The Myth of Narcissus

Dante speaks of four "senses" or levels of reading with which one can approach myths or sacred texts.

The Myth of Narcissus

In the Convivio, his most important philosophical work in the vernacular, Dante speaks (in Chapter 1 of the Second Treatise) of four “senses” or levels of reading with which one can approach myths or sacred texts: a first level or literal reading, a second level or allegorical reading, a third level or moral reading and a fourth level of reading that Dante calls anagogic or supra-sensory and that we will call gnostic.

We will try to present these four levels to the reader in relation to the myth of Narcissus.

We quote: “Narcissus was such a handsome young man that everyone, men and women, fell in love with him, but he did not care, preferring instead to spend his days in solitude, hunting. Among his suitors was the nymph Echo, who was always forced to repeat the last words of what she had been told; she had been punished by Juno because she distracted her with long stories while the other nymphs, Jupiter’s lovers, hid.

When Echo tried to approach Narcissus, he refused her. From that day on, the nymph hid in the woods, consumed by unrequited love, until she remained only a voice (from here, the word “echo”). Finally, because a rejected lover asked Nemesis to avenge him, Narcissus was condemned to fall in love with his own image reflected in the water. He complained that he could not hold her or touch her and his complaints were repeated by Echo. Once he realised what had happened, Narcissus let himself die, pining in vain; when the Naiads and Dryads wanted to take his body to place it on the funeral pyre, they found a flower in its place, which was named after him”.

The traditional allegorical reading always presents a negative picture of the myth by referring to self-worship or narcissism. Even in a certain area of esotericism, the myth is associated with the fall of the spirit, which remains imprisoned in matter.

On the other hand, in the ‘moral’ reading, as presented in a book by a Swiss Masonic lodge, the picture changes. We quote:

While the previous interpretation would seem to give a mystical character to the legend (Narcissus in a state of torpor), in a second version, it would take on a profoundly initiatory value, therefore active and participating in the Subject, where the concepts of “beauty” and “death” take on very different connotations from what we are generally used to thinking.

In this second interpretation, the Beauty discovered by Narcissus, after all, has nothing to do with the beauty linked to form invariability, appearances, the ornament that decorates the much more important breath of our soul. Narcissus, being reflected in the water and sensing the impossibility of that love, discovers in this sense a light, a-corporeal Beauty, a sort of ecstasy determined by the discovery of fantastic and unexplored territories, where the factors of time, causality and space are annihilated by a total fusion between Being and Nature, in a moment of ecstasy and pure magic; a territory where form gives way to Substance and, for the same reason, where the Ego of Freudian self-affirmation becomes, as if by enchantment, the awareness of the Self.

The initiatory death

This concept of death, or initiatory death, in other words, represents the source and origin of the feeling of brotherhood, the unity that distinguishes the Initiatic Order and constitutes its primordial objective: we are all One. There is therefore no longer any difference between the one and the Other, but a new unity is constituted, made up of multiple manifestations of the same substance. The Ego of self-assertion, in initiatory death, thus becomes the WE of brotherhood and universal Love.

Before moving on to the “anagogical” reading, it is necessary to recall the three types of love according to the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition, namely. Eros, Philos and Agape.

Eros is carnal, sensual, egoic love the lowest form of love, while philos is love for parents, children, friends; between spouses who have overcome eros, the highest form of the love of this nature.

Agape is the spiritual love, the love for the transcendent, the all giving without asking for anything in return. We will now try to give an impression from this last point of view.

Narcissus is born from the watery encirclement of a River on a Nymph.

He is predestined because he is so indecipherable that he is subjected to the examination of a soothsayer.

He is so handsome that he makes all men and women fall in love with him but he rejects them.

This means that he rejects eros because it does not correspond to him inwardly.

Then he meets Echo who well represents Philos as a being who has already had his misfortunes and therefore arouses emotion and interest. But the two cannot communicate. Even though she is deeply in love, she cannot speak and so this kind of love is not for Narcissus who rejects it.

Then Nemesis can intervene and we see her here not as a vindictive entity who wants to punish Narcissus for rejecting Echo, but exactly the opposite, as a guide towards the liberation of Narcissus’ soul, because she recognizes that he is ready for Agape and leads him towards a mirror (aqueous) so that his destiny can be fulfilled.

Why aqueous and not one of a hundred thousand other types of mirrors?

By looking in the mirror Narcissus approaches the primordial paternal substance and this makes us think of the recovery of the pre-remembrance.

Thus Narcissus begins to see and understand who he really is, discovering the true meaning of life.

He discovers that the true beauty is that of the One in him, that One that the mirror of the primordial waters, of living water, makes perceptible to him.

Narcissus finally feels and finds the Love to which he can and must correspond: that which he had always sought within himself and never found.

And he immerses himself in it totally until he disappears, saying like John the Baptist << I must diminish so that the Other can grow >>.

It is the endura.

The first step towards transfiguration,

The predestined has found the path to liberation.

The process of alchemical transformation is completed in the Myth as described by Ovid in his Metamorphosis: Narcissus after his death, is transported to Hades, (symbolically the phase of “nigredo”) and while he is on the river Styx he continues to be in contact with the image that transmutes him.

When the Naiads and Dryads wanted to take his body to place it on the funeral pyre, in its place they found a flower with a red corolla and golden pistils (symbolically the “rubedo” phase) and six white petals in a hexagram (symbolically the “albedo” phase).

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Date: June 13, 2021
Author: Mario Marcomini (Italy)
Photo: John_William_Waterhouse CCO

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