In a cavernous space or on top of a high peak, you’re likely to hear the things you say repeated back to you. The phenomenon of the echo takes its name from ancient mythology.
Today we know that echoes are caused by reflecting sound waves, but in the ancient world this knowledge did not exist. They believed that a voice had to come from a speaker, so they imagined an unseen nymph who repeated their words back to them.
Echo’s story is well-known as a sad tale of unrequited love. Without the ability to speak on her own, she could do nothing but watch as the man she loved slowly withered away under the spell of his own narcissism.
The heartbroken nymph faded away as well. All that was left was her voice, helplessly repeating what she heard other people say.
This story is well-known, but is it really an ancient Greek legend. The story of Echo might not be as rooted in Greek mythology as many people think!
According to Ovid, Echo was an Oread, or mountain nymph. She was well-known among the gods for her love of conversation.
Echo would start a conversation with almost anyone. Once she started talking to them, she would continue with long-winded stories.
Zeus realized that he could use Echo’s chattering for his own benefit.
The king of the gods often wished to meet with the humans and nymphs who he had made his lovers, but Hera posed a problem. His wife was becoming increasingly suspicious of where he went and who he was with.
Zeus asked Echo to help him distract Hera. The nymph, eager to help the king, agreed.
Whenever Hera began to look into Zeus’s whereabouts or seem to identify one of his lovers, Echo would appear. She would strike up a conversation with Hera, distracting her for hours.
This was long enough for Zeus to visit one of his lovers and return undetected.
Eventually, Hera learned that Echo had been intentionally distracting her. She cursed the nymph to prevent her from ever helping Zeus again.
Hera took away Echo’s ability to speak. Instead, she could only repeat the last few words said by someone else. Without the ability to carry on a conversation, Echo could no longer distract anyone on Zeus’s behalf.
Echo retreated back to the mountains, feeling alone and ashamed. One day, however, she spotted a handsome young man who had been separated from his hunting party.
This was Narcissus, a man so beautiful that Echo immediately fell in love with him. Unable to speak to him, however, she could only follow him silently through the forest.
Eventually, Narcissus began to call out to his companions, Echo finally had the chance to speak to him, although she could only use his own words.
Narcissus excitedly ran toward Echo as they called out to one another. When he saw her, however, he rejected her entirely and she could say nothing to change his mind.
Narcissus could only love someone that was, in his mind, as beautiful as himself. Echo watched silently as he found the perfect object of his affection.
The young man did not meet another nymph or a handsome youth, but a clear pool of water. Seeing his reflection, Narcissus was completely entranced by his own beauty.
Echo could do nothing but watch silently as Narcissus started into the pool of water. He was so enamored that he began to waste away and eventually died beside the pool.
Echo and the other nymphs of the mountain mourned the loss of such a beautiful man. They prepared to give him a funeral, but when they went to collect the body there was none there.
Narcissus had been transformed into beautiful white flowers. They are still called by his name today.
Heartbroken and utterly alone Echo too began to waste away. Eventually there was nothing left of her but her voice, repeating what people yelled in the mountains.
The story of Echo and Narcissus explained how the sound of an echo was made. It also, like many myths, gave an origin for a well-known plant.
It is not clear, however how much of the story was known in ancient Greece.
The earliest surviving account of Echo’s transformation is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Like many of the stories in the Roman poet’s work, it is not an entirely faithful retelling of an older myth.
Ovid was known for changing the details of many stories to fit the theme of his work or to serve an allegorical purpose applicable to his own time. In some cases, he even appeared to make up the stories entirely.
Because Ovid’s work was so famous, however, his stories were quickly spread. Oftentimes, they were adopted into the popular religious beliefs of the time.
Many modern collections of Greek mythology include Ovid’s versions of the stories. While some would have been at least partially familiar before the Roman poet’s time, others were unknown in classical Greek mythology.
It is unclear, however, whether the story of Echo and Narcissus is one of the stories Ovid entirely invented or not.
Echo is named in earlier Greek writings, but her story is never fleshed out. If there was a myth that explained how Echo came to repeat what she heard, it has not survived.
Writers from the 4th and 5th centuries BC mentioned Echo in caverns and on mountaintops. Her origins are not given, however.
Like many nymphs, the earliest versions of Echo were associated with Dionysus and the rustic gods. She was said to repeat their calls as they danced and sang in the wilderness.
Some element of this was preserved in later accounts of Echo. After Ovid’s tale of how she faded away, some writers said that Pan fell in love with her voice but could never find her in the forest.
At least one account also linked Echo to the Underworld. In caverns, it was implied, she could take the speaker’s words to Persephone and the spirits of the dead.
It seems likely that Ovid was aware of the existence of a nymph named Echo in Greek mythology. He appears to have added to the story, however, to both tie in more major gods and add her love of Narcissus.
The full story of Echo and Narcissus is probably not one from classical Greece. Instead, it was the work of a skilled Roman poet who made an otherwise insignificant character the key figure in a tragic romance.
The mythology of Echo was written for the first time in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
According to this work, Echo was a mountain nymph who was asked to help Zeus evade Hera’s suspicions. When he left to meet one of his mistresses, Echo distracted Hera with long conversations.
When Hera learned that the nymph had been helping Zeus, she cursed Echo. The nymph could not speak any words but those she had last heard someone else say.
Echo wandered the forest, unable to speak to anyone. One day she spotted Narcissus, an exceptionally handsome young man, and fell immediately in love with him.
When Narcissus heard her repeat his words he was initially excited, but when he saw Echo he rejected her. His vanity meant that he did not think anyone else was beautiful enough for him.
He finally fell in love, however, when he spotted his own reflection. Mesmerized, he stared at it until he withered away and turned into a patch of flowers.
Unable to speak to him, Echo could only watch. In her grief, she too faded out of sight.
All that was left of Echo was her voice. The nymph was doomed to remain unseen and unable to say anything except other people’s words.
While some mention is made of Echo in earlier Greek works, Ovid appears to have invented much of his story. There is no earlier mention of Echo helping Zeus or her love for Narcissus.
The earliest mentions of Echo give her no origin, but generally link her to Dionysus and the forest nymphs who followed him. She was also thought to be a messenger to the Underworld, since she could repeat messages said to her by the living.
Ovid’s inventive tale is a well-known one today, but it seems most likely that his version of Echo did not exist in classical Greek mythology.