Tuesday, April 01, 2008


[Narcissus river, Cradle Mountain National Park, Tasmania]

My year 11 class have been looking at some of Ovid's Metamorphoses recently, in particular the stories of Pygmalion and Galataea. Pygmalion is a sculptor who carves a statue so beautiful it seems to be alive. In the story of Narcissus things are the other way round; Narcissus is so beautiful that he is compared to a statue.

hic puer et studio venandi lassus et aestu
procubuit faciemque loci fontemque secutus,
dumque sitim sedare cupit, sitis altera crevit,
dumque bibit, visae correptus imagine formae
spem sine corpore amat, corpus putat esse, quod umbra est.
adstupet ipse sibi vultuque immotus eodem
haeret, ut e Pario formatum marmore signum;
spectat humi positus geminum, sua lumina, sidus
et dignos Baccho, dignos et Apolline crines
impubesque genas et eburnea colla decusque
oris et in niveo mixtum candore ruborem...

Here the boy, worn out from his eager hunting and from the heat, lies down, attracted by the beauty of the place and its spring. While he seeks to calm his thirst, another thirst grows, and as he drinks, he is enchanted by the beautiful reflection he saw. He falls in love with a disembodied hope, he thinks that what is but a shadow, is a body. He is amazed by his very own self, and motionless stares at it with fixed gaze, just like a statue made from Parian marble. Lying on the ground, he watches the twin stars, his eyes, and that hair, worthy of Bacchus, worthy of Apollo, and those smooth cheeks and ivory neck, and the glory of his face and its blush, mixed with snow-white radiance

inrita fallaci quotiens dedit oscula fonti,
in mediis quotiens visum captantia collum
bracchia mersit aquis nec se deprendit in illis!
quid videat, nescit; sed quod videt, uritur illo,
atque oculos idem, qui decipit, incitat error.

How often did he did he give vain kisses to the deceitful pool, how often did he sink his arms in to the middle of the waters, trying to embrace the neck he saw there! But he could not find himself in them. what he saw, he did not recognise; but what sees he burns for, and that same illusion which deceives him, excites his eyes.

[Ovid, Metamorphoses, III.413-23, 427-31]

Narcissus eventually wasted away, and was transformed into the flower which is named after him. He also survives in our language today in the word narcissism.

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