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The river god Cephissus long had his eyes on the lovely nymph Leiriope. And, being a god, he got his wish and Leiriope in time grew heavy with child. On the fated day a boy was born to her, and being curious about what the future held in store for him she went to ask the blind seer Teiresias about his fate. "He will live a long life," said the wise man "but beware that he not set eyes upon his own reflection, for it will be his doom." His mother made sure that all the mirrors were safely put away, and he grew healthy and strong, and more beautiful that any other boy in the land. So often did people tell him how handsome he was that he began to think he must be someone really special.

Many were those who fell in love with the beautiful lad. Even when he was a baby his nurses swooned over him, and by his sixteenth year every man and woman in town pined for him. None of them however were good enough for him, he felt. One day his neighbor, Ameinias, could stand it no longer, and told Narcissus how much he longed for him, and asked him to be his lover. Narcissus said nothing, but merely sent a servant to deliver a dagger in response. Ameinias understood the meaning of the 'gift,' and with that dagger took his own life, calling down the wrath of the gods upon Narcissus, and cursing him to ever meet in love the same disdain that he had for others.

Echo was a mountain nymph who had once served Zeus by distracting Hera with meaningless chatter whenever she came close to where the Thunderer was compromising his marriage vows. Echo's prattle gave Zeus's guests sufficient time to make their exits. When Hera discovered the wily goddess's ruse, she flew into a rage: "Henceforth that evil tongue will silent be! Except when spoken to, you shall not speak at all and then but brief noises."

And so when Echo came upon Narcissus one morning as the youth was struggling with a deer he had just netted, she could only gaze and not speak. And gaze is what she did. Even among the deathless gods she had never seen his like. Hot desire coursed through her veins. How she longed to seduce the handsome youth with honeyed words, but she moved her lips in vain.

Narcissus sensed her eyes upon him. "Who's there?" he called out.
-"There," answered Echo, who could only repeat what was spoken to her.
-"Let me see you" said the boy.
-"See you," said Echo.

Momentarily intrigued, Narcissus then shouted, "What are you called?"

-"You called," the nymph replied. Then, unable to contain her ardor, she burst from her cover and threw herself, hot and panting, upon the beautiful youth. Not unused to such behavior, Narcissus quickly freed himself from her embrace and fled posthaste deeper into the forest, leaving his nets behind.

Echo followed after, trying to call out to calm his fears, disarm him, but no sounds came. The youth soon disappeared from her sight. For weeks the nymph wandered the forest in search of her beloved, sleeping little, eating nothing. She became so thin that before long there was nothing left of her at all that an eye could discern. To this day she wanders mountains the world over, still looking for Narcissus. The rocky canyons and deep valleys are her home. One can call out to her, and if she is home, she will answer but only with the words first spoken to her. By decree of Hera she can do no other.

One afternoon, within a month of his escape from Echo, in a secluded woods higher up Mount Helicon Narcissus fell to his knees, exhausted from hunting and being hunted. In front of him was a deep, clear pool, the glassy surface of which so caught the light through the trees overhead as to become a perfect mirror.

Narcissus had seen his shadow many times but never his reflection, Thus, when he leaned forward on his hands and knees and peered into the pool, he was startled by the image of unsurpassed beauty peering back at him. No face he had ever seen was like the one he now studied. For the first time in his life he fell in love.

Echo and Narcissus; John Waterhouse, 1903; Walker Art Gallery at Liverpool

He brought his face down closer to kiss the youth and reached into the pool to embrace him. His lips and arms found only water. Although he quickly withdrew, the reflection was for a moment broken by ripples in the water. Thinking his beloved had fled from him as he himself was wont to do, Narcissus began to weep. Presently, though, the ripples died down, and the beautiful face again appeared. "Do not leave me, oh handsome friend," he pled. "Stay, my love."

Again Narcissus reached down to touch the form in the water; again the image blurred when his hand broke the surface. Certain now his true love was forever lost to him, he tore at his hair and drew his nails slowly down across his throat. When he relented and the waters again cleared, the dear face reappeared, now battered and disheveled. The sight pained him, and he wept.

Helios's chariot finished its trek across the sky, gray night stole over the forest, but Narcissus did not stir. Nothing mattered to him save the elusive youth in the pool. Dawn's first light found him gazing intently into the water's clear depths. The face that slowly appeared was haggard and distraught. He reached his hand into the water to caress that cheek now most dear, and his frustrations of the day before were renewed.

"I love you! I love you!", he shouted a thousand times into the pool. The face, like Echo's, moved its mouth but made no sound. Unwilling, unable to leave the pool's edge, Narcissus at length died there, his once beautiful countenance now twisted and grotesque. Mountain nymphs found him and would have buried him; but as they were preparing for the funeral, his body vanished, and where it lay a flower bloomed with golden petals tinged with white.


After Robert Graves's Greek Mythology, and
Donald Richardson, Great Zeus and All His Children,
Greek Mythology for Adults,
Greyden Press.

Comments on the Concepts of Gay and Homosexual:

The book The Gay Greek Myths restores the homosexual and homoerotic content of the Greek myths. But Gay Greek Myths, indeed "gay mythology" in general, is a misnomer. "Gay" as a sexual identity is a recent development, emerging only in the 20th Century and our idea of what it means to be gay or a homosexual has largely been influenced by recent gay activism and the emergence of gay rights on the cultural landscape. In the time of the Greeks there was no such identity as gay - or straight - and they did not compartmentalize their sexuality into homosexual and heterosexual. Their homosexual passions were part of their erotic expression as sexual beings. They would not have considered their love for boys as gay or homosexual, as separate from other sexual expressions, and the worth of the relationship was judged not by the gender of the person one loved, but by its results. Nevertheless, throughout this site you will see the use of the words gay, homosexual and homosexuality when referring to ancient practices. Indeed this very section is titled "Homosexual Greek Myths." This is done for practical purposes, so we can easily describe the sexual relations of the ancients with familiar vocabulary. Things, however, were much more complex then the words might indicate.

Mythographer's Comments

These Greek myths are based quite closely on ancient fragments, materials until now passed over by modern mythographers. The sources range from poets to historians to playwrights and early Christian polemicists. Thus the form of the stories should be seen as a late one, incorporating in many cases Roman sensibilities.

Of course there has never been any one "true" version of any of these stories, as they were told and retold over a span of at least two thousand years across a region ranging across three continents, from the Black Sea to the shores of North Africa, an area now occupied by such countries as Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and others. Nonetheless, the myths collectively reflect a world view in which male love was wholly compatible with living life in a sacred way, a path to heroism and divinity.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Editorial Board, World History of Male Love, "Greek Mythology",
Narcissus, 1999 <>

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