The Mythology of the Daffodil
Narcissus & Echo:
The Demi-god & His Soul
"Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,--
She whose beauty was more than human?
But where are the snows of yester-year?"
-Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The daffodil was adopted in the 20th Century as the national flower of Wales, because (in legend though not invariably in fact) it begins to bloom on Saint David's Day, March 1. Some have speculated that a paperwhite (a pure white daffodil) may have symbolized purity among the Druids, & so was coopted as a symbol of Saint David. In Wales to this day, school children wear daffodils to celebrate the first day of March.
The miniature daffodil Narcissus tazetta is believed to be the oldest daffodil in cultivation, known to the ancient Greeks & to the Jews of ancient Israel. (In our gardens we have Narcissus tazetta 'Minnow' & N. t. var orientalis 'Chinese Sacred Lily'). Because the flowers of many species of narcissi droop mournfully, it was long thought to be an omen of death, but at the same time, because they are either the white of purity or yellow like sunlight, they can symbolize wisdom, hope & joy. Besides N. tazetta, several species native of the Mediterranean region share this head-nodding habit, & the scented Angel Tears (N. triandrus) in particular shared with N. tazetta an ancient sacred status. As Narcissus myths spread through North Africa & Mediterranean Europe, there seemed always to be a locally native daffodil with nodding buds or flowers to identify with legends that transmuted millenium by millenium.
The daffodil has been adopted by both the American Cancer Society, & the Madame Curie Society, for whom it symbolizes simultaneously hope & disease. The Greeks today call N. tazetta Dakrakia, "Little Tear Drops," as this flower's association with grief & the dead is both exceedingly ancient, & modern.
The legend of Echo's fertility daemon Narcissus, who pined to death desiring his own reflection, is parallelled by similar flower‚boys such as Adonis "the scentless rose" (i.e., a windflower or anemone) who was the slain beloved of both Aphrodite & Persephone; & Hyacinthus the slain catamite of Zeus & Apollo; & the hidden son of Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus, cavern-raised in secret by naiads of Cybele's Mount Ida. He came to the Fountain of Queen Salmacis, to whom boxwood & clinging ivy was sacred, & he became one with Salmacis after drinking of her mystic waters, achieving a unity which Narcissus appears likewise but unsuccessfully to have sought.
Like these others, Narcissus is fundamentally impotent or sexless, though erotically appealing to goddesses or nymphs & even to the more masculine gods. We are reminded that Cybele's boy companion Attis, born of an almond tree, was like Narcissus sexually incapable, indeed was literally unmanned. Such sexless lads seem to originate in a very early level of myth when the Mother Goddess, being Absolute, had no actual consort, at a time when the male principle was at most a companion, son, or a priest who had unsexed himself.
Most such fertility daemons are straightforward "dying & reborn" grain-divinities, including even Jesus whose worshippers coopted the daffodil as well as the lily as symbols of death & Easter resurrection. But Narcissus appears additionally partly to be related to a large number of female nymphs transformed directly into flowers, trees, or reeds to escape unwanted sexual encounters. Because there is something essentially female in his myth, he somewhat bridges the Attis or galli type of mythology of self-castration, to the Daphne type of myth of nymphs escaping either lust or an unwanted marriage or the pursuit by unwanted rape by a god.
He loved his own reflection (which he mistook for female), then turned into the flower baring his name, ignoring the erotic desires of Echo all the while. But in an alternative version, he had an incestuous affair with his twin sister, who subsequently died, & his obsession for his own reflection was due to his own resemblance to his beloved.
Echo herself had been cursed never to be able to seduce Narcissus directly, but only to repeat his words. She was, in essence, his reflection, so his sentiment that his reflection was female, or that it was his twin sister, was correct. But Echo herself is a dwindled form of a once very mighty Goddess of great antiquity, Akko, mother of all language, whose Voice was that which called forth creation at the beginning of time, & who bares a close association with the Cretan Crocus-goddess Kar.
We know that Echo's worship was signal within the secretive rites of Demeter. One day was put aside to honor Echo during the Demeter Festival of Eleusis. The precise nature of worship at the Echo shrine was forbidden to be written down, & is today unknown. Her worship was also part of the cult of the Argive Hera; & while in Latin versions of her myth Echo angered Juno (Hera) by covering for Jove's sundry sexual liasons, within the Argive cult Echo was Hera's beloved handmaiden. Echo's central myth within this cult binds her to the erotic nature-divinity, Pan, to whom she was reluctantly betrothed, & by whom she bore a daughter, Jynx or Yunx, who cast a spell that caused Zeus to fall in love with Io, for which reason Hera turned Jynx into a wryneck bird.
Or Echo gave birth to Peitho, Goddess of Soft Speech or of Seductive Persuasion. Peitho was handmaiden to Aphrodite, & became the bride of Hermes. Peitho had her own cult in Athens said to have been introduced to the city by none other than Theseus. She is given several geneologies & isn't invariably a daughter of Echo, but the notion that she was Echo's daughter was sensible in that both were associated with speaking.
Dionyssiaca calls Echo the Goddess Who Never Fails to Speak. Though in later tales this meant she was an annoying chatterbox, there is ample evidence that any negative connotation was imposed by rival cults, & that Echo was in her own right a powerful divinity. Her cult was always of a secretive kind associated with lustiness & death, & never spoken of outside the confines of secret initiations. She was depicted as an angel-like being with enormous wings hiding her mouth behind a veil, signifying secret wisdom; just such an image of Echo is shown at the top of this page, & she is clearly distinct from any sort of nymph.
As a Virgin Goddess, she rejected not only Pan, but also Poseidon who sent a flood up the mountains in pursuit of Echo. She even refused to attend the wedding of Dionysios because of her dislike of the marriage bed. It is an interesting aside that a surname for Dionysios, Antheus ("Flowery"), was an alternate name for Narcissus. Echo's disdain for marriage would have been quite normal for huntress-goddesses or nymphs of Artemis, yet Echo may have taken her disdain for all things connubial to extremes, & insulted Dionysios when she refused to participate in the violent drunken dance of the maenadic Oreiades or Hill-nymphs at Dionysios' wedding.
In none of her myths is Echo given a geneology, very likely because she was part & parcel with the First Cause in that it was her Voice that called forth creation. But some have speculated she was a renegade Oreiad of Boeotia, & that she left her sister-band of the pines & oaks of the mountain forests to live alone in a deep cavern of an alpine cliff, in order to not be seen & courted by any man or god.
If she were indeed an Oreiad this would make her a sister of the Dactyls & Satyrs, perhaps even a sister of Pan. The Oreiades were sometimes likened "the female Dactyls" & were wedded to their brothers, the Dactyloi. The children of the Dactyls & Oreiades were the Curetes or Corybontes, who were priests of Cybele & defenders of infant Zeus, & were male equivalents to the raging maenads who danced madly & noisily about the hillsides.
The mother of the Oreiades & Dactyloi was the Titaness of radiant heat, Anchiale, sister of Prometheus. Their father was the Titan of hands Hekateros. The sons & daughters of Anchiale & Hekateros invented iron metalurgy & brought the Bronze Age to a close. These sons & daughters were also great artists of anything involving use of the hands, & as light-barers were bringers of wisdom out of darkness. Though it was said that Echo was educated in the arts by the Muses, it may once have been that Echo instructed the Muses!
These Oreiades were of the same generation of dinivity as the Olympians, although since these children of Anchilale secretly nurtured the infant Zeus in a mountain cavern in Crete, really they are older than the Olympians. Anchiale herself dwelt originally on Mount Ida in Crete, & later on the Phrygian Mt. Ida, which association identifies her most strongly as a byform of Cybele Idaea, greatest of the Great Goddesses, the mother of Zeus.
But it's important to remember that Echo's recurring association with the Oreiades never excplicitely makes her one of them, & this may well be due to her having been known to be herself a Titaness of the first generation of divinity. Rather than being the Nymph of Mt. Helicon, she was an aspect of the All-Mother herself.
When Pan was spurned by Echo, he visited madness upon local goatherders & sent them raging up the mountain sides until they found Echo, ripping her to pieces & scattering her bones. The behavior of the goatherders was commonly assumed to be an activity of Dionysios's maenads, & Echo's fate both duplicates that of Dionysios in his infancy (when he was cut up then restored, sans penis, by Gaea) but also punishes Echo for refusing to dance the mad dance with the maeanadic Oreiades at Dionysios's wedding.
Gaea gathered up the far-flung bones of Echo & buried her part by part in sundry cliff-faces, where not just her voice can still be heard, but where her spirit inspires poetic gift for any voice beautiful enough to sing inspired lyrics or comprehend the mystic meanings.
By all this we see that Echo had a large presence apart from the best-remembered tale of her downfall for loving Narcissus. But most revealing of her original nature is an ancient Greek assumption that she was Persephone's personal messenger (as Hermes was the personal messenger of Zeus), & flew upon her dark wings between the living world & Thanatos bringing perfect knowledge to & from the underworld. In this we find again the real nature of Echo, whose lips are veiled, for the secret knowledge cajoled from her is incorruptible. It was an oral tradition forbidden to be written, but she repeated it verbatim from Persephone the Maiden aspect of Hekate. This Echo is, then, the same as the Jewish Bat Kol, "Daughter Voice," who brings news from God & repeats it verbatim in her soft womanly voice directly into the hearts & spirits of humanity. In times of need Bat Kol can be heard to speak from out of a fiery light. Echo is also encountered in Vedic religion as the Goddess Devaduti the Divine Messenger, feminine power of communication without whom even the greatest of gods is mute.
This association of Echo with Persephone, or Black Aphrodite, feeds back to the mythology of the narcissus flower, which was sacred to Persephone. Persephone had been picking daffodils on the very day she was kidnapped into the underworld. These flowers did not formerly bow their heads, but do so now, for shame of their role in the kidnapping. A beautiful meadow of these flowers grew near the River Styx, bringing sunlight to that dark land; & during her captivity, Persephone often walked amidst these flowers.
From the lingering bits of a largely forgotten mythology, it seems probable that Echo worship regarded Her as the "spark" that dwells within each of us, that which Narcissus mistook for his twin sister, a beautiful maiden, or his soul. All the Greek words for Spirit or Soul are feminine words, & so in Greek myth the soul is often personified as a nymph or goddess, Psyche as lover of Eros being most famed of these. Not coincidentally, in Semitic & Sanskrit languages too, the words for Soul are invariably female names. The last great flourishing of Soul worship in western religion was classical gnosticism. Among Gnostics, a central idea was that Sophia (the Mother-goddess Wisdom) spun out from herself, without need of a consort, the whole of the life-force of the world, diminishing herself to become infused into the material world, the energizing power of all life. Such belief remains current in India among saktists or Kali worshippers.
So the diminished Echo is still really that earlier Creatrix trying to call out to humanity, to Narcissus, striving to correct the Error of Sophia & liberate us from the world of Matter by calling us back into the pre-created universe of light & unity. But because she is fused to us, we can never quite perceive Her as anything but a reflection of ourselves, an echo of our own voices, & we are undone by our own vanity & remain snared in the material realm.
Pliny disbelieved that the name Narcissus was derived from whom he called "the fabulous boy," but thought the name originated in the Latin narce (Greek narkao), meaning "benumbed," the same as the root word of Narcotic. But since "the fabulous boy" was himself benumbed, gazing forever languid at his own reflection, Pliny's distinction was a bit fatuous.
That a narcotic that can be extracted from narcissus bulbs is probably the reason some said Narcissus was sired by the eternally benumbed Endymion who dwelt in a cavern of the moon. This drugged state of benumbment permitted the dreamer to experience a place halfway between Life & Death where communion between Matter & Spirit becomes possible, where Eros can speak to Psyche, where Narcissus can commune with his own soul in the deepest of self-reflections. In Kabbalah (an ancient oral tradition like that of the secret wisdom of Echo) there is an idea that Malkhuth, the Lower Shekhinah or female principle of the sephiroth tree, is like a concave mirror in which the enormity of the Universe, the entirety of God, is reflected in miniature, as in a pool or in the bottom of a well. That which is too large to be seen by gazing outward into the overwhelming cosmos can be discovered writ small within, by looking inside oneself, for in each of us is a miniature of the Whole. Something of this can be extended to Echo who calls to us from within, as a small & therefore more easily perceivable reflection of the Absolute.
Narcissus as fertility daemon was the son of the River-god Cephissus ("Garden") & of the bog-lily nymph Leiriope. That he was the son of the Garden indicates how long domesticated his flower has been; that his mother was a bog lily furthers his affinity for the sacred & reflective pool, & with nymphs likewise transformed into flowers. His alternate parentage is no less evocative. His father was the eternally sedated Endymion, & his mother was the sexually aggressive Moon-goddess Selene, who kept the Endymion as her comatose lover. Some would have it that Semele was the mother also of Dionysios, in whose mythology the nymph Echo occurs separately from her association with Narcissus.
When Narcissus was born, his mother Leiriope consulted an oracle, who told her, "Your son will live a very long life so long as he never masturbates." He grew up incapable of relations with the opposite sex, absorbed in his own beauty. All such gods & demigods from Attis to Dionysus have a homosexual history, & Narcissus was courted by Apollo, & by the River-god Ameinius. As it turned out, Narcissus not only rejected all women, but was also incapable of relations with men, & sent Ameinius a sword which for all intent & purpose meant "Go kill yourself." Ameinius did so; he committed suicide on the doorstep of the house of Narcissus. Upon his last breath he called out to Artemis to avenge him against the heartless youth. In some Latin versions, it was Venus (Aphrodite) who cursed Narcissus because of his offensiveness in the face of romantic love.
It was Artemis or Aphrodite or Eros who heightened Narcissus's self-absorption so that he acquired the famous erotic desire for his own reflection. He either languished & died while gazing at his pool reflection until he turned into a Narcissus flower, or he stabbed himself in the heart & died on the pool's banks, & the flower that bares his name having arisen from out of his blood. His spirit thereafter dwelt in the underworld, where he gazes eternally at his reflection in the River Styx.
The unknown mystery of Echo's day of honor at the Demeter Festival might well have included a role for Narcissus as her fertility daemon. Much as Aphrodite's daemon Adonis (from whose blood sprouted anemone flowers) was dispatched to the underworld to be Persephone's companion for half each year, Echo's daemon Narcissus was dispatched to the banks of the River Styx so that upon Persephone's arrival, She would have the sunlight of daffodils even in that cavernous place.
And we do know a single defining moment about the rituals for Echo at the Demeter Festival. When Echo received prayers, her worshippers would call blessings into a deep niche which was immediately beside a niche wherein Demeter was enthroned, & from out Echo's empty niche or cavern the blessings would be called back three times to those who adored Her.
The Mythology of the Daffodil Part II:
Bazlith, The Celestial Bride
& see a related essay:
A Meditation upon the Mythology of
the Hibiscus Rose of Sharon
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