Few mythical images have grabbed the West’s imagination as much as the image of the handsome Greek youth who died enraptured by the sight of his own reflection. Deriving possibly from some long, forgotten worship of a deity or hero associated with death and vegetation, the story of Narcissus has come down the centuries as a moral tale which admonishes excessive self-love, arrogance and vanity in a charming way.
It was Ovid in Metamorphoses1 who first captured this story for eternity, skilfully depicting the details of the myth in his verses, such as Tiresias’ strange prophecy ("you’ll only reach a ripe old age if you don’t discover yourself)2, the anxious dialogue with the nymph Echo ("who cannot be silent when others have spoken, nor learn how to speak first herself”)3, the punishment of Rhamnusia Nemesis (“So may he himself love, and so may he fail to command what he loves”)4 and of course the obsessive picture of Narcissus ("he inflames and burns”)5, imprisoned by his own self-love.
Just as Ovid conceived Narcissus, so too he was later conjured up in the frescoes of Pompey, the mosaics of Antioch, the medieval verses of the Roman de la Rose, the genealogies of the Gods of the Gentiles written by Boccaccio, the theatre of Calderón, the paintings of Tintoretto, Caravaggio and Poussin, the sculptures of Rodin and Brancusi, the texts of Rilke Beckett, the scores of Scarlatti and Gluck, and Freud’s incomprehensible theories.
In search of a setting
In the few ancient sources other than Ovid which retain some memory of this myth6, Narcissus is vaguely associated with the area of the Thespians in Boeotia; only a short and controversial phrase from the traveller Pausanias7 offers us some faint indication as we attempt to finding a setting for the notorious tale of Narcissus: “Θεσπιέων δὲ ἐν τῇ γῇ Δονακών ἐστιν ὀνομαζόμενος∙ ἐνταῦθά ἐστι Ναρκίσσου πηγή” (In the land of the Thespians is a place called Donacon. Here is the spring of Narcissus).
The word ‘Donacon’ appears once, an enigmatic place name without any reference in any other source. We cannot know for certain if it identifies a river, a location, a village or even a spring, since the manuscripts and older versions of Description of Greece are in disagreement on the wording of the specific phrase, even going so far as to change the gender of the place name8.
However, let’s dare to make an assumption: If one reads the context (“Ἐπὶ δὲ ἄκρᾳ τῇ κορυφῇ τοῦ Ἑλικῶνος ποταμὸς οὐ μέγας ἐστὶν ὁ Λάμος. Θεσπιέων δὲ ἐν τῇ γῇ Δονακών ἐστιν ὀνομαζόμενος...” / On the summit of Helicon is a small river called the Lamus. In the land of the Thespians is a place called Donacon), Pausanias’ phrase –using the wording quoted here- seems to refer to a river which rises at the peak of Mt. Helicon by the name of Lamus9, and crossing the territory of the Thespians, becomes known as the Donacon. Donacon is a proper noun, undoubtedly a derivative of the ancient Greek word ‘δόναξ’ which means 'reed’, which helps us to imagine that the ancient location was a reed-bed with running waters. However where is that place where the traveller saw the spring and heard about the tale of Narcissus? Does it still exist today?
The first antiquary and traveller who ‘in modern times’ dared to set out to find the Donacon was the versatile Englishman George Wheler, who following many travels in Europe and the Orient published his work “A Journey Into Greece” in London in 1682. Reading his work 10, while also taking into account subsequent excavations in the area, one can conclude that Wheler did not precisely identify ancient Thespies but placed it SW close to modern-day Xeronomi, however slightly north of the suggested site the traveller does mention a small village by the name of Tadza, which no longer exists, where he found some ancient remains including 'a curious fountain' which he associated with the spring Pausanias saw and which made him speculate that these ruins belonged to an ancient 'city' called Donacon.
In the early 19th century the young dilettante William Gell, close friend of Byron and Scott, precisely recounts the hours and minutes of thousands of trips around Greece in the footsteps of Pausanias and Strabo: on arriving at the 'huts at Tatazi, he too saw the ruins of graves and inscriptions next to a stream and a church, but he identifies Neo Chorio -and not Tatazi- as the place which Wheler called Donacon, though he kept that sweet sounding place name to refer to the river which flowing down from Mt. Helicon, passes next to the village of Exeromaies (Xeronomi)11.
At around the same time the famous Irish painter and archaeologist Edward Dodwell mentioned that he passed by the area of Tatĕza12, which he places in the northern foothills of Mt. Helicon, and that there he saw a spring, which he does not associate with Narcissus like Wheler did, but with the legendary spring of Aganippe, which Pausanias mentions13. So his testimony causes confusion, at least in relation to the precise location of the area known then as Tatĕza.
Some years later, Colonel W. M. Leake, a restless traveller who was experienced in mapping and topographical identifications, passed by the Tadza area and managed to see ancient stones, a ruined church and the remains of something that looked like an ancient fountain14. He therefore espoused Wheler's view and attributed the ruins to the hypothetical settlement of Donacon. Other researchers such as Bursian, Frazer and Papachatzis would later do the same15.
Nowadays, Spyropoulos’ excavations in the area of long-gone Tateza16 confirm the existence of an ancient settlement and strangely enough a circular building which could be the fountain Wheler and Leake saw, but not necessarily the one Pausanias mentioned in connection with Narcissus. Moreover, in addition to these topographical speculations based on the text of the ancient traveller, the earth has safeguarded an impressive inscription17, a dedication from the emperor Hadrian to the god Eros, which demonstrates that the city of the Thespians and Mt. Helicon were close to 'Narcissus' blooming garden' ("Ναρκίσσου παρὰ κῆπον ἀνθόεντα").
Is that site still visible today? Would it still be recognisable, I wonder, if it still existed? Heading west on the country road that connects Thespies to Thisvi, 6 km from the ruined walls of the first city one passes by the old chapel of the Holy Trinity hidden on the flat side of a hill behind a clump of cypress and pine trees. On the other side of the road, excavations conducted in the 1960s out in the open plain brought to light the remains of buildings and ancient potsherds (ostraca). Tateza’s houses is said to have been here, but no one can say with certainty that there was an ancient town here called Donacon. The enigmatic place in the foothills of Mt. Helicon that the European travellers called Tateza (or some slight phonetic variation on it) appears to have been a less clearly-defined areas between Neo Chorio and Xeronomi, even though a recent survey by Farinetti18 asserts that between the 15th and 17th centuries the Arvanite village of Tateza stood on the alluvial plain north of Xeronomi, on the Thespies – Thisvi road.
Collating all that information together and mapping it onto the modern ground, we are only left with a faint image of the ‘garden of Narcissus’. Near the first houses in Xeronomi, on the south bank of the river, one can still see today the haphazard ruins of three old Christian churches, surrounded by whitewashed pine trees, next to the modern-day chapel of St. George19. Ancient stones which were reused to build these churches would, in all likelihood, have come from the forgotten ruins in Tateza valley. For the time being, they are the only easily visible remains of that vague settlement where Pausanias heard Narcissus’ tale. So it is here among the alluvial plains, used nowadays to farm crops, that we must place his myth.
Wheler, whose interest in botany far exceeded his interest in archaeology, did not see any narcissi in these plains but put that down to the time of year, and was convinced that they would bloom again in the spring. The most likely interpretation, based on the etymology and a careful reading of Pausanias, is that the Donacon was initially a river, the ‘river of the reeds’ which certainly grew in this location and can still be seen today. As Gell hypothesised20, the waters of the river flowed down from Mt. Helicon and reached this point after crossing a small gorge to the SE of Ellopia. In that plain, today so verdant and sun-drenched, once laid the ‘garden of Narcissus’. The waters in which the young Thespian, forever trapped, admired his own image today irrigate these plains of olive trees and cereals in the foothills of the mountains of the Muses.
(Pedro Olalla is a writer and Hellenist, and CHS Hellas Fellow in Geography of Myths at Harvard University).
1. Ovid, Metamorphoses ΙΙΙ, p. 339 et seq.
2. op. cit. III, p. 346 et seq. (“De quo consultus, an esset / tempora maturae visurus longa senectae, / fatidicus vates 'si se non noverit' inquit”).
3. op. cit. III, p. 357–8 (“quae nec reticere loquenti / nec prior ipsa loqui didicit”).
4. op. cit. III, p. 405 (“sic amet ipse licet, sic non potiatur amato”).
5. op. cit. III, p. 426 (“pariterque accendit et ardet”).
6. Pausanias IX, 31.7–9; Konon: Narratives XXIV; Lucian: True Stories 2.17 and 19; Eustathius: Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey I, 406; Pliny: Natural History XXI, 75; on the version in the Oxyrhynchus Parchment which is attributed to Parthenius, see David Keys, “Ancient manuscript sheds new light on an enduring myth”, BBC History Magazine, Vol. 5, issue 5 (May 2004), p. 9.
7. Pausanias IX, 31.7-9.
8. In addition to the version referred to here, other manuscripts and old versions write: “Θεσπιέων δὲ ἐν τῇ γῇ ἡ Δονάκων ἐστὶν ὀνομαζομένη” (In the land of the Thespians is a place called Donacon) (Translator’s Note: The gender in this version is different compared to the gender of the phrases cited in the body text.)
9. Perhaps a variation on the name Olmeios referred to by Hesiod (Theogony 6) and Strabo (9, 407) as a tributary of the Permissus.
10. G. Wheler, A journey into Greece (London, 1672), p. 471.
11. W. Gell, The Itinerary of Greece, with a commentary on Pausanias and Strabo, and an account of the Monuments of Antiquity at present existing in that country, compiled in the years 1801, 2, 5, 6 etc. (London, 1810/18272), p. 118–119.
12. E. Dodwell, A Classical and Topographical Tour through Greece (London, 1819), p. 257.
13. IX, 29.5.
14. W. M. Leake, Travels in Northern Greece II (London, 1835), p. 500 et seq.
15. C. Bursian, Geographie von Griechenland I (Leipzig, 1862); J. Frazer, Pausanias’ Description of Greece V (London, 1913); N. Papachatzis, Pausanias’s travels around Greece (Boeotica) p. 199. Note 1.
16. T. Spyropoulos, Arch. Bulletin 21 (1966). For more information about the archaeological finds anad topography of the area see Ε. Voltyraki, “Byzantine Xeronomi”; Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, “Boeotia”; P. W. Wallace, “Hesiod and the Valley of the Muses”, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 15, v. 1 (1974), pp. 5–24.
17. IG VII 1828.
18. Ε. Farinetti, Boeotian Landscapes. A GIS-based study for the reconstruction and interpretation of the archaeological datasets of ancient Boeotia (Oxford, 2011), p. 175.
19. 38° 15΄ 07΄΄ Β, 23° 04΄ 23΄΄ Α.
20. W. Gell, op. cit. p. 119.