Myths, and especially the Greek mythology, are the basis of our culture and religion. They concern the most fundamental, archetypical aspects of the human being; they speak their own language: analogue language. So they are worth reading and understanding. In the case of narcissism, not only because psychiatrists have chosen the myth of Narcissus to name a disturbance. The stories have their own intrinsic value.
Narcissus was the son of the River-god and the blue Nymph Leiriope. Once upon a time, his parents consulted the famous seer Theiresias, well known from The Iliad and The Odyssey. They asked if a long life was predestinated for their son. The blind seer - a classic contrast: blind in earthly matters but seer in a spiritual sense - replied: "Narcissus will live to a ripe old age, provided that he never knows himself." Another translation gives this as: "... provided that he will never see his own shape." Supposedly, we can read here: '... provided that he never knows his real self.' That would be fatal.
Anyone might easily have fallen in love with Narcissus, even as a child, and when he reached the age of sixteen, his path was strewn with heartlessly rejected lovers of both sexes; for he had a stubborn pride in his own beauty.
Among these lovers was the nymph Echo, who could no longer use her voice, except in foolish repetition of another's shout. This was a penalty given to her by Hera because once Echo had held up and disappointed Hera with her senseless talk.
One day when Narcissus went out to net stags, Echo stealthily followed him through the pathless forest, longing to address him, but unable to speak first. At last Narcissus, finding that he had strayed from his companions, shouted:
Echo joyfully rushed from her hiding place to embrace Narcissus. Yet he shook her off roughly and ran away. "I will die before you will ever lie with me!" he cried. "Lie with me!" Echo pleaded. But Narcissus had gone. Echo spent the rest of her life in lonely glens, pining away in love and mortification, ever hoping to recover her voice. She prayed to the goddess Nemesis for help.
There is another version of the myth. Because there appears a male lover of Narcissus, this version has not been told to us when we were young students. It is not logical that anybody who has no voice can ask a goddess for help. Thus, the other version is supposedly more correct.
According to that version, it was Ameinius, to whom a river is named, a tributary of the Helison, which flows into the Alpheius, who prayed to Artemis for revenge. Ameinius was the most persistant lover and the most insistent suitor of Narcissus. One day, Narcissus sent a sword to Ameinius. Ameinius understood that his love was refused, and he killed himself with the sword on Narcissus' threshold, calling on Artemis to avenge his death.
The goddess, be it Artemis or Nemesis, heard the plea (Echo's or Amenius' plea) and made Narcissus fall in love, though denying him love's consummation.
Once upon a time, on a warm day, Narcissus came at Donacon upon a spring, glistening as silver, and undisturbed by cattle, birds, wild beasts or even by branches dropping off the trees that overhung it. As he cast himself down, exhausted, on the grassy verges to quench his thirst, he saw such a beautiful boy in the water that he immediately fell in love with what he saw as a nymph. It was the first time in his life that he fell in love, even though it was only his own reflection.
Again, there are two versions of the myth.
In one version, he tries to embrace and kiss the beautiful boy-nymph, but he caught only cold water and thin silhouette, and he woefully drowned. Echo pined away and shrunk into dry bones. These bones grew hard and became a rock, which could only echo spoken words.
The other version offers more and is so supposedly more authentic.
Here also, Narcissus tries to embrace and kiss the beautiful boy who confronts him in the water, but this time he does not die. Narcissus eventually recognized himself and lay gazing enraptured into the pool, hour after hour. How could he endure both to possess and yet not to possess? Grief was destroying him, yet he rejoiced in his torments: knowing at least that his other self would remain true to him, whatever happened.
Remember what the blind seer Theiresias had said: he saw his own shape, but he also saw through himself; he knew his real self. According to the seer, this would be fatal.
"Alas! Alas!" Narcissus cried. Echo, although she had forgiven Narcissus, grieved with him; she sympathetically echoed "Alas! Alas!" as he plunged a dagger into his breast, and she echoed also the final "Ah, youth, beloved in vain, farewell!" as he expired. His blood soaked the earth, and there sprang up the white narcissus flower with its red corolla.
A young man called Cassius was lost in the wilderness of the outback. He wandered this way and that but was unable to find his way back to human habitation. He feared he would die. Then he came to a fertile glade. Around him he found trees laden with luscious fruit of all kinds, and there was a well with beautiful clear-bubbling water.
So satisfied was he with his surroundings that he gave up the idea of trying to find his way back to civilization. He spent all his days roaming in the glade, sleeping, eating, and drinking. As quickly as he ate the fruit, new ones ripened. Even sexually he was at peace: whenever the sexual urge arose in him, a nymph appeared and fondled him in all the places that gave him pleasure. Then he would fall asleep, and the nymph would vanish. The nymph also ministered to him in other ways. When he longed for music, the nymph would play beautiful music for him on a variety of instruments. When he wanted literature, the nymph would read to him as he lay back in a cool bower. He passed his days in blissful abandon and believed himself to be the luckiest man in the universe.
When Cassius had been living in the glade for about a year, he woke up one morning with a headache, and the nymph was unable to do anything about it. He began to feel a strange restlessness. He could not understand what it was he wanted. He wandered around the glade, eating fruit, drinking the sparkling water, but he was dissatisfied.
Just as he was going to sleep, he realized that he was longing for a friend. He knew the myth of Narcissus, so the next morning he went and looked at himself in the water, but he still felt lonely. He even tried shouting, to hear an echo, but that offered no comfort either.
The next day when he woke, he decided that he would walk in a straight line out of the glade, until he found someone. "I am bored with myself," he said. He walked and walked until he came to a broad stream. On the stream he saw a girl rowing a boat. He called to her and asked her name. .
frowned at this, and his frown summoned the nymph.
The nymph led him back around the glade and showed him all that he would lose. The nymph was cunning. "You can have all that she offers without having to leave the glade, without having to cross the river. I'll show you." The nymph then rubbed Cassius' body all over with a perfumed unguent and said, "Now, If you call whatever name you want, the most beautiful companion will come to you."
Cassius thought for a moment. He wanted to call out "Miriam", but the word did not come out as he intended. Instantly, it came out as "Marian". Instantly, a beautiful girl I appeared who accompanied him everywhere. For a year he lived In the glade with Marian, but then one morning when he awoke he found that she had vanished. Only then did he remember Miriam. He rushed to the river where he had seen her in the boat and called out.
Miriam came in her boat, but she said that it was too late. She had found another man and now had a baby. Cassius returned to the glade, went straight to the well, and drowned himself.
Daedalus and Icarus
This myth is also seen as having a connection with narcissism. Daedalus was a skilled inventor in Athens. However, his pupil Tallus was also very clever. He invented the saw and the pair of compasses. Daedalus became so jealous with him, this genial high-flier, that he threw him down from a rock into the ravine. However, Pallas Athene changed Tallus into a partridge, a bird who flies low and who nestles on the ground.
Daedalus was sentenced to death, but he and his son Icarus flew to Kreta. There he built the labyrinth for king Minos, in which the Minotaurus was caged. Nevertheless, Theuseus killed the Minosaurus with the help of Ariadne, who had given him a thread that prevented him from losing his way in the labyrinth. King Minos suspected Daedalus to have conspired in this case, so there was a great quarrel between Daedalus and the king.
For Daedalus things went wrong again; he offended the king and was locked up in the labyrinth with his son. But Daedalus had built the labyrinth and he had made a secret way out that only he knew. Other versions of the myth tell us of a tower with a great sea around it.
Daedalus made wings for himself and his son, using birds' wings. He warned his son especially not to fly too high because in that case the heat of the sun would melt the wax with which the wings were constructed. Nevertheless, Icarus flew too high, and, most woefully, the father saw his sun falling into the sea.
What I recognize in the myths
The prophecy of the blind seer is crucial. He had foreseen correctly: as soon as Narcissus was conscious of his own narcissism, which so defined his personality, it was gone. That's exactly what I have gone through. Later on, I have read about it. As soon as I saw and recognized the narcissistic elements in my personality, they began to crumble away nearly automatically. The effort was not removing the narcissistic veneer, but first acknowledging it and then catching sight of the shadow side that came to light.
Central to the myths is the loneliness of the figures. This too I recognize after I had stopped repressing the awful feelings of loneliness in my great family and instead gave room to these feelings and admitted them. The awful aspect of those feelings was the repressed part of them. At the time, I chose splendid isolation in the great family. Quite young, I withdrew as the 'silent mouse' in the living room, hiding under the table; later on, to my small place in the attic and in the church. From the time I had my own room, at the age of thirteen, I practically lived there. I was downstairs only to help my mother, but as soon as my father came in, I was back upstairs.
In the morning, I awoke early, I made fire in the stove and put a big pan with porridge upon it and I went off to church, to avoid meeting my father. I was away before he went to shave in the kitchen. I preferred a splendid isolation. It was my choice, just like Cassius. I did not dare to become conscious of my sorrow, just like Cassius. Not until later did I realize my grief, just like Cassius.
Cassius' glade was his ivory tower, his self-chosen splendid isolation. A virtual glade, so to say in these modern times, recognizable by people who don't go about with real children, but who see only virtual images of children in a modern virtual ivory tower, as I regularly see nowadays.
What is striking in Cassius' story was the figure of (not) crossing the river. This figure appeared regularly in my dreams and indeed time and again I could not cross the river. I interpreted it as going to a next phase in my development, but another interpretation can be not taking the plunge out of my ivory tower, the isolation chosen while being a child. The plunge away from the illusions of childhood, the plunge to the reality of male adulthood.
Remarkably, the myth of Daedalus and Icarus was one of the stories that appealed to me as a teenager. I composed music about this myth. It was the time that I, the silent mouse, did not dare to make the clearly dangerous plunge into male adulthood.
Central in the myths is also the refusal of the mature life-creating sexuality. Narcissus refuses the advances of Echo, Cassius chose the virtual nymph instead of the life-bearing Miriam. Cassius refuses more: the active gardening, baking, cooking, music making and writing, thus the active way of living, life itself, or the living self.
I seem to have done the same as a very young and depressed child, so setting the tone of my life. I have experienced this and later on, I read about it in the literature. Later on in my childhood, I refused my father - but with him also the masculinity - my masculinity - and vitality, just like Cassius refused the active way of living.
Intriguing for people with pedophilic feelings is the figure of Narcissus. As a child, he was very attractive and everybody fell in love with him. This is appealing. But he refused his lover and sent him a dagger. He made his lover's life senseless and impossible. People who fall in love with children can recognize this. There is more: the revenging goddess made Narcissus fall in love, though denying him love's consummation. This is surely recognizable for people falling in love with children, especially nowadays.
Narcissus fell in love, at first with the young male beauty he saw in the water. This is recognizable. The story is more difficult as he realizes that it concerns his own mirror image.
Remarkably enough, this is exactly what I have experienced. I had to discover that the children I fell in love with were factually mirror images of myself, they resembled and reflected the repressed and lost child within myself. I had given up my vitality and I became a silent mouse, but I fell in love with vital children and with the aggressive children I could go about with easily, which was very handy in my professional work. These children were mirror images of my repressed self, the counter images of what I outwardly seemed to be, the images of what I had wanted to be on a deeper level: a vital child.
Narcissus had to admit that such a mirror image factually is intangible. One can gaze at it, but never it will become yours. I had to admit this also.
Therefore I recognize the diagnosis that somebody like me 'falls in love with himself', as long as one interprets this in the sense I have described: one does not fall in love with oneself, but with a mirror image of oneself as a child, just as what happens in the myths.
The egocentric or egoistic element I cannot recognize, to be honest. Later on, in a book, I discovered a difference between both concepts and between the aspects of the self and the ego, a difference that's not easy to see. I will discuss this in another section of this essay, because here I restrict myself to what I have recognized from my own experience and thinking. For the time being, I can recognize a certain grade of egoism or egocentrism, but a certain grade applies to every man who marries a woman he loves. But it is very handy if the beloved woman can also cook good meals, care for the children and even give the man sexual gratification. Thus, I recognize some egoism or egocentrism, but no more than the average man should recognize if he is honest.