Tag Archives: ancient rome

The Roman Tale of Narcissus and Echo: The Mythology Series

Narcissus

Narcissus comes to us today courtesy of Dionne Lister. He was a hunter known for his beauty, and as the son of the river god, Cephissus, and a nymph, it’s no wonder he was so beautiful!

You might not be surprised to know that Narcissus is the origin of our word ‘narcissism’, which means a fixation with oneself. This originates from the tale that Narcissus was lured to a pool where, upon seeing his own reflection, he became so obsessed with it that he was unable to leave. He came to realise his love was hopeless, and committed suicide.

Narcissus was actually lured to the pool by Nemesis, the goddess of revenge. She did so as an act of, you guessed it, revenge. This was because the mountain nymph, Echo, had seen him and fallen deeply in love with him. She would follow him, and when Narcissus asked ‘Who’s there?’, she would repeat his words (get it? She was Echo!).

When Echo finally revealed herself to Narcissus, he rejected her, telling her to leave him alone, and heartbroken she wandered the woods until she had faded away into an ‘echo’.

So the tale brings us not only the word ‘narcissist’, but ‘echo’ and ‘nemesis’. 


Echo and Narcissus (1903), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation by John William Waterhouse
This story was recorded by Ovid, but other variations also exist. The version by Conon involves neither Nemesis not Echo, with Narcissus instead spurning a male suitor, who then prays to the gods to teach Narcissus a lesson and promptly commits suicide on Narcissus’s doorstep. Narcissus then dies when he sees his reflection after stopping at a pool to drink, as he can never have the object of his desire.
An even later version involves Narcissus falling in love with his twin sister rather than his own reflection. 

What piece of mythology would you to know more about? Let me know in the comments! 

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Vestal Virgins: The Mythology Series

Vestal Virgins



The Vestal Virgins are part mythology and part historical fact. They did exist, but the reason behind their existence and their purpose is entirely mythological. Well, religious, at the time, but apparently religion turns into mythology when those gods are discarded. Tough gig.

The Vestal Virgins were the six priestesses of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth fire. They were chosen from noble families, were aged between six and ten when selected, and served for 30 years. During the term of their service they were required to preserve their virginity. As becoming a Vestal Virgin was considered a ‘marriage’ to the city of Rome, sex with any of its citizens was ‘incest’. Interesting argument… This incest was also treason, and punishable by death.

The Vestal Virgins were unusual because in Ancient Rome a woman’s place was considered to be the home, while the Vestal Virgins held positions as some of Rome’s senior religious leaders. Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing…

It was the responsibility of the Vestal Virgins to keep the sacred fires burning and to preserve the ‘soul’ of Rome. As long as the fires burned, it was believed that Rome would endure. Of course, the corollary to this was that if something bad happened, it must be the Vestal Virgins’ fault! Military defeats meant these women were accused of incest or failing to properly tend the fire, and it seems some of the Vestal Virgins were convicted on the strength of an accusation and little evidence. If the fire went out, this itself was considered to be evidence of the responsible woman’s impurity.

Early 18th-century depiction of the dedication of a Vestal, by Alessandro Marchesini
Harming a Vestal Virgin was believed to attract bad luck, and so Vestal Virgins condemned to death were sealed in a tomb with a little bread and water and left to starve to death. By some convoluted logic I can’t follow, apparently burying someone alive and leaving them to starve to death isn’t ‘harming’ them. I’m also not sure why they left them any food or water to be honest – surely that just prolonged the whole matter? If you’re going to engage in that kind of barbarity, you might as well get it over and done as fast as possible…

The Vestal Virgin Marcia was killed in this way after being accused of taking a lover. Minucia was convicted of incest on the basis of ‘improper dress’ (because what you’re wearing naturally means you have a lover….) while others were convicted on the testimony of temple slaves.

This seems a significant risk, but life as a Vestal was much easier outside of times of military conflict. They enjoyed the best seats in the Coliseum, received a significant pension upon retirement, were entitled to be buried within the city of Rome (a privilege reserved for a chosen few) and were not considered the property of their fathers or husbands. Upon retirement they were permitted to marry, although it appears most chose not to do so. Those that did apparently still retained personal freedoms and independence, including the right to make their own will (which ordinary women could not as property of their husbands). 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven’t already. If you’re finding yourself here often, you might like to join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or subscribe to my newsletter. Check out my March Newsletter if you missed it.

Don’t forget to share the love and spread the word on Twitter, Facebook or StumbleUpon (or other social networking site of your choice) if you know other people who might also enjoy this.

Thanks for stopping by and visiting!