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«NARCISSISTIC THEBES? OVID’S TALES OF Echo and Narcissus, while mutually enhancing in their magnificently suggestive symmetries,1 have long been ...»

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OVID’S NARCISSUS (MET. 3.339–510):




OVID’S TALES OF Echo and Narcissus, while mutually enhancing in

their magnificently suggestive symmetries,1 have long been considered

an oddity in their larger narrative context.2 Otis, for instance, is not alone in feeling that they are quite “extraneous” to the Theban milieu which dominates this particular stretch of the Metamorphoses, since they seem only superficially linked to the tragic city through the figure of Tiresias.3 Some scholars have tried to solve the problem of their inclusion in Ovid’s “Thebaid” (3.1–4.603) by pointing to thematic correspondences that connect “Narcissus and Echo” to other episodes in the narrative vicinity, such as fatal love,4 the intervention of a vengeful divinity,5 or the problematization of sight.6 Such sequences of thematic patterns, though, are a rather ubiquitous “surface phenomenon” which can be traced in various ways throughout the entire poem, and which hardly ever explain Ovid’s poetry in and of themselves.7 Thus, such theScholars tend to assume that the linking of their fates is indeed an Ovidian invention. See most recently Kenney 1986, 392.

2 On the question of Ovid’s possible sources see Eitrem 1935; Castiglioni 1906, 215–19; Rosati 1983, 10–15. As Hardie points out (1988, 73), “the extent of Ovid’s originality in his handling of the stories of Narcissus and Echo is difficult to gauge given the fragmentary state of our knowledge of Hellenistic poetry.” 3 Otis 1966, 231.

4 Schmidt 1991, 111–12.

5 For the significance of this theme in Ovid’s Theban cycle see Hardie 1990.

6 For a graphic illustration of the recurrence of this theme throughout Ovid’s Thebaid cf. Cancik 1967, 46.

7 Perhaps the most useful study of thematic patterning in the Metamorphoses is Schmidt 1991. Yet even his very flexible analysis of Ovid’s Themenführung, a concept borrowed from music, is unable to explain the presence and function of the Narcissus and Echo episodes in their wider context (cf. his discussion on pp. 111–12), ultimately showing the limitations of this line of approach when it comes to understanding the poetics of a specific passage (which is, admittedly, not Schmidt’s interest).

American Journal of Philology 121 (2000) 129–147 2000 by The Johns Hopkins University Press


matic links should not be considered a sufficient justification for Ovid’s rendition of the Narcissus and Echo episodes at this point in the poem.

Nor should one invoke poetic license, as Bömer does when he suggests that Ovid here merely branches out into the wider mythology of Boeotia (Narcissus being a Boeotian youth).8 Rather, here as elsewhere the narratological enigmas of the Metamorphoses are rooted in the peculiar logic of Ovidian poetics.

Within Ovid’s Theban history, the presence of Narcissus is not the only puzzling feature. The narrative is here constructed around a remarkable absence as well. As Zeitlin has demonstrated, the imagination of Attic drama, which informs this section of the Metamorphoses, employs three principal clusters of myth in order to render Thebes on the tragic stage: the events surrounding Cadmus’ arrival in Boeotia and his founding of the city; the house of Laius, in particular the story of his son Oedipus; and the conception and birth of Dionysus as well as his confrontation with his cousin Pentheus upon returning to his maternal city.9 The third book of the Metamorphoses, which contains the first half of Ovid’s Theban narrative, is clearly influenced by the structuring principles used by the tragic playwrights to fashion a thematics of Theban mythology. The book opens with a restaging of Thebes’ ktisis legend (3.1–130), and the sparagmos of Pentheus provides the appropriate closure (3.511–733), set up and anticipated by the Semele episode (3.253– 315). But Ovid curiously excludes the house of Laius, skipping over a vital part of the city’s mythological corpus. Even more surprisingly, he does not make up for this peculiar omission elsewhere in the poem.10 The absence of any extended reference to the myth of Oedipus in Ovid’s otherwise rather comprehensive mythological compendium is a remarkable silence, and one that merits investigation.

At first glance it does appear that Ovid swerves boldly from his all but predetermined narrative path by recounting the episode of Narcissus at the very juncture when the sequence of Theban legends calls for the appearance of an Oedipal figure. Yet the poet does not simply efface the horizon of expectation established by the sequence of Theban Bömer 1969, 538–39. Cf. Ludwig 1965, 28–29.

–  –  –

10 The only allusion to the significance of Oedipus for Theban lore occurs in Pythagoras’ discourse in book 15, where Thebes is afforded the epithet Oedipodioniae (15.429).

OVID’S NARCISSUS (MET. 3.339–510) tales. The glaring absence of Oedipus and the baffling presence of Narcissus are in fact flip sides of the same problem. As has been suggested by Loewenstein and Hardie, Ovid uses Narcissus to render vicariously the thematic complex of Oedipus by relating his Narcissus tale to the most powerful literary representation of Oedipus’ fate, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.11 We now build on this insight and further explore the precise modalities by which Ovid turns Sophocles’ Oedipus and his own Narcissus into the Tweedle–dee and Tweedle–dum of an extraordinary intertextual dynamic.


An intertextual relationship, especially one as seemingly arbitrary as that between Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Ovid’s Narcissus narrative, needs to be strongly marked if it is to be appreciated by the audience.12 Ovid signals the connection by introducing the figure of Tiresias into his text immediately before the tale of Narcissus, recounting an old version of how Tiresias acquired his gift of prophecy.13 Through his habit of striking copulating snakes with a stick, Tiresias had been transformed from man to woman and back again, enabling him to have experienced sex as both. He was therefore called upon by Jupiter and Juno to mediate an Olympian quarrel over which partner derives the greater pleasure from the act of sex. For siding with Jupiter in attributing the more intense pleasure to the female, Tiresias was struck blind by the infuriated Juno; but he was compensated with prophetic knowledge by her well–pleased husband (Met. 3.316–38).

This peculiar episode adumbrates the ambiguous terms on which Ovid establishes a transference of meaning from Sophocles’ play into the Metamorphoses. On the one hand, the timely narrative entrance of

11 Cf. Loewenstein 1984, 33–56 passim, to whose perceptive analysis the present

reading is much indebted, and Hardie 1988, 86: “Behind the Narcissus story there hovers the figure of the Sophoclean Oedipus, the glaring absence from the narrative surface of Ovid’s Theban books, Metamorphoses 3 and 4, but a ghostly presence in much of the drama of blindness, sight, and insight, particularly of the third book.” 12 For a good discussion of the marking of intertextuality see Broich 1985, 31–47.

13 The Metamorphoses version dates back to Hesiod. For Ovid’s sources see Bömer 1969, 530. Cf. now O’Hara (1996), who argues for a lost Hellenistic poem of the first century B.C.E. on Tiresias’ multiple sex changes.


the omniscient seer who haunts theater scripts in general and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus in particular is the perfect setup for the thematic correlations that Ovid constructs between the Theban king and the Boeotian youth. Yet at the same time, the sharp contrast between the old and somewhat embittered Tiresias of Oedipus Tyrannus, who curses his wisdom (cf. 316–17) and is even suspected of political intrigue, and the Ovidian expert on sexual orgasms, nicely prefigures the translation of tragic subject matter into the sphere of the erotic. As befits a prophet, Tiresias foreshadows the narrative terms and intertextual poetics of the upcoming episode, both inaugurating a conceptual space within the Metamorphoses in which Ovid can rehearse Oedipal configurations and anticipating the erotic elements in the transtextual relationship of Narcissus and the Theban king.

Tiresias continues to promote the Oedipus connection within the Narcissus narrative proper. Asked by the anxious nymph Liriope whether her son Narcissus would reach old age, the seer cryptically responds with an adaptation of the Apollonian maxim gn¬thi seaut¬n.

Narcissus will only enjoy a long life si se non noverit—if he does not know himself (3.348).14 By alluding in his first prophecy to this famous Delphic saying, Tiresias invokes a narrative background defined by the numinosity of Apollo and his oracle at Delphi, which loom so large over Sophocles’ drama as well. In fact, at the very moment Iocasta grasps the truth, she tries to counter Oedipus’ obsessive and self–destructive search for his true identity with an inversion of the Delphic “Know Thyself” which is exactly analogous to Tiresias’ response to Liriope: δ σπ τµ’, ε θε µ π τε γν ης ς ε (OT 1068). Like Ovid’s Tiresias, Iocasta reinterprets the Delphic imperative in an existential sense and inverts its message, as she tries to prevent the unfolding disaster of self–knowledge and introspective doom. Tiresias’ prophecy about Narcissus’ fate thus signals from the very outset that a typically Oedipean dialectic of blindness and insight is inscribed into the life of Ovid’s protagonist as well.

Perhaps the greatest source of Tiresias’ aura and fame in tragic

14 Cf. the discussion in Cancik 1967, 47–48, which emphasizes that in Ovid the origi-

nal theological and moral implications of the saying are lost in favor of a new psychological, existential significance. Ovid here also rewrites his earlier poetry and dogma. Cf. Ars 2.497–501, where Apollo appears to the poet and reapplies his doctrine to the pursuit of love: qui sibi notus erit, solus sapienter amabit.

OVID’S NARCISSUS (MET. 3.339–510) discourse is his affiliation with the catastrophe of the house of Laius.

Oedipus’ dismissive taunt about the seer’s abilities at OT 390 ( πε φ ρ’ ε π, π σ µ ντις ε σαφ ς;) has been satisfactorily answered by the end of the play, and Tiresias’ knowledge of Oedipus’ true identity and his crimes is a crucial instance of the dire credibility which Apollo and his seer enjoy in Greek mythology. In like manner, Tiresias’ status as a prophet in the Metamorphoses derives largely from his involvement with the fate of Narcissus. Through a deceptively nonchalant (and thus typically Ovidian) transition, the entire Narcissus episode appears to be introduced into the narrative merely to show the unfailing veracity of Tiresias’ predictions.15 Appropriately, the tale is framed by references to his widespread celebrity, which is based precisely on his correct articulation of Narcissus’ terms of existence (cf. 3.339–40 and 511–12).16 In short, the figure of Tiresias and the specter of the Delphic oracle locate Ovid’s tale of Narcissus within Sophocles’ Oedipal imagination, delimiting from the outset the textual boundaries of the static epyllion through a dynamic, intertextual “frame.”


The intertextual extravaganza Ovid stages between his own text and Sophocles’ is characterized not by specific verbal resonances but rather by structural and thematic parallels which are further embedded within a consistent program of generic displacements. As Ovid reconfigures Oedipal constellations within his poem, he reproduces the plot structure, the primary tropes, and the central thematics of Oedipus Tyrannus but projects the politico–tragic fate of Sophocles’ protagonist inversely into the domain of private passion located within a bucolic landscape.

The intricate grammar of intertextual transformation that underpins and regulates Ovid’s Narcissistic adaptation of the Sophoclean play thus divides into two principal modes of operation, which may be classified as “analogical” and “dialogical.” 15 For useful observations on Ovid’s transitions see Keith 1992, index s.v. “Transitions between episodes.” 16 Cf. Brenkman 1976, 325: “We thus find Tiresias stationed at either end of the mythos and presiding over its meaning, the figure of the narrative’s truth.” But he does not link Tiresias to the Sophoclean intertext.


–  –  –

The most striking correspondences between Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Ovid’s Narcissus episode involve the plot structure of their dramas. Both writers construct plots that conform to the highest Aristotelian standards for tragic quality. In each case, the moment of recognition, that is, the change from ignorance to knowledge, coincides with the plot’s peripeteia, the reversal of the protagonist’s fortune.17 As Jebb points out, it is crucial that this climactic moment of discovery be “naturally prepared, approached by a process of rising interest, and attended in the moment of fulfillment with the most astounding reversal of a previous situation.”18 Ovid’s narrative technique displays precisely these qualities, as he restages in nuce the dramatic movement for which Sophocles is universally admired. Narcissus’ encounter with Echo (3.356– 401), the fatal curse of a rejected lover (3.402–6), and an elaborate ecphrasis of the fateful pond (3.407–12) set the stage for Narcissus’ drama of self–recognition played out from 3.415 to 3.505. When Narcissus reaches the silent water and lies down to refresh himself, he is captivated by his own reflection and slowly overwhelmed by a new desire (3.415–17).

Silent fascination, gazing, and fruitless attempts at embracing his mirror image, narrated in the third person (3.418–31), give way to an authorial address, in which Ovid lectures his character on the phenomenon of reflection: Credule, quid frustra simulacra fugacia captas?...

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