Narcissus and Echo. Reflections on group process, whistleblowers and scapegoats.
Updated: May 3
The wind blows over the lake and stirs the surface of the water. Thus visible effects of the invisible parts of our environment manifest themselves.
It would seem the word narcissism is everywhere at the moment. The term is thrown around to describe both individuals such as political leaders, as well as entire professional groups or even linked to national identities.
There are several ways of understanding the use of the word narcissism, and I have a preference for returning to the ancient myth from which the term was coined. The myth in question is the story of narcissus and echo. One of the reasons why I enjoy returning to this myth is that there always seems to be more layers to it, particularly, when we take a more group analytic understanding of this tale.
The story has been told many times over by ancient poets and modern storytellers. This is a compilation of various tales …
The stories of ancient Greece tell of how gods and goddesses inhabited the land.
Given these differences in access to power and resources, there was potential for much violence within and between communities. On one occasion Cephissus, a river god, raped Liriope, a water nymph of the ocean. From the encounter Liriope became pregnant and had a human son called Narcissus.
In those days, Narcissus was a strong, handsome name and Narcissus himself grew up to be a strong and very beautiful boy.
In Greece at that time, there was a blind elder called Teiresias who had the gift of insight and foretelling the future. Teiresias had lived as both man and woman. When Teiresias was introduced to Narcissus, he knew what fate would befall the boy.
Teiresias told Liriope what he believed was going to happen to her son:
‘Oh Liriope, Mother of Narcissus, your son will only live until the moment that he sees himself.’
Liriope was deeply upset to hear this. And so, she did all she could to ensure Narcissus would not recognize himself. She was determined to keep her son as long as possible.
Narcissus grew to become a handsome hunter who broke the hearts of many men and women. He took lovers, but he remained aloof. He would reject people easily and stories are written of how those spurned would kill themselves at his coldness.
Meanwhile, a beautiful forest nymph named Echo had incurred the wrath of the goddess Hera. Echo was known as a great storyteller. So much so that she had been enlisted to use her stories to distract Hera whilst her husband Zeus had his affairs. Hera found out and punished Echo by depriving her of free expression. From then on, Echo could only repeat the words of others.
Able only to repeat others' words rather than create stories, Echo went to live alone in the woods. There she spotted Narcissus hunting and became infatuated. She longed for his attention, but he was fixated on his tasks. She tried to call out to him, yet she couldn’t.
One day, Narcissus became separated from his hunting companions, and so he called out to the group: “Is anyone there?” Echo was close by but could only repeat his words back to him.
Startled, Narcissus said, “Come here,” which Echo repeated. Echo then jubilantly rushed to Narcissus, but he instantly pushed her away, saying, “Hands off! May I die before you enjoy my body.” Humiliated and rejected, Echo fled in shame. Nevertheless, her love for Narcissus grew.
Narcissus’ action angered some of the gods. To punish Narcissus for his arrogance, Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, put a spell on him to fall in love with the next person he saw. As it happened the next person for Narcissus to notice was his reflection in a pool of water. But due to his mother's efforts he did not recognize himself and so a love for his own image took over him. He believed that in this reflection he’d finally found someone that he could love. He became absorbed with this beautiful image and refused to be apart from it, even for a moment.
Unable to get Narcissus’ attention, Echo’s obsession and depression grew. As the years passed, she lost her youth and beauty pining away in a cave. She lives there still, her body wasted away and only her voice remaining.
Narcissus remained by his beloved reflection. However, over time realization slowly dawned that the person he so loved was locked in just a few inches of water. Realizing the relationship could never be, and thus he could never love or be loved, he fell into despair and killed himself. Transforming into the flower narcissus that is given a new, but short-lived, life each spring.
The story is tragic. It is easy to see how we have vilified Narcissus: we collectively mock his vanity at falling in love with himself and can feel disgust at his rejection of Echo. We might even blame Narcissus for Echo's demise. It is rare to see an empathic understanding of Narcissus. But if we pause for a moment and take a more social or group understanding of the story, we start to see another picture emerge. If we attend to what happens to the people around Narcissus and Echo, we start gaining some insight into some relational and group phenomenon. We might begin to see prioritising group survival and group reputation over care of the individual. We might see that harm to the individual might be pleasurable or give relief to the group. Then if the isolation remains fixed, the group's sadism or narcissism in turn gets located as disturbance within an individual.
So how might we approach this task …
The first thing might be to get a sense of the structures of the communities in the story. There is a sense of groups within groups in these ancient communities - gods, magical people and humans. There is also a potent hierarchy and I wonder about the impact of these vast power differences between the gods, the magical and the human. Cephissus, as a god, would have held more power and social importance than a river nymph. Narcissus however was only human. These differences in resources facilitate the flow of life within a community, and as such whose desires might be held more or less carefully by the group.
Narcissus was conceived from Cephissus raping his mother. His mother was a nymph and his father a god. Liriope feared that Narcissus could not live long, because he was so beautiful. She took Tiresias’ comments as affirmation of this fear and so took action to try and keep Narcissus alive as long as possible. Maybe she was afraid his beauty would attract the gods and his life too might be destroyed though rape? Maybe she was afraid of being abandoned by her son to the adult world, her caretaking role gone she must face her trauma alone? But whatever the reason, Narcissus grew up in an environment where his mother and maybe the whole community, must have kept things from him so that he did not develop the ability to recognize himself.
This is a limited sort of kindness to show a child. To deny them an essential part of their reality and as such let them go about the world with an inaccurate orientation of how things are in relation to them. Now it would appear Narcissus had no idea about his predicament - and so it might be reasonable to guess that no-one told him what he looked like. Or not sufficiently well that he could make use of their communication. Mirrors would not have been terribly common in ancient Greece - but reflections in mirrored surfaces would have been, as would feedback from others. Indeed, it was a pool of water where he did eventually see his image.
We also might wonder what 'they' thought Narcissus might see if he saw himself - potentially he might see a likeness to his father, maybe he would see a likeness to his mother? Maybe he would see the value of his own beauty? He might see someone he likes. With this recognition he might also orientate to his community differently. He might wonder about his father, if he was punished for the assault. Or maybe Narcissus might understand the community and his parents were not what they seemed.
Logic suggests that Narcissus was kept from recognizing himself by removing reflective surfaces. This makes me think about group analysis and how group members act as mirrors for each other. Of course, not all mirrors offer a clear view and those that tend to give most clarity are the ones that can speak honestly and directly to their experience. This makes me think too about how complicated professional groups can be. How often groups keep secrets, turn blind eyes to events and behaviours. How what is whispered in coffee rooms, WhatsApp groups, peer supervision and work nights out can be held in the dark, instead of being reflected back into the light of professional accountability. Maybe it feels unsafe to? Maybe it feels like someone else’s problem?
What happens when we stop giving people honest feedback about their behaviour or act disingenuously about our own reactions and feelings about an event? What is the impact when everyone pretends something that is happening right in front of our eyes isn't actually going on? If Narcissus was able to be orientate, to see himself clearly in the world, what might he see and the group be forced to listen and acknowledge when he spoke?
Group reflective practice is taken very seriously in group analysis, as a way to maintain careful examination of our professional blind spots. This is also why it is very important to have differences of understanding within groups - otherwise you create echo chambers, where people go round, and round honing established ways of being rather than discovering hidden parts.
Unable to recognize himself it is unsurprising that Narcissus struggled to relate as a young man - although he finds comfort in the group activity of hunting. Unlike in ancient Greece, hunting nowadays is seen as controversial. What goes through the minds of people when they think about hunting? Hunting is the act of pursuing and killing live animals for food, recreation, or trade. There is often a myth that as humans and civilizations evolved, so did hunting. Hunting became a sport rather than a necessity. In some ways are we then supposed to imagine that killing was never a sport - that the pleasure could be removed? That it was only ever a functional act? Similar to the fantasy that sex can be soley for the purpose of procreation? This seems tricky to believe.
If Narcissus is a hunter presumably, he has a good eye and imagines himself as someone who attends to detail, someone who can physically discern different perspectives and target accurately. If he is regularly out hunting with others, he might well imagine people share his belief that he has an ability to see clearly and to be a good shot. How very difficult then, to discover that something as obvious as your own image is out of your repertoire. And with this discovery of a blind spot, an entire worldview shifts of what must have gone on for you to be left unable to recognize something so glaringly obvious.
We also might wonder why Narcissus was abandoned by his hunting group in the woods. What does it feel like to call out to friends and not have them answer? Were they playing a joke on him? Was this something they did to him regularly? For those that struggle to read social cues it can be a familiar experience to be left out of the group, left behind or made the butt of jokes? Did all his hunting group know he couldn't recognize himself? No wonder when Echo approached, he rejected her. Was he in the middle of a cruel group ritual? Presumably Echo had witnessed his abandonment and his restlessness in not being with his group. Why did she imagine now was a good time to make a physical advance? Was she just another person looking at his beauty, for what this could do for her - rather than seeing his needs and meeting them, so as to have an actual relationship? Is his complaint to Echo not just him stating the facts - she had no right to touch him? Or are we supposed to imagine everyone has the right to touch Narcissus and then hate him when he doesn’t want more?
For Narcissus to become conscious of what he looks like - he must also come to an awareness that trusted people betrayed him. They have let him down profoundly. He must experience feeling foolish. Easier to believe in everyone's fantasy, than wrestle with the disillusionment of his own and others' frailties. Why was no one checking in on him as he stayed by the lake. Without compassionate support, it is not surprising he killed himself when finally, he connected some of the dots. For Narcissus to become fully conscious he must become a whistleblower. But when he speaks, who actually listens? He spoke the truth to Echo and look what happened. He was left in the history books as obsessive, unkind, unreasonable, angry and cruel. As if he was the narcissist. It begs the question how narcissistic is Narcissus and how much is he the scapegoat and would be whistle blower of a group process?
The story plays a great deal with themes of not seeing/ and or being seen and not hearing or being listened to. Both of which we know tie into shame. Shame is essentially a social experience connected to our belonging. It is a painful self-conscious emotion often associated with negative evaluation to a group principle along with an experience of powerlessness, and worthlessness. Shame is often at the heart of narcissism - the shame of not being allowed to be seen as whole and experiencing that only preferred parts have value. The community is invested in Narcissus not recognizing himself and him carrying collective shame. As such he is forced to be cut off from this part of himself. In doing this the community can remain unchanged and he silenced.
Echo's story arc likewise gives us another understanding. She is established as a good storyteller. Presumably her story telling made her well liked or well known. Storytelling in ancient Greece was a highly prized skill. We don't know why Echo came to be in the role of distracting Hera, maybe she volunteered, maybe she was forced? Hera was known for her vengeful nature. What we do know is that when Echo was punished, and no one spoke up for her and or came to her rescue. Only the god of divine retribution Nemesis took up justice later on. The phenomena reminded me of the concept of scapegoating.
Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera situates scapegoating in the mythology of archetypal shadow and guilt. Scapegoating was an ancient social process to rid a community of its past evil deeds and reconnect it to the sacred realm, the scapegoat appeared in a biblical rite, which involved two goats and the pre-Judaic, chthonic god Azazel. The scapegoats were considered holy and a way to be able to draw attention to the 'sins' of the group.
In the modern scapegoat complex, however, in more recent times the rite has been radically broken apart and the libido "split off from consciousness". Azazel's role is deformed into an accuser of the scapegoated victim. For example, if someone breaks a perfectionist group code and it is taken up as conversation by the group: in the traditional use of scapegoat role this noticing by the group might allow for discussion and more consciousness held in the group about boundaries/rules/flexibility on the principle in question. The group uses the example of this person to learn as a whole. In the traditional rite, the cost to the scapegoated person is honoured as the group understands what a painful experience this is, to be the focus of whole group scrutiny. Symbolically, the scapegoat blood spilt, becomes creative life blood for the group. However, in an unconscious use of scapegoating, the group is aggressive or sadistic towards the scapegoat. The scapegoat is hunted or trolled, as the group is blood thirsty. The scapegoat is not held as sacred but instead eaten and discarded. The scapegoat then is used as a cautionary tale about what happens, should you expose a hidden group code of conduct - be it by accident or on purpose.
This twist in history of the use of scapegoats speaks to a collective group wounding. We are no longer in touch sufficiently with the containing aspects of the community to allow these essential processes of the group to function. So it is difficult to allow the group to work as an ethical forum to help support collective consciousness and better caring (a group analytic concept from Farhad Dalal). The sacredness of the scapegoat as a kind of unconscious whistleblower role has been lost. And as such we struggle to allow this role to be a catalyst for growth.
The group instead acts as sadistic, superego accusers with brittle personas. The group aggression (anti group) is hidden out of sight from where we project onto the victim. Like Narcissus - Echo has been shamed and shunned by the group and as result they are both left in mental suffering. Echo choses to stay in her cave - an echo chamber. She has less and less new material to draw on. She never learns that the stories she told in her former life were never hers to begin with either. Like all storytellers - we can only repeat what we have heard.
The scapegoat or whistleblower may then live in a hell of felt unworthiness, retreating from consciousness, burdened by the group shadow and transpersonal guilt, and hiding from the pain of self-understanding. They were both left by the group unable to be seen clearly or listened to honestly and as such were lost from an experience of belonging and could not access the ability to be in relationship.
In our clinical psychology culture, we have some urgent ethical conversations to be had. Our institutions are in crisis, and we have both whistleblowers and scapegoats amongst us. Many people are left feeling angry, hurt, confused and silenced. How can we provide enough containment for people to be able to speak freely in our groups and act as mirrors for each other to recognize ourselves? To hold our group as an ethical forum. Echo chambers and minimizing difference of opinions does not work. As a group do we see those Narcissus and Echo characters around us and feel relief we are not them? How much do we story up our whistleblowers and scapegoats as Narcissus or Echo when they try to help us bring into consciousness unattended parts? Who do we imagine are the scapegoats and who are so othered they don't even make the list? Could we honour these roles in our groups, or do we just want to hunt for blood?