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published in the BBC History Magazine, Vol. 5 No. 5 (May 2004), p. 9

The ugly end of Narcissus

Ancient manuscript sheds new light on an enduring myth

by David Keys

Narcissus, Greek mythology's most tragic figure, didn't die of a broken heart, but collapsed into a pool of blood after committing suicide, according to a new discovery. A previously unknown account of Narcissus's demise - which appears to pre-date all other known versions - has been discovered among ancient manuscripts stored at Oxford University.

This early version - a Greek poem - probably dates from the mid-first century BC and differs from the oft-quoted account by the Roman poet Ovid written about half a century later.

'Following this discovery it is becoming increasingly clear that the myth was altered by Ovid to broaden its appeal,' said the Oxford scholar who discovered the poem, Dr Benjamin Henry of the university's classics faculty.

Narcissus was so beautiful that vast numbers of men (not Echo and other females, in the newly discovered poem) fell in love with him. However, such was his egocentricity that he spurned them all, leaving a trail of heartbreak behind him. Finally, a rejected suitor persuaded one of the gods to deal with him. Narcissus was made to stare for ever at his own image, reflected in a pool of water. The more he stared, the more desperately he fell in love with himself.

According to Ovid, Narcissus - pining from a broken heart - wasted away and died, whereupon he turned into the world's very first narcissus flower. However the earlier version has now revealed that the original myth probably had a less peaceful, more violent denouement, ending in bloody suicide.

The papyrus fragment is one of tens of thousands that were found in the late 19th and early 20th century in ancient rubbish dumps at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. These dumps, now fully excavated, are the world's largest source of ancient writings, accounting for 70 per cent of all known literary papyri. Many are kept at Oxford but the majority have still not been fully transcribed and translated. It was during work on these remaining manuscripts that the Narcissus fragment was found.

Dr Henry thinks it likely that its author was Parthenius of Nicaea, a Greek from what is now western Turkey. He appears to have been born sometime around 100 to 90 BC and was taken prisoner by the Romans during a war in Anatolia in around 73 BC. He ended up in Italy, where he became the Roman poet Virgil's tutor.

Although a mythological character, Narcissus has had a substantial impact on human culture - from art and literature (Shakespeare, Milton, Poussin, Rousseau and Goethe) to morality, lifestyle, Freudian psychology and arguably even religion. It's thought that, in the liberal sexual atmosphere of ancient Greece, his story developed as a cautionary tale as to what could happen to beautiful young men who rejected their elders' advances.