When all the world was young, and nymphs and fauns and dryads dwelt in the forests, there was no nymph more lovely and more gay than she whose name was Echo. Diana would smile on her for her fleetness of foot when she followed her in the chase, and those whom she met in the leafy pathways of the dim, green woods, would pass on smiling at the remembrance of her merry chatter and her tricksy humour.
It was an evil day for Echo when she crossed the path of Hera, queen of the gods. The jealous goddess sought her errant husband, who was amusing himself with some nymphs, and Echo, full of mischievous glee, kept her in talk until the nymphs had fled to safety. Hera was furious indeed when she found out that a frolicsome nymph had dared to play on her such a trick, and ruthlessly she spoke fair Echo’s doom.
“Henceforth,” she said, “the tongue with which thou hast cheated me shall be in bonds. No longer wilt thou have the power to speak in greeting. To the tongues of others shall thy tongue be slave, and from this day until time shall cease thou shalt speak only to repeat the last words that have fallen on thine ears.”
A maimed nymph indeed was Echo then, yet whole in all that matters most, in that her merry heart was still her own. But only for a little while did this endure.
Narcissus, the beautiful son of a nymph and a river god, was hunting in a lonely forest one day when Echo saw him pass. To her he seemed more fair than god or man, and once she had seen him she knew that she must gain his love or die. From that day on, she haunted him like his shadow, gliding from tree to tree, nestling down amongst thick fern and undergrowth, motionless as one who stalks a wild thing, watching him afar off while he rested, gladdening her eyes with his beauty. So did she feed her hungering heart, and sought to find contentment by looking on his face each day.
To her at length came a perfect moment when Narcissus was separated from his companions in the chase and, stopping suddenly where the evening sun chequered the pathway of the forest with black and gold, heard the nymph’s soft footfall on the rustling leaves.
“Who’s here?” he called.
“Here!” answered Echo.
Narcissus, peering amongst the trees’ long shadows and seeing no one, called “Come!”
And “Come!” called the glad voice of Echo, while the nymph, with fast-beating heart, felt that her day of happiness had come indeed.
“Why do you shun me?” then called Narcissus.
“Why do you shun me?” Echo repeated.
“Let us join one another,” said the lad, and the simple words seemed turned into song when Echo said them over.
“Let us join one another!” she said, and not Eos herself, as with rosy fingers she turns aside the dark clouds of night, could be fairer than was the nymph as she pushed aside the leaves of the trackless wood, and ran forward with white arms outstretched to him who was lord of her life.
With cold eyes and colder heart the one she loved beheld her.
“Away!” he cried, shrinking back as if from something that he hated. “Away! I would rather die than that you should have me!”
“Have me!” cried Echo pitifully, but she pled in vain. Narcissus had no love to give her, and his scorn filled her with shame. Thenceforth in the forest revels she never more was seen, and the nymphs danced gaily as ever, with never a care for her who had faded and gone away as completely as though she were a blossom in the passing of spring. In the solitude of mountain cliffs and caves and rocky places, and in the loneliest depths of the forest, Echo hid her grief, and when the winds blew through the dark branches of the trees at night, moaning and sighing, they could hear far below them the voice of Echo repeating their lamentations. For her, long nights followed hopeless days, and nights and days only told her that her love was all in vain. Then came a night when the winds no longer saw the figure of the nymph, white and frail as a broken flower, crouching close to the rocks they passed over. Grief had slain the body of Echo. Only her voice was left to repeat their mocking laughter, their wistful sighs—only her voice that lives on still though all the old gods are gone, and but few there are who know her story.
Heart whole and happy, Narcissus, slayer of happiness, went on his way, and other nymphs besides fair Echo suffered from loving him in vain. One nymph, less gentle than Echo, poured the tale of her love that was scorned into the sympathetic ears of the goddess of Love, and implored her to punish Narcissus.
Hot and tired from the chase, Narcissus sought one day a lonely pool in the woods, there to rest and to quench his thirst. “In some delicious ramble, he had found A little space, with boughs all woven round; And in the midst of all, a clearer pool Than e’er reflected in its pleasant cool The blue sky here, and there, serenely peeping Through tendril wreaths fantastically creeping.”
As he stooped down to drink, a face looked at his through the crystal clear water, and a pair of beautiful eyes met his own. His surprise and joy at the sight of what he felt sure must be the most beautiful creature on earth, was evidently shared by the nymph of the pool, who gazed fearlessly up at him.
Round her head she had a nimbus of curls than which that of Adonis—nay, of the sun-god himself, was not more perfect, while her eyes were like the brown pools of water in a rippling mountain stream, flecked with sunshine, yet with depths untold. When Narcissus smiled at her in rapture, her red lips also parted in a smile. He stretched out his arms towards her, and her arms were stretched to him. Almost trembling in his delight, he slowly stooped to kiss her. Nearer she drew to him, nearer still, but when his mouth would have given itself to that other mouth that was formed like the bow of Eros—a thing to slay hearts—only the chilly water of the pool touched his lips, and the thing of his delight vanished away. In passionate disappointment Narcissus waited for her to return, and as soon as the water of the pool grew still, once more he saw her exquisite face gazing wistfully up into his. Passionately he pled with the beautiful creature—spoke of his love—besought her to have pity on him, but although the face in the pool reflected his every look of adoration and of longing, time and again he vainly tried to clasp in his arms what was but the mirrored likeness of himself.
In full measure had the avenging goddess meted out to Narcissus the restless longing of unsatisfied love. By day and by night he haunted the forest pool, and ere long the face that looked back at his was pale as a lily in the dawn. When the moonbeams came straying down through the branches and all the night was still, they found him kneeling by the pool, and the white face that the water mirrored had the eyes of one of the things of the woods to which a huntsman has given a mortal wound. Mortally wounded he truly was, slain, like many another since his day, by a hopeless love for what was in truth but an image, and that an image of his own creation. Even when his shade passed across the dark Stygian river, it stooped over the side of the boat that it might try to catch a glimpse of the beloved one in the inky waters.
Echo and the other nymphs were avenged, yet when they looked on the beautiful dead Narcissus, they were filled with sorrow, and when they filled the air with their lamentations, most piteously did the voice of Echo repeat each mournful cry. Even the gods were pitiful, and when the nymphs would have burned the body on a funeral pyre which their own fair hands had built for him, they sought it in vain. For the Olympians had turned Narcissus into a white flower, the flower that still bears his name and keeps his memory sweet.
Folklore Citation: Lang, Jean. A Book of Myths. NY: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1914. This story is in the public domain and is part of the cited work.