Ovid's Metamorphoses: Echo

The story begins with the birth of the god Bacchus (Dionysus) who is "twice-born" as the story says: born once when they took him from the womb of his mother Semele, and then born a second time when they took him from the thigh of Jupiter where he was placed for safekeeping after his premature first birth. The birth of Dionysus, leads to a debate between Jupiter and Juno about who enjoys lovemaking more: the man, or the woman?

From this beginning, Ovid reaches the story of the vain young man Narcissus and the nymph Echo who loves him. The word "echo" in Greek means just what it does in English, and this story provides an explanation of just where the phenomenon of the echo comes from.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).

The judgement of Tiresias

While these things were brought about on earth because of that fatal oath, and while twice-born Bacchus’s cradle remained safe, they say that Jupiter, expansive with wine, set aside his onerous duties, and relaxing, exchanging pleasantries, with Juno, said, ‘You gain more than we do from the pleasures of love.’ She denied it. They agreed to ask learned Tiresias for his opinion. He had known Venus in both ways.

Once, with a blow of his stick, he had disturbed two large snakes mating in the green forest, and, marvellous to tell, he was changed from a man to a woman, and lived as such for seven years. In the eighth year he saw the same snakes again and said, ‘Since there is such power in plaguing you that it changes the giver of a blow to the opposite sex, I will strike you again, now.’ He struck the snakes and regained his former shape, and returned to the sex he was born with.

As the arbiter of the light-hearted dispute he confirmed Jupiter’s words.

Saturnia, it is said, was more deeply upset than was justified and than the dispute warranted, and damned the one who had made the judgement to eternal night. But, since no god has the right to void what another god has done, the all-powerful father of the gods gave Tiresias knowledge of the future, in exchange for his lost sight, and lightened the punishment with honour.

Echo sees Narcissus

Famous throughout all the Aonian cities, Tiresias gave faultless answers to people who consulted him. Dusky Liriope, the Naiad, was the first to test the truth and the accuracy of his words, whom once the river-god Cephisus clasped in his winding streams, and took by force under the waves. This loveliest of nymphs gave birth at full term to a child whom, even then, one could fall in love with, called Narcissus. Being consulted as to whether the child would live a long life, to a ripe old age, the seer with prophetic vision replied ‘If he does not discover himself.’

For a long time the augur’s pronouncement appeared empty words. But in the end it proved true: the outcome, and the cause of his death, and the strangeness of his passion.

One year the son of Cephisus had reached sixteen and might seem both boy and youth. Many youths, and many young girls, desired him. But there was such intense pride in that delicate form that none of the youths or young girls affected him.

One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets, she of the echoing voice, who cannot be silent when others have spoken, nor learn how to speak first herself.

How Juno altered Echo’s speech

Echo still had a body then and was not merely a voice. But though she was garrulous, she had no other trick of speech than she has now: she can repeat the last words out of many. Juno made her like that, because often when she might have caught the nymphs lying beneath her Jupiter, on the mountain slopes, Echo knowingly held her in long conversations, while the nymphs fled. When Saturnia realised this she said, ‘I shall give you less power over that tongue by which I have been deluded, and the briefest ability to speak,’ and what she threatened she did. Echo only repeats the last of what is spoken and returns the words she hears.

Now when she saw Narcissus wandering through the remote fields, she was inflamed, following him secretly, and the more she followed the closer she burned with fire, no differently than inflammable sulphur, pasted round the tops of torches, catches fire, when a flame is brought near it. O how often she wants to get close to him with seductive words, and call him with soft entreaties! Her nature denies it, and will not let her begin, but she is ready for what it will allow her to do, to wait for sounds, to which she can return words.

By chance, the boy, separated from his faithful band of followers, had called out ‘Is anyone here?’ and ‘Here’ Echo replied.

He is astonished, and glances everywhere, and shouts in a loud voice ‘Come to me!’

She calls as he calls.

He looks back, and no one appearing behind, asks, ‘Why do you run from me?’ and receives the same words as he speaks.

He stands still and, deceived by the likeness to an answering voice, says, ‘Here, let us meet together.’ And, never answering to another sound more gladly, Echo replies ‘Together,’ and to assist her words comes out of the woods to put her arms around his neck, in longing.

He runs from her and running cries, ‘Away with these encircling hands! May I die before what’s mine is yours.’

She answers only, ‘What’s mine is yours!’

Scorned, she wanders in the woods and hides her face in shame among the leaves, and from that time on lives in lonely caves. But still her love endures, increased by the sadness of rejection. Her sleepless thoughts waste her sad form, and her body’s strength vanishes into the air. Only her bones and the sound of her voice are left.

Her voice remains, her bones, they say, were changed to shapes of stone. She hides in the woods, no longer to be seen on the hills, but to be heard by everyone. It is sound that lives in her.

Next: Narcissus

(900 words)

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