Narcissism, roughly translated means “love of oneself”.
The term Narcissism refers to a set of character traits that involve self-admiration, self-centeredness, and self-regard. The term was coined by Sigmund Freud who picked the myth of Narcissus as a symbol of a self-absorbed person whose libido is invested in the ego itself, rather than in other people. There are several versions of the myth (which I have included), but roughly translated Narcissus, in Greek mythology, was a beautiful Greek boy who found himself to be so attractive, that he falls in love with his own reflection. The term narcissistic personality disorder, also taken from the myth, describes a self-loving character with grandiose feelings of uniqueness.
Regardless of its origin, a myth is always a story with purpose. It is a story that is based on tradition or legend, which has a deep symbolic meaning to the listener. To the listener the myth “conveys a truth”, however, whether or not the story itself is true is of little consequence. What matters it that on hearing (or reading) the story, something strikes the human heart and a new awareness emerges. With the experience of subjective experience, the metaphor myths may expand one’s consciousness, leading one to experience a sense of transcendence. Myths not only create the expectancy of transcendence, but responds to the need for it as well.
I believe that we all live out of personal myths, and that they are not just from a time gone by, but are very present in our daily lives. At times our personal myths are outmoded or unproductive, and it is part of our spiritual journey of life to take responsibility for those unproductive personal myths, and develop them into new and healthy transformations for everyday living. By paying attention to our own dysfunction we tap into our own inner shaman, and hopefully, become a peaceful prince of moderation. The essential course of such a mythical journey is to bring inner harmony, to bring the journeyer from a place of “Paradise Lost” to “Paradise Regained”, beyond one’s personal mythology, and onward towards a more human and actualized self. According to James Hillman, “Myths talk to the psyche in its own language; they speak dramatically, sensuously, fantastically.”
Levi-Strauss (A Structuralist Anthropologist) in his book “The Structural Study of Myth” warns, that what constitutes a myth is not any individual version, but all the various versions together. So when studying myth, what one does is study as many versions of the myth as can be found, then abstract from those versions a general pattern or sequence. For the purpose of this article, I am going to listen to Levi Strauss and follow his advice. Below you will find three brief separate versions of the Myth of Narcissus. I am not intending to do an in depth analysis of each myth, but they will serve to illustrate narcissistic behaviors and provide further psychological insights into the condition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
1. The Myth of Narcissus and Echo:
In Greek mythology, Zeus was the King of the Gods, and the ruler of Mount Olympius. He was married to Hera, but was known for consorting with nymphs on his many visits to Earth. Sometimes the young and beautiful Nymph Echo would deliberately distract and amuse Zeus’s wife Hera with long and entertaining stories, while he took advantage of the moment to ravish the other mountain nymphs. One day when Echo saw Hera approaching, she told her that Zeus was looking for her and had gone back to Mt. Olympus to find her, when in fact, Zeus was frolicking with a nymph. Zeus, in appreciation, gave Echo a large, shining, blue sapphire ring. When Hera returned and saw Zeus’s ring on Echo, she realized that Echo had lied to her. Discovering the trickery, Hera was furious, and thought up an appropriate punishment for Echo. Echo’s voice was her prized possession and with it she had lied to Hera. Hera’s curse was to take away what Echo was most proud of, her voice. Without her voice she would never again be able to lie to anyone. Hera did not take her voice completely, but all that she was left with was the ability to repeat, in foolish repetition, the ending of another’s shouted words.
Echo fell in love with a vain youth named Narcissus who was the son of the blue Nymph Leirope of Thespia. The river god Cephisus had once encircled Leirope with the windings of his streams, and thus trapping her, had seduced the nymph. Concerned about the baby’s welfare, Leirope went to consult the prophet Teiresias regarding her son’s future. Teiresias told the nymph that Narcissus “would live to a ripe old age, if he didn’t come to know himself.”
Years later, when Narcissus was out hunting, Echo surreptitiously followed him through the woods, longing to speak, but unable to say the first word. Hearing footsteps, Narcissus shouts out “Who’s there?”, and Echo could only answer “Who’s there?” And so it went, finally Echo revealed herself and rushed to embrace the beautiful young man, but he pulled away from her, telling her to leave him alone. Echo was heartbroken, and spent the rest of her life in lonely glens pining away for the love she never knew until only her voice remained. However, Echo made a prayer to the gods, asking that Narcissus suffer from an unrequited lust just as he had done to others. The prayer was answered, and he would also know the same terrible longing of loving someone who can not or will not return his love. Cursed, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection thinking it is a beautiful nymph. But because the love is self love, he can never have it returned. He decided to stay there forever looking and waiting for her. . He eventually dies of heartbreak and is carried to the Underworld where he is forever tormented by his own reflection in the river Styx.
2. The Myth of Narcissus and Ameinias
Narcissus was a beautiful young man, greatly admired by both men and women. At one point, Narcissus had a male suitor named Ameinius. When Ameinius tried to secure Narcissus’ affections, Narcissus replied by giving him a sword by which to prove his love. The foolish Ameinius eventually followed Narcissus’ words, and stabbed his own chest when in the doorway of Narcissus’ house. The god, Artemis, was appalled at what Narcissus had done, and he decided to punish Narcissus by making him feel the agony of unreciprocated love. Finally unable to stand the agony Narcissus plunged a dagger in his heart and died, calling out a last goodbye to his reflected image. Where his blood soaked the earth sprung up the white narcissus flower with its red corollary.
3. The Myth of Narcissus and His Beloved Twin Sister:
In this version, Narcissus had a beloved twin sister. She was perfectly like him. Both dressed similarly and hunted together. Narcissus fell in love with her. When she died he was distraught and pined after her. Narcissus chances to look at the water after her death, and seeing his own reflection, believes it to be his sister.
Psychological Analysis of the Myths of Narcissus:
The story of Narcissus is the theme of awakening self-consciousness for us all. Regardless of which version you prefer, the Myth of Narcissus is a story of adversity, and figures as a warning to everybody of the dangers of unhealthy self-love. From the very beginning of the myth we are made aware of the prediction that Narcissus can and will live to an old age, but only if he will learn to know himself. The difficulty, of course, lies in the ambiguity of what it means to “know oneself”, and it begs the question , in what way do narcissists not know themselves?
The story of Narcissus and Echo represents the tragedy of missed connections, for they both love reprehensibly. Echo shows us that Narcissus will only cause pain to those who wish to have an intimate relationship with him, and in perusing his love one will end up a shadow of their former self, just as Echo became a mere “whisper of herself”.
This is a warning that illustrates well the relationship with a narcissist. A relationship in where you will loose the ability of being a person in your own right, where you become, in essence, merely a reflection of the narcissist. Your communication will be reduced to an ability to just repeat, in foolish repetition, the ending of your narcissists shouted words, for he will not tolerate any opinion that clashes with his own.
In the story, Narcissus loves simply a reflection, while Echo and Ameinia’s love someone who cannot bring himself to love another; without reciprocal love, all live a life characterized by despair and unhappiness, lives that go unfulfilled. From these troubles of love arise many complex dramas of the human condition.
So this beautiful young man, although loved by everyone, both male and female, will not love anyone in return. Ironically, he gazes into a pool and falls desperately in love with his own reflection. Each day, he spent all his time alone gazing into his own reflection, pining after what he cannot possess, the love and connection with another. Each time he reaches out to touch the face of his beloved, he disturbs the water, and the reflection disappears. Not knowing that it is his own image that he loves, he proceeds to seek “oneness” with his self-glorified image, and he promptly drowns himself in the pool.
We are also introduced to the idea of Narcissus having a beloved twin sister that he loves. He loves her because she is a perfect reflection of him. So as long as you are willing to be like his twin or like the pool that reflected him favourably, you will be tolerated, for a while at least. From a psychological perspective, Narcissus and his twin make many distinctions regarding the dual personality of all narcissists. For example, it draws distinctions between the twin aspects of overt and covert narcissism. Overt narcissists report higher self-esteem and higher satisfaction with life, whereas covert narcissists report lower self-esteem and lower satisfaction with life. Also, his twin highlights his ability to present two completely different personas (Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde), each having different patterns of behaviour which he shows to different segments of people, making it difficult to discover the true narcissist. The twin also is an indication of the dual aspects of self, such as, male and female, true self and false self, black and white; good and bad; male and female etc.
The myth reveals how the narcissist does not know himself. He is unaware of both the intensity of his own self-love, and how that affects his life and the lives of others. The myth warns us all that the act of unknowingly taking yourself as a lover ultimately leads to desperation and loneliness, and ultimately to the loss of self. That power and pride are the original sources of all evil, and that, non-attachment to the self must be attained before a person can love and grow to self-actualization, and ultimately achieve enlightenment.