C., working at the court of Archelaos Philopator of Cappadocia. His “Narratives” ( Diegeseis) survive in an epitomized version in the monumental “Library” ( Bibliotheke) by Patriarch Photios (b. 810-27 – d. 897-98). See now M. K. Brown, The Narratives of Konon. Text, Translation and Commentary on the Digeseis, Beitreiträge zur Altertumskunde 163, München – Leipzig : K. G. Saur, 2002 ( BMCR 2002.08.27). At p. 46 Pellizer states that Konon is “maybe from Athens” though there is no source to confirm the mythographer’s origin. Such an origin could be inferred by his Atticism ( φράσις ἀττική), but Pap. Oxy. 52.3648 (edited by M. A. Harder in 1984), in which the original text of the Diegeseis is preserved, is too fragmentary to allow any certain conclusion. On Konon and his problematic identification see also the introduction of my dissertation, Conone, Narrazioni, University of Trieste, 1997.

5. The attribution of the poem to the XIV century author Jean Ruz (or Rus) from Lyon is a novelty. See Pellizer p. 121.

6. P. Vidal-Naquet, “Le chasseur noir et l’origine de l’éphébie athénienne”, Annales E. S. C. 23, 1968, pp. 947-64.

7. At p. 83 Pellizer seductively suggests that Hyginus could have read either a story of Narcissus very similar to the one of Konon (maybe the source Konon used) or the very text of Konon and he must have told it to his friend Ovid.

8. Pellizer is probably correct. In fact, the very essence of Narcissus’s madness is caused not by Dionysus (cfr. p. 154) but more probably by the Erinyes, who inflict ate (blindness and madness) on the cursed people. At p. 65 Pellizer refers to Nemesis (cfr p. 67 for ate) but does not say that the goddess and the Erinyes were sisters (Hesiod. Theog. 223 ff.), that they had similar tasks (Soph. El. 792) and could collaborate (Hom. Od. II 234-37). Only at p. 94 does he recognize the link between Nemesis and the Erinyes and suggests identifying with Nemesis the little figure with torches that appears in a scene of Narcissus at the spring. This figure could also be an Erinys.

9. See Strabo IX 2, 10: whoever comes close to the tomb must be silent. This is precisely the kind of behaviour recommended to those who approach the sanctuary of the Erinyes (Soph. O. C. 124-33; cfr. ll. 167-69). According to H. J. Rose, “Keres und Lemures”, Harvard Theol. Rev. 41-4, 1948, pp. 220-21 and 225 dangerous ghosts either of unburied or not properly honoured corpses afflicted the living relatives. They were called βιαιοθάνατοι or ἄωροι since they usually died in violent circumstances (drowned, killed, etc.) or very young. Nobody wanted to disturb their sleep, but hoped they would never wake up and start chasing the living. This is also the case of Narcissus. Cfr. A. Van Gennep, Rite de Passage, Paris, 1909, Engl. transl. The Rites of Passage, The University of Chicago Press : Chicago, 1960, p. 160; S. Iles Johnston, “Penelope and the Erinyes: Odyssey 20.61-82”, Helios, 21-2, 1994, pp. 140-42 and The Restless Dead: Encounter between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, University of California Press : Berkeley, 1999.

10. See for example the anthropological essays by L. Danforth, The Death Rituals in Rural Greece, Priceton University Press : Princeton, 1982, pp. 107-111 and L. Faranda, Le lacrime degli eroi. Pianto e identità nella Grecia antica, Qualecultura: Vibo Valentia, 1992; cfr. A. Martina, Il riconoscimento di Oreste nelle Coefore e nelle due Elettre, ed. dell’Ateneo : Roma, 1975, pp. 30 ff.

11. Tolomeos Kennos Kainé Historíe III 2.