Recorded at the New York Public Library on October 27, 2010.
Recorded at the New York Public Library on October 27, 2010.
The daffodil has been adopted by both the American Cancer Society, and the Madame Curie Society, for whom it symbolizes simultaneously hope and disease. The Greeks today call N. tazetta Dakrakia, “Little Tear Drops,” as this flower’s association with grief and the dead is both exceedingly ancient, and modern.
The legend of Echo’s fertility daemon Narcissus, who pined to death desiring his own reflection, is parallelled by similar flower boys such as Adonis “the scentless rose” (i.e., a windflower or anemone) who was the slain beloved of both Aphrodite and Persephone; and Hyacinthus, the slain catamite of Zeus and Apollo; and the hidden son of Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus, cavern-raised in secret by naiads of Cybele’s Mount Ida. He came to the Fountain of Queen Salmacis, to whom boxwood and clinging ivy was sacred, and he became one with Salmacis after drinking of her mystic waters, achieving a unity which Narcissus appears likewise but unsuccessfully to have sought.
Like these others, Narcissus is fundamentally impotent or sexless, though erotically appealing to goddesses or nymphs and even to the more masculine gods. We are reminded that Cybele’s boy companion Attis, born of an almond tree was, like Narcissus, sexually incapable – indeed was literally unmanned. Such sexless lads seem to originate in a very early level of myth when the Mother Goddess, being Absolute, had no actual consort, at a time when the male principle was at most a companion, son, or a priest who had unsexed himself.
Most such fertility daemons are straightforward “dying and reborn” grain-divinities, including even Jesus whose worshippers co-opted the daffodil as well as the lily as symbols of death and Easter resurrection. But Narcissus appears additionally to be partly related to a large number of female nymphs transformed directly into flowers, trees, or reeds to escape unwanted sexual encounters. Because there is something essentially female in his myth, he somewhat bridges the Attis or Galli type of mythology of self-castration, to the Daphne type of myth of nymphs escaping either lust or an unwanted marriage or the pursuit by unwanted rape by a god.
He loved his own reflection (which he mistook for female), then turned into the flower bearing his name, ignoring the erotic desires of Echo all the while. But in an alternative version, he had an incestuous affair with his twin sister, who subsequently died, and his obsession for his own reflection was due to his own resemblance to his beloved.
Echo herself had been cursed never to be able to seduce Narcissus directly, but only to repeat his words. She was, in essence, his reflection, so his sentiment that his reflection was female, or that it was his twin sister, was correct. But Echo herself is a dwindled form of a once very mighty Goddess of great antiquity, Akko, mother of all language, whose Voice was that which called forth creation at the beginning of time, and who bears a close association with the Cretan Crocus-goddess Kar.
We know that Echo’s worship was significant within the secretive rites of Demeter. One day was put aside to honor Echo during the Demeter Festival of Eleusis. The precise nature of worship at the Echo shrine was forbidden to be written down, and is today unknown. Her worship was also part of the cult of the Argive Hera; and while in Latin versions of her myth Echo angered Juno (Hera) by covering for Jove’s sundry sexual liaisons, within the Argive cult Echo was Hera’s beloved handmaiden. Echo’s central myth within this cult binds her to the erotic nature-divinity, Pan, to whom she was reluctantly betrothed, and by whom she bore a daughter, Jynx or Yunx, who cast a spell that caused Zeus to fall in love with Io, for which reason Hera turned Jynx into a wryneck bird.
Or Echo gave birth to Peitho, Goddess of Soft Speech or of Seductive Persuasion. Peitho was handmaiden to Aphrodite, and became the bride of Hermes. Peitho had her own cult in Athens, said to have been introduced to the city by none other than Theseus. She is given several genealogies and isn’t invariably a daughter of Echo, but the notion that she was Echo’s daughter was sensible in that both were associated with speaking.
Dionyssiaca calls Echo the Goddess Who Never Fails to Speak. Though in later tales this meant she was an annoying chatterbox, there is ample evidence that any negative connotation was imposed by rival cults, and that Echo was in her own right a powerful divinity. Her cult was always of a secretive kind associated with lustiness and death, and never spoken of outside the confines of secret initiations. She was depicted as an angel-like being with enormous wings hiding her mouth behind a veil, signifying secret wisdom; just such an image of Echo is shown at the top of this page, and she is clearly distinct from any sort of nymph.
As a Virgin Goddess, she rejected not only Pan, but also Poseidon who sent a flood up the mountains in pursuit of Echo. She even refused to attend the wedding of Dionysios because of her dislike of the marriage bed. It is an interesting aside that a surname for Dionysios, Antheus (“Flowery”), was an alternate name for Narcissus. Echo’s disdain for marriage would have been quite normal for huntress-goddesses or nymphs of Artemis, yet Echo may have taken her disdain for all things connubial to extremes, and insulted Dionysios when she refused to participate in the violent drunken dance of the maenadic Oreiades or Hill-nymphs at Dionysios’ wedding.
In none of her myths is Echo given a genealogy, very likely because she was part and parcel with the First Cause in that it was her Voice that called forth creation. But some have speculated she was a renegade Oreiad of Boeotia, and that she left her sister-band of the pines and oaks of the mountain forests to live alone in a deep cavern of an alpine cliff, in order to not be seen and courted by any man or god.
If she were indeed an Oreiad this would make her a sister of the Dactyls and Satyrs, perhaps even a sister of Pan. The Oreiades were sometimes likened “the female Dactyls” and were wedded to their brothers, the Dactyloi. The children of the Dactyls and Oreiades were the Curetes or Corybontes, who were priests of Cybele and defenders of infant Zeus, and were male equivalents to the raging maenads who danced madly and noisily about the hillsides.
The mother of the Oreiades and Dactyloi was the Titaness of radiant heat, Anchiale, sister of Prometheus. Their father was the Titan of hands Hekateros. The sons and daughters of Anchiale and Hekateros invented iron metallurgy and brought the Bronze Age to a close. These sons and daughters were also great artists of anything involving use of the hands, and as light-bearers were bringers of wisdom out of darkness. Though it was said that Echo was educated in the arts by the Muses, it may once have been that Echo instructed the Muses!
These Oreiades were of the same generation of divinity as the Olympians, although since these children of Anchilale secretly nurtured the infant Zeus in a mountain cavern in Crete, really they are older than the Olympians. Anchiale herself dwelt originally on Mount Ida in Crete, and later on the Phrygian Mt. Ida, which association identifies her most strongly as a byform of Cybele Idaea, greatest of the Great Goddesses, the mother of Zeus.
But it’s important to remember that Echo’s recurring association with the Oreiades never explicitly makes her one of them, and this may well be due to her having been known to be herself a Titaness of the first generation of divinity. Rather than being the Nymph of Mt. Helicon, she was an aspect of the All-Mother herself.
When Pan was spurned by Echo, he visited madness upon local goatherders and sent them raging up the mountain sides until they found Echo, ripping her to pieces and scattering her bones. The behavior of the goatherders was commonly assumed to be an activity of Dionysios’s maenads, and Echo’s fate both duplicates that of Dionysios in his infancy (when he was cut up then restored, sans penis, by Gaea) but also punishes Echo for refusing to dance the mad dance with the maeanadic Oreiades at Dionysios’s wedding.
Gaea gathered up the far-flung bones of Echo and buried her part by part in sundry cliff-faces, where not just her voice can still be heard, but where her spirit inspires poetic gift for any voice beautiful enough to sing inspired lyrics or comprehend the mystic meanings.
By all this we see that Echo had a large presence apart from the best-remembered tale of her downfall for loving Narcissus. But most revealing of her original nature is an ancient Greek assumption that she was Persephone’s personal messenger (as Hermes was the personal messenger of Zeus), and flew upon her dark wings between the living world and Thanatos bringing perfect knowledge to and from the underworld.
In this we find again the real nature of Echo, whose lips are veiled, for the secret knowledge cajoled from her is incorruptible. It was an oral tradition forbidden to be written, but she repeated it verbatim from Persephone the Maiden aspect of Hekate. This Echo is, then, the same as the Jewish Bat Kol, “Daughter Voice,” who brings news from God and repeats it verbatim in her soft womanly voice directly into the hearts and spirits of humanity. In times of need Bat Kol can be heard to speak from out of a fiery light. Echo is also encountered in Vedic religion as the Goddess Devaduti, the Divine Messenger, feminine power of communication without whom even the greatest of gods is mute.
This association of Echo with Persephone, or Black Aphrodite, feeds back to the mythology of the narcissus flower, which was sacred to Persephone. Persephone had been picking daffodils on the very day she was kidnapped into the underworld. These flowers did not formerly bow their heads, but do so now, for shame of their role in the kidnapping. A beautiful meadow of these flowers grew near the River Styx, bringing sunlight to that dark land; and during her captivity, Persephone often walked amidst these flowers.
From the lingering bits of a largely forgotten mythology, it seems probable that Echo worship regarded Her as the “spark” that dwells within each of us, that which Narcissus mistook for his twin sister, a beautiful maiden, or his soul. All the Greek words for Spirit or Soul are feminine words, and so in Greek myth the soul is often personified as a nymph or goddess, Psyche as lover of Eros being most famed of these. Not coincidentally, in Semitic and Sanskrit languages too, the words for Soul are invariably female names. The last great flourishing of Soul worship in western religion was classical gnosticism. Among Gnostics, a central idea was that Sophia (the Mother-goddess Wisdom) spun out from herself, without need of a consort, the whole of the life-force of the world, diminishing herself to become infused into the material world, the energizing power of all life. Such belief remains current in India among saktists or Kali worshippers.
So the diminished Echo is still really that earlier Creatrix trying to call out to humanity, to Narcissus, striving to correct the Error of Sophia and liberate us from the world of Matter by calling us back into the pre-created universe of light and unity. But because she is fused to us, we can never quite perceive Her as anything but a reflection of ourselves, an echo of our own voices, and we are undone by our own vanity and remain snared in the material realm.