"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Twelve Dozen Daffodils (6 of 8)

Twelve Dozen Daffodils (6 of 8)

From Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower by Noel Kingsbury:

“The word ‘narcissus’ is linked inexorably with that of the beautiful boy Narcissus in Greek mythology, who was unaware of the intense love for him felt by the wood nymph Echo, who was cursed by being only able to repeat his last words. Eventually she pined away for him to such an extent that she became only a faint voice in the woods. As a revenge and punishment on Narcissus, Venus, the god of love, sent Cupid to cast a spell over him, so that he would fall in love with the first face he saw….

“What happened, of course, is that he leaned over a pool to drink and fell in love with his own image. Like Echo, he began to waste away with unrequited love, but the gods took pity on him, and turned him into a flower — a daffodil, probably Narcissus tazetta, which we know to have been grown in ancient Greece. Not surprisingly, daffodils came to symbolize both unrequited love and egotism in the Victorian language of flowers, and narcissism has come to mean a pathological sense of preening self-worth.”

From Daffodil: The Biography of a Flower by Helen O’Neill:

“In around 300 BC the Ancient Greek philosopher and botanist Theophrastus listed various daffodil strains in his nine-volume magnum opus Enquiry into Plants. He described the plant’s structure, remarked that garland-makers prized it and implied that his contemporaries even cultivated it. Theophrastus used the word ‘nardissos’ to describe the daffodil, a term the Romans would transmute into ‘narcissus’, and two theories compete as to why his culture selected this term.

“The first theory relates to the Greek word
narkao, the root of the term ‘narcotic’, and the associated belief that daffodils, when eaten, had hazardously stupefying properties or, as various legends implied, quasi-demonic overtones….

“The second theory draws from the myth of Narcissus, a tale that ripples still through art, iconography, drama, psychology and popular culture. It spawned the notion of narcissism, refashioned by Sigmund Freud into a pervasive psychoanalytic concept that resonates today in the 21st-century’s selfie-obsessed digital landscape….

“Narcissus blithely breaks the heart of Echo, a nymph who pines away, able only to repeat his words, until she is nothing more than a ghostly disembodied voice. The youth’s scornful behaviour so appals the gods they decree that he shall never find satisfaction in love. One day while out hunting, Narcissus catches sight of his own reflection in water and falls desperately in love. Transfixed, he refuses to leave the object of his desire and wastes slowly away to death at the water’s edge. As nymphs mourn his tragic passing a flower grows from the soil, the head of which droops as though it, too, is gazing into its own reflection. The Greeks named the flower after the pitiful young man: Narcissus.”


This is the sixth of eight posts featuring daffodils from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The previous posts are Twelve Dozen Daffodils (1 of 8), Twelve Dozen Daffodils (2 of 8), Twelve Dozen Daffodils (3 of 8), Twelve Dozen Daffodils (4 of 8), and Twelve Dozen Daffodils (5 of 8).

The daffodils toward the bottom of this post — those with the white petals and coronas in shades of orange — are among my favorite spring flowers to photograph, and I always look for them growing in one specific area of the cemetery where they’ve been re-blooming for years.

In the previous post, we touched on some of the daffodil’s symbolism — in the context of nineteenth century floriography and (briefly) on cemetery symbolism. The daffodils and their genus Narcissus have become quite famous — and have even become famous for being famous — over the centuries of their appearance in the arts, owing, at least in part, to their connection to the Narcissus story from Greek mythology (as both Kingsbury and O’Neill describe above). Connections between our garden friends and the Greek myths is not unusual, of course — but Narcissus seems to enjoy a deep and enduring cultural history. For a couple of pretty fine overviews of their cultural prevalence, check out these two Wikipedia articles…

Narcissus in Culture

Narcissus Mythology: Influence on Culture

… the first of which provides a broad historical grounding for artistic representations of daffodils stemming from the Greek myth, and the second which describes how and when Narcissus (the plant) appeared in literature and paintings. The second article also references a third — Narcissus (Caravaggio) — which describes a painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio, that painting an interpretation of Narcissus from the myth, gazing at his own reflection.

You can see the painting on that page, or click here for a full-screen version. Caravaggio seems to have reduced the original myth to its essential visual elements only. Unlike many representations of the myth — which typically show Narcissus plentifully surrounded by woodland flowers and plants — Caravaggio (according to the book Caravaggio: A Life by Helen Langdon) distills it this way:

“In Caravaggio’s painting there is no reference to the ancient world; Narcissus is a young Roman boy, in a sleeveless damask doublet, looking into a pool; Caravaggio has pared down Ovid’s narrative, rendering its stark essence. The composition is based on a circle, and within it, circle within a circle, is Narcissus’ knee, startlingly foreshortened…. 

“The drawing is distorted, with the curve of the back unnaturally long, as though the whole figure has been pulled out sideways, and thus locked into the demands of this circular composition. It creates a sense of intense concentration, and the picture’s meaning lies in this circle of self-love.

“Yet it may also be read as a tribute to the illusionistic power of painting, to the power of the artist to create a duplicate world. Figure and reflection have almost equal weight, and reality and illusion are divided by touches of white water.”

I was mildly amused to come across all this this morning, because I had just finished watching Ripley — a new adaptation of the novel The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith — on Netflix last night, and one of the series’ most interesting variations from the 1999 film is the frequent appearance of Caravaggio’s paintings (and his life story’s common characteristics with that of Tom Ripley) throughout. The Talented Mr. Ripley and its film or series adaptations all seem to be thematically derived from the Narcissus Greek myth — in that the protagonist’s personality exhibits many characteristics of psychological narcissism, especially in that he is obsessively self-reflective, covets the life of another person, and is unable to form lasting relationships with others.

The Netflix adaptation makes these connections quite explicit, and also makes them visually compelling by incorporating Caravaggio’s paintings and elements of his biography. In various scenes where Tom Ripley stares at Caravaggio’s art (sometimes within the distortions of a dream sequence, echoing the distortions and illusions in Caravaggio’s Narcissus painting), just substitute Narcissus gazing at his reflection — and the relationship with the original myth becomes very clear. If such film-noir crime thrillers interest you, I have to say Netflix’s Ripley is about as good as they come. I’m tempted to watch it a second time, just to find out if Caravaggio’s Narcissus painting is among those the series displays.

I think I’ll test out the Narcissus myth myself: I’m heading outside to stare at my reflection in the pond, to see if I turn into a daffodil!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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