Echo was a nymph whose myth provided an explanation for the phenomenon of sound echoing. More important, the two main versions of her story highlight the limits of acceptable female behavior in Greek myth and culture, where lack of female sexual compliance was punished.
There are three main versions of Echo's story. In the first she incurs the anger of Hera, queen of the Olympian gods. The second myth has her falling eternally yet unrequitedly in love with the most beautiful man in Greek mythology, Narcissus. In the third she imprudently refuses the love of the god Pan, with tragic consequences. Her punishment served as a warning to young girls who rejected the attentions of male admirers in ancient Greece.
Both the Hera and Narcissus versions were recorded by Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–c. 17 CE). As the attendant of Hera, wife of Zeus, Echo was expected to give the goddess her unswerving loyalty and devotion. Yet Echo was forced by Zeus to cover for his amorous indiscretions by distracting Hera with ceaseless chatter. When the goddess discovered this ruse, she cursed Echo, so that the nymph could not voice her own words but only repeat what others said. In classical mythology, the punishment always fit the crime: because Echo transgressed by acting on another's behalf (Zeus), her penalty was the ability to speak only through the agency of another.
In the second story, the nymph spied Narcissus hunting in the forest. Her love for him was immediate, but because of Hera's curse she could only echo Narcissus's words. When she tried to embrace the hunter, he told her to go away. Heartbroken, the nymph retreated deep into the forest, where she spent the rest of her life pining for Narcissus, until all that was left was the echoing sound of her voice.
The story of Echo and Narcissus shows us that in ancient Greece feminine expression of desire was considered inappropriate. Women were to be desired, never to be seen to desire for themselves. Narcissus's response emphasizes the impropriety of Echo's feelings. At his rejection, Echo ultimately withered away from longing. Yet this residual part of Echo really did not belong to her at all. By taking the initiative with Narcissus, she had usurped a principal male prerogative. Her punishment for failing to identify with the socially acceptable behavior of her gender was the loss of her identity.
The most famous version of the Pan and Echo myth was written by Longus, a Greek author of the second or third century CE. In this story, unlike Ovid's myth, it is Echo who rejects the admirer. Pan was the god of shepherds and flocks. He appeared half human and half goat and had a lustful nature. He was always chasing nymphs whom he desired. Pan encountered Echo and immediately desired her. She was not only pretty but could sing sweetly and play many musical instruments. Despite Pan's divine status, Echo rejected the god's advances. In anger, Pan incited a group of shepherds to attack Echo. They tore her body into little pieces, until all that remained was her voice echoing through the forest.
In this myth, Echo's offense falls at the other end of the spectrum from her encounter with Narcissus: instead of going too far, she fails to go far enough by not acceding to the lust of a god. The ultimate outcome of her punishment is the same in both myths, but in the second the means is much more brutal: it is arguable that Echo's violent dismemberment represents rape. This peculiar account is told as part of a larger story about the erotic maturation of a young girl named Chloe. In many myths, a girl's first sexual experience is painful, often the result of rape by some god, and tends to be transformative. In other words, becoming a woman is symbolized by her change into, for instance, a tree or a fountain. Chloe had the rare fortune in myth to love and be loved by a young man named Daphnis. Echo's myth, told to Chloe just before the climax of her own story, heightens the dramatic suspense and plays counterpoint to the happy resolution of Chloe's romance.
See also: HERA; NARCISSUS; NYMPHS; PAN; ZEUS.
- Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. .
- Metamorphoses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. , and A. D. Melville, trans.
- Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books, 1995. .
When Hera wished to spy on Zeus in his amours, Echo infuriated the goddess by her continual chatter which seemed to be intended as...
Echo, daughter of Gaia (Mother Earth), in Greek and Roman myth, was one of Hera's handmaids. Hera used her to spy on Zeus' love-affairs, and...
Artist: Rae Henrietta (1859-1928) Location: Private Collection Credit: Echo, (oil on canvas), Rae, Henrietta (1859-1928) / Private Collection / Phot