Not in Our Stars: Tragic Heroes and Their Fates
Though classical mythology revolves around the tales of such great heroes as Theseus, Heracles, Achilles, and Odysseus, more human-sized heroes had adventures no less amazing than theirs. Mythmakers also told tales of great tragedy on a human scale: tales of lovers spurned or torn apart by jealousy, of sons who tragically disobeyed their fathers, of ambitious young men whose reach exceeded their grasp, and of the treachery of husbands toward their in-laws.
Most of these tales are on the short side: Tragedy generally strikes down these heroes and heroines in the prime of their lives. But whether cut down by their own pride, jealousy, or folly or by their presumptuous attempts to avoid their destiny, these tragic heroes and heroines have gripping stories to tell that are worthy of the gods.
He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not
No matter how commonly it occurs, unrequited love invariably causes pain and sometimes leads to tragedy. The small scale of a tragedy such as the story of Echo and Narcissus makes it even more personal for readers and listeners. We may find it difficult to picture ourselves as mighty warriors or monster-slayers or even ship-bound adventurers, but all of us can imagine—or recall—the pain of a love unreturned.
No Voice of Her Own
Echo, a nymph of Mount Helicon, served for many years as an attendant to Hera. An incessant talker, Echo couldn't stop herself from prattling on and on. Zeus, always on the prowl for young nymphs, saw that Echo could serve his own philandering purposes. When Zeus invited her sisters to Mount Olympus, Echo would distract his wife's attention with her endless and often amusing chatter, allowing the nymphs to escape Hera's notice as they crept in and out of her husband's bed. When Zeus visited one of the nymphs and Hera went looking for him, Echo would stall her long enough for the couple to uncouple.
Hera, ever jealous (and with good reason), exploded when she learned of Echo's role in her husband's infidelities. The goddess devised a cruel punishment for someone as talkative as Echo: She stole the nymph's ability to speak independently. Echo could never again start a conversation; she could only repeat senselessly what others had just said.
My Eyes Adored You
One day in the country, Echo caught sight of a gorgeous young man who was out hunting. She followed him, longing to speak to him, but the poor thing couldn't say a word.
Who was this handsome hunter who so captivated Echo? It was Narcissus, the son of Cephissus, a river god, and Liriope, a nymph. Narcissus, stunningly beautiful, was a cold, aloof, and heartless young man. Indeed, he was so proud of his beauty and infatuated with his own virtues that, though he was only 16, he had already scorned the romantic advances of dozens of prospective lovers, male and female.
Echo followed Narcissus quietly and at a distance. Despite her intense longing, she couldn't speak to him. Narcissus, who had become separated from his hunting party, soon wondered how far astray he had gone. Looking around him, Narcissus cried, “Is anyone here?”
“Here!” Echo replied.
Narcissus couldn't see anyone, but called out, “Let us come together!”
“Let us come together!” Echo enthusiastically agreed. She rushed out of hiding and threw open her arms to embrace him. But Narcissus rudely pushed her away.
“Don't touch me!” he cried. “I would sooner die than let you make love to me!”
“Make love to me!” Echo plaintively cried, but Narcissus had already turned away.
Spurned by Narcissus, Echo wasted away, unable to sleep or eat as she pined away for her unrequited love. Her body shriveled and eventually turned to stone. Only Echo's voice remained, haunting the mountains—as it still does today.
Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall
The Greeks used the term hubris to describe extreme arrogance and pride. The trait of hubris suggested impiety, for it raised a mortal—if only in his own eyes—to an almost divine level. Because it manifested scorn toward human limitations, hubris was almost always punished by the gods.
Echo would have revenge of sorts. For Narcissus, too, would die of unrequited love. One of his male suitors, cruelly rejected, prayed to the gods that Narcissus, too, experience the pain of love unreturned. Nemesis, goddess of vengeance, heard this plea and agreed that this young man's hubris deserved punishment.
What a Life!
Sixteen years earlier, Liriope had asked a young seer named Teiresias whether her son Narcissus would have a long life. Teiresias replied, “Yes, if he never knows himself.” Liriope, the seer's first client, scoffed at this apparently ridiculous prophecy. Yet the eventual fulfillment of this cryptic remark helped secure the reputation of Teiresias, who became the most famed soothsayer in ancient Greece (see Even the Wisest Cannot See: Oedipus the King and Take the Long Way Home: Odysseus).
The goddess arranged for Narcissus—exhausted and parched from the hunt—to stop and quench his thirst at a pool on Mount Helicon. The waters of this pool had never been disturbed by birds or animals or even leaves falling from the trees. As he knelt over the water and bent down to scoop up some water, Narcissus caught sight of his reflection. The image he saw was so beautiful that he fell in love at first sight.
Try as he might, Narcissus could not consummate his love. Every time he reached out to embrace or kiss his own image, his love seemed to want to return his embrace or offer him a kiss. But the mirror image disintegrated whenever he disturbed that surface of the water. So close to touching but never able to touch, Narcissus pined away for his own image.
Although Narcissus realized he could never hold his love, neither could he tear himself away. He stretched out on the grass by the pool and never lifted his gaze from his reflection. Though Narcissus knew he was dying, he regretted only that his love would die, too. At the same time, he drew comfort from the knowledge that this torture soon would end and that they would die together.
Narcissus lay there in his rapture. Just before he died of starvation and unrequited love, he cried out, “Beloved in vain, farewell.” From the mountains, Echo called, “Beloved in vain, farewell.”
Upon his death, Narcissus was transformed into the flower that today still bears his name.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.