Having read the excellent blog “Why Women Talk Less” at language: a feminist guide on the myriad possibilities of why women’s voices are not heard on terms equal to men, I was reminded of several years of teaching Ovid’s story of Echo to high school Latin students at an all girls’ school. Echo was the mythical nymph whose garrulity made her the object of Juno’s scorn and who suffered the near destruction of her speaking ability. Of course the myth is an etiological one intended to explain the origin of the echo phenomenon.
Ovid, however, collates this tale with that of Narcissus in order to exploit the communicative aspects of Echo’s plight. Her need to communicate orally remains in spite of the near impossibility to do so. Ovid could have depicted Echo communicating her feelings for Narcissus in other ways (e. g., Philomela wove a tapestry depicting her own rape at the hands of her brother in law in order to inform her sister). It is as though the need to express oneself verbally is so pervasive that Ovid limits Echo to this one medium. She is near enough to Narcissus that she automatically repeats the last word or two of his phrases. We must suspect that her voice even sounds like Narcissus’. The only thing she has are the meanings she gives to these echoed words, meanings she cannot craft from words of her own choosing.
When Narcissus says, “Let’s meet,” Echo says “Let’s meet.” The Latin verb has a double meaning: to meet and to have sex. Ovid writes that Echo was never happier to repeat words as she was at that moment. When they do meet, and Echo begins to initiate her meaning of the verb, the strict virgin Narcissus is repulsed and rudely dismisses Echo who eventually wastes away until she is nothing but sound.
What is Ovid trying to tell us in this darkly humorous vignette? During a class, before I offered my own ideas, I would always caution my students that Ovid was not a feminist; he did seem, however, to use myths to empathize with the weak and the vulnerable and to implicitly criticize certain societal norms. This doesn’t mean that he was not a wealthy Roman male of the first century CE with all the benefits and prejudices this implied.
Echo comes to represent many aspects of the vocal life of a Roman woman: only speak when you are spoken to; agree with what the male authority figure says; and forget about giving your own meaning to your thoughts and feelings.
The rich women in Ovid’s day who would have been the only women reading his works certainly had much more power than both the women and men who made up 99.5 percent of the population. Still, we can’t imagine even the wealthy wives and daughters talking very much.
Ovid was at least as knowledgeable about the poor in his society as we are in ours. He knew that for most of the women (and children) in ancient Rome, each day held the very real possibility of victimization. You took your life into your hands whenever you walked the streets, particularly when the sun set. You had little if any say in your home, in your life. You had roughly about the same amount as Echo.
If Ovid had only structured this myth with a deeper message about the inability for a women to be express herself, he would have done well. But there is more…about the voice.
Leaving Echo, let’s turn to Narcissus. He is introduced into the story at a crucial age. In Latin he is called a puer iuvenisque— a boy and a young man. The enclitic conjunction –que in Latin means “and” in the sense of peanut butter ‘n jelly or spaghetti ‘n meatballs, i.e. two things that are virtually one. Narcissus is ready to leave childhood for adulthood. What does that mean?
In terms of the sexual mores of the ancient world, it means a great deal. In a society in which pedophilia was practiced, children (like women) were regularly exploited. When Narcissus changes from boy to man, the prey becomes the predator. How does Ovid illustrate this? When Narcissus looks into the pool, he is smitten and addresses his new love as puer unice, my one and only boy. Narcissus as a man sees his reflection as a boy ready to be exploited.
But there is more. Although perplexed by the similarities in their respective movements, Narcissus does not realize the truth about the puer until he discovers that the boy cannot talk.
cumque ego porrexi tibi bracchia, porrigis ultro,
cum risi, adrides; lacrimas quoque saepe notavi
me lacrimante tuas; nutu quoque signa remittis 460
et, quantum motu formosi suspicor oris,
verba refers aures non pervenientia nostras!
iste ego sum
When I have stretched my arms to you, you stretch yours back,
When I have laughed, you laugh; I have also noticed your tears
When I am crying; you even make signs with a nod,
at least I suspect from the motion of your lovely mouth,
you answer with words not reaching our ears!
I am the one…
What better way to seal Narcissus’ fate than to have the anagnoresis (recognition scene) hinge on the spoken word, the very quality of life that Echo all but lacks. Up until he realizes this, Narcissus is quite happy being in love with the silent partner. That is the reality of relationships between the predator and the victim, between the exploiter and the victim, between the powerful and the weak– only one has a voice. But it is the voice that Narcissus needs so much to prove that this figure in the water is truly the other. He concludes: inopem me copia fecit, my abundance has rendered me poor, i.e., he is, in an optimistic reading, both the lover and the beloved; he is, in the sordid sense, both the predator and the prey. The irony is that the predator needs his prey; there must be an other distinct from himself. But in order for this other to be authenticated, he or she must have a voice. If the other has a voice, however, he or she ceases to be the victim. Before he wastes away, Narcissus seems to realize that relationships require individual identities with individual voices.
hic, qui diligitur, vellem diuturnior esset;
nunc duo concordes anima moriemur in una.
I only wish that the one I love could live longer/ As it is, two together will die in one spirit
The entire myth underscores how power governs the relationships upon which society is based. And it encourages us to ask if there is not a better way in which two people, for example, can form bonds on equal terms. And that reality begins when the other is given his or her own voice.