Narcissus is the most beautiful boy whom many have ever seen, but he does not return anyone’s affections. One of the disappointed nymphs prays to the god of anger, Nemesis, that "he who loves not others love himself." Nemesis answers this prayer. Narcissus looks at his own reflection in a river and suddenly falls in love with himself. He can think of nothing and no one else. He pines away, leaning perpetually over the pool, until finally he perishes.
The story of Narcissus includes the story of Echo, a nymph who falls in love with him. Echo falls under an unfortunate spell cast by Hera, who has suspected that Zeus is interested in her or, at least, in one of her nymph friends. Hera determines that Echo will always have the last word but never have the power to speak first. That is, she only can repeat other people's utterances. When the dying Narcissus calls "farewell" to his own image, Echo can only repeat the words—a final good-bye. In the place where Narcissus dies, a beautiful flower grows, and the nymphs call it Narcissus.
Apollo and Hyacinthus are best friends. They compete to see who can throw a discus the farthest. In the competition, Apollo accidentally throws his discus into Hyacinthus, killing him. As Apollo holds the body of his best friend, he wishes that he himself would stop living so that the beautiful, young Hyacinthus could live on. As he speaks those words, the blood spilling from the dying youth turns the grass green, and a beautiful flower grows—the hyacinth.
Adonis is an extremely handsome young man, and Aphrodite falls in love with him. She puts him in Persephone's care, but she also falls in love with him. Finally, Zeus intervenes and decides that Adonis shall spend half the year with Persephone and half the year with Aphrodite. One day, Adonis hunts a wild boar and thinks he killed it. But the boar was only wounded, and it fiercely lunges at Adonis as he approaches. Aphrodite flies to him and holds him, dying, in her arms. Flowers grow where the blood wets the ground.
The story of Narcissus concerns the dangers of self-love. Western culture often returns to consider the nature of the self-absorbed individual. Literature, art, and philosophy have investigated the relative importance of self-love. Here, the extreme form of self-love is figured as a warning.
Echo is yet another unfortunate female who is a victim of Hera's jealousy. The sad story of Echo’s unrequited love and Narcissus’s perverted love reveals the importance of natural imagery in Greek myths. Echo reflects the echoes people hear across empty spaces, and wildflowers were revered as physical reminders of a Greek's beauty and fertility.
Together, the stories of Narcissus and Echo represent the tragedy of missed connections, for they both love wrongly. Narcissus loves simply a reflection; Echo loves someone who cannot love another. The Greek myths thus explore sad scenarios that leave certain characters unhappy or unfulfilled. It seems that the gods have the power to make everything "right" and could make love reciprocal, but they rarely choose to do so. From the troubles of love arise many the complex dramas of the human condition.
In the story of Narcissus, natural imagery stands out. Typical of Greek mythology, elements in nature take on narrative significance and add a particular attitude to a tale. By setting the stories in such idyllic, natural settings as by the river where Narcissus falls in love with himself, the Greek storytellers conjured an imaginary world in which beauty and nature rule the imagination.
The short myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus concerns the fragility of living. It seems strange that such an impressive god as Apollo should make such a tragic mistake, but this story shows a rare instance in which a god regrets an action and a time in which fate goes against a god's wishes. The tragedy of error thus extends to the powerful gods, not just the mortals on earth.
The story also warns against the dangers of competition, for it is in this context that Hyacinthus dies. Competitions arise throughout Greek mythology, and not always to tragic effect. But in almost every case, competitions cause an important or dramatic situation to occur.
Perhaps most importantly, the story of Hyacinthus concerns the cyclical relationship between life and death. Just after Hyacinthus dies, he is in a sense reborn as a flower. As in other stories of life after death, Hyacinthus's new form as a flower suggests that life cycles can recur from one natural state to another. In this case, it is hard to see what Hyacinthus retains of his human nature in having become a flower.
Finally, the story displays an unusually human portrayal of a god. As good friends do, the two men share love and loyalty; Apollo shows both masculine heroism and sensitive compassion. Indeed, his love for his friend appears to be the main reason why Hyacinthus is able to live on.
Another tragic love story is that of Adonis, though in this case, Adonis is killed by his own error and by an animal. The key mistake is thinking that the boar is dead when it is alive. This myth also indicates more about mortality. Aphrodite can do nothing to bring the mortal back to life; she cannot even go into the underworld and bring him back. The flowers that grow in Adonis's place suggest hope and life after death, just as they do with Hyacinthus.
Adonis's story also reveals the competitive nature of the gods, for both Persephone and Aphrodite fight for his attention until finally Zeus resolves the fight. In this sense, they act like immature humans, unable to reach common ground without the help of an authority. Alternatively, the bickering between Persephone and Aphrodite may reveal that human concerns are indeed so significant and critical that they weigh on the gods as well.
Note also a common theme in myths: the extremely beautiful male or female human (compare Narcissus and Psyche). Being of great beauty may suggest being closer to the gods. It also may cause fame, love--and tragedy.