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Narcissus The Epoptes

 Narcissus, House of Lucretius Fronto, Pompeii

Extracts from :

Nava Sevilla-Sadeh

A Hidden Telete

Mythological Images as Symbols of Initiation in Roman Wall Paintings and Mosaics

Narcissus the Epoptes

"The myth of Narcissus tells the story of a youth in love with himself who has rejected all his lovers and returns love to no-one. As punishment for his arrogance Artemis has condemned him to experience unfulfilled love forever. He wanders around filled with unrequited passion, and unclear purpose. One day, while seated near a spring, he gazes at his own reflection in the water. He feels such a yearning for this image that he falls in love with it and eventually dies from this longing, becoming the flower that still bears his name.

Wall paintings in Pompeii usually represented Narcissus as seated on a rock and gazing at his reflection in a basin. I focus here on the image of Narcissus from the House of Lucretius Fronto, while referring to other representations in accordance with the context. This depiction has already been interpreted as symbolizing the rites of passage in their secular sense, i.e. puberty rites.


The artist has focused here on the image of Narcissus and emphasized him through the strong oblique composition, while purposely omitting a more detailed depiction of nature. Narcissus’s facial expression is introspective and his gaze is dreamy and contemplative. His image recalls in its appearance the character of the ephebe, who is the archetype of the Classical Greek youth, evoking the definition of a “soft youth” referred to by the Diadomenos. Narcissus’s contemplative mood recalls that of the disengagement and sense of aloofness and divinized youthfulness.


The classical thoughtful expression was intended to express aidos — modesty, as against hubris ; and dianoia — the “reflexive thought” or contemplation of the rational and moderate youth and his discretion in the process of becoming an adult. The solitude characterizing Narcissus is well connected to the social practices of puberty rites.

The process of initiation was marked by a period of seclusion and isolation that the young initiate had to undergo, and which signified his way to maturity; while the initiate’s return to society symbolized his rebirth as a man and his new status as an accepted adult, celebrated through a change in his physical appearance, manifested in a new costume and his joining the andreion. The Spartan initiation discipline included concealment (krypteia), which was the custom of secluding Lacedemonian youth in the mountains, where they had to live for a year in isolation. Vidal-Naquet noted that the practice of the krypteia at Sparta contained elements such as nakedness and temporal separation.


Narcissus’s contemplative mood suggests that intense and serious expressions are reflected on the faces of the initiates and priestesses in the Mysteries, since these were occasions for contemplation and consideration. All the depictions of Narcissus focus on his seclusion and isolation and the reflective mode in which he is immersed. Initiates such as Livy’s Aebutius and Apuleius’s Lucius underwent seclusion and abstinence before their initiation.

The water that reflects Narcissus’s image, and which is a very prominent motif in the myth, is also a salient feature of initiation rites. Purification was one of the main acts during initiation, and was carried out with water brought from a fountain or a sacred spring. The ritual bathing was meant to consecrate the initiates and imbue them with the illusion of a sublime experience: at Eleusis, a brook that bordered on the sanctuary supplied the water; the Korybantic Mysteries consisted of ritual washing; in the Kabeiroi rituals the purifications were held with water from the sea immersion in the sea was part of initiation rites in cults such as that of Demeter at Eleusis, and was also part of Aphrodite’s worship ; initiates in the Eleusinian Mysteries were required to go down to the sea ; and the initiation that the protagonist in Apuleius’s “Golden Ass” underwent was held at the beach.

Presumably, the initiation was preceded by a bath, given the omnipresence of baths in the Mysteries and the mention of a “holy bath” in an inscription from a Dionysian sanctuary in Halicarnassus. The secluded location in the wilderness of the scene suggests the initiate’s seclusion prior to the sacred activity held behind closed doors, since the Mysteries were held in nature and occasionally in open-air sites constructed like a grotto. Elsner notes that Narcissus’s setting is a sacred one with allusions to Bacchic rites ; and Valladares notes that the scene in Ovid takes place in a sylvan setting.

Nature is indeed a common dominant feature in both Narcissus’s myth and the Mysteries. Narcissus’s metamorphoses, as told by most of the sources, consisted in being reborn as a flower. After this rebirth he is blessed with love and a widespread beauty in a cycle that reflects the periodicity that governs the universe. In the Narcissus myth told by Ovid there are two allusions to a process of catharsis by Narcissus: the first is embedded in the blind seer Tiresias’s answer to the nymph Liriope’s question — whether her son will reach old age. The answer is: “If he but fails to recognize himself…” This answer references the climax of the initiation rites, to be dicussed below.

The other allusion appears at the end of the myth, with Narcissus’s metamorphosis into a small yellow flower with shiny white petals. Kalistratus’s story too ends, like that of Ovid, with the blooming of a spring flower in the meadow, and focuses on the process of metamorphosis ; while Philostratus’s focus on the story emphasizes the need to change one’s position in order to attain maturity. Similarly, in the sacred initiations, after the seclusion and the purification, the "mystes", who is “he who closes the eyes” was considered as reborn, and became "epoptes" “he who sees”.

In the initiation Mystery, at this very moment a miracle was believed to happen: a ear of wheat sprouted and matured with supernatural suddenness in the Mysteries of Demeter, while a vine grew within a few hours in the Dionysian cult. Death and rebirth were thus the main features of the initiation, suggesting transcendence over the human condition. This is significantly manifested in the initiation mysteries of Isis, which included a “voluntary death” and the initiate “approached the realm of death” to obtain his “spiritual birthday”.

The sacred mystical death was followed by a new sacred spiritual birth: the initiate attained another mode of being and became one with the gods and eternity. Similarly, Narcissus wished to be merged with the beautiful reflection he had seen in the pool, and his merging generated his metamorphosis and his rebirth as a flower.

A very prominent equivalence in the philosophical realm is the yearning to merge with the divine, described poetically in Plato’s Phaedrus. Before the soul was incarnated in a corporeal body she dwelt amongst the divinities and witnessed their sublime beauty. When the soul then entered the physical world and was incarnated, she forgot those glorious sights. However, whenever she finds beauty in another being she feels a dim memory of the sights that she had once seen, and this fills her with great emotion and a passionate love for that being. This love stems from the longing for divine beauty and the wish to merge with it.

Eros was considered a mediator between the corporeal and the divine and the embodiment of the yearning for eternity. The longing to return to the divine realm, which is the origin of the soul, is described by Plotinus. Accordingly, in order to merge with the sublime beauty, the soul has first to be purified and become incorporeal by cultivating “internal sight”. Corporeal beauty is only a reflection of the sublime beauty, and only the soul that has become beautiful herself is able to discern the sublime good and beauty.

Interestingly, Eros is portrayed in some Pompeiian wall paintings as a mediator between Narcissus and Echo, pouring water into the pool. From a Platonic and Neoplatonic viewpoint Eros is the mediator between Narcissus and the sublime with which he is yearning to merge. Eros is very active in these depictions, and in the painting from the house of Fabius Rufus he is engaged with preparing the sacred bath for the purification.

Narcissus himself appears, as in the house of Lucretius Fronto, with all the characteristics of a mystes delineated above: the contemplative mood, the water pool for immersion, the purple cloth, and the wreath. Consecration and the illusion of merging with the divine were, apparently, highly desired in Antiquity; and the Mysteries, which were varied — Eleusinian, Samothracian, Orphic-Bacchic, and Korybantes, promised at least an illusion of such merging. Narcissus’s image appears to be a kind of archetype of the Mystery as a general and dominant imbued concept."

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