The Narcissus Nitty GRITty: A Daffy-Dilly of a Tale

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Ta-da-da-ta-ta-da! The daffodils are here! The early flowering bulbs have been opened for a couple of weeks – the crocus, the snowdrops, and the cute, little chionodoxa – glory-of-the-snow. They are all welcome spring visitors, but it’s in eager anticipation, I await my favorite springtime flower: the daffodil. When the daffodils bloom, it really feels like spring has arrived. I think it’s so fitting that they have built-in trumpets to blare, “Spring is here!!!” So beautiful, they can toot their own horns all they like and no one would mind.

The early, little ‘Tete-de-Tetes’ in the nursery’s arboretum are in full bloom; my early varieties at home are just starting to open. It’s the perfect time to cut them, letting them open indoors so that their heady scent fills the house. The later varieties are still just nubs poking through the ground. My favorite of the later daffodils is ‘Thalia.’ Sometimes referred to as the orchid narcissus, it’s a beautiful, fragrant pure white daffodil. All daffodils are in the Narcissus genus, but not all Narcissus are daffodils.

One such non-daffodil Narcissus was a figure in Greek mythology. Narcissus was a beautiful, young hunter, without the disposition to match his appearance. Conceited – a true tooter of his own horn – and ill-tempered, his beauty was only skin deep.

Echo, a nymph of the woods and hills, was equally as beautiful as the young hunter. She had a gloriously sweet voice and was very fond of using it – always getting in the last word in conversations or arguments. This proved to be her curse. Echo kept Hera, the reigning goddess of Olympus, detained with her chatter while Hera’s philandering husband, Zeus, escaped the company of the nymphs unnoticed by his wife. Zeus escaped Hera’s wrath, but Echo did not. “You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first,” Hera cursed when she discovered what Echo had done.

Echo, tormented with repeating all she heard, saw Narcissus chasing prey in the mountains and fell hopelessly in love. Not being able to express herself without sounding like a broken record, it was an unrequited love. “Pete and Repeat were in a boat. Pete fell out and who was left?” With Echo repeating everything Narcissus said, their conversation was reminiscent of that children’s joke we’ve all heard a thousand times … possibly at one retelling. Narcissus found Echo to be a repetitive bore and shunned her. Echo was devastated and headed to the mountains. There poor Echo pined away and died, only her voice living on in the hills. You can still call to her to this day, and she will answer … but Hera’s curse was not lifted upon her death, and all you will hear is Echo repeating your call.

One good curse deserves another and what goes around comes around. Nemesis, the avenging goddess, punished Narcissus for his vanity and cold-heartedness by dooming him to “feel what it was to love and meet no return of affection”; he was cursed with falling in love with his own image.

In a pool Narcissus gazed, becoming so self-absorbed he forgot all else. He would have done well to use that self-absorption to his advantage by becoming sponge-like. Then he could have soaked up the water in the pool, releasing himself from gazing upon his own reflection. As it were, he was resigned to stare into the pools of his eyes reflected in the pools of water. Whenever he bent to hug or kiss the image in the pool, the water would ripple and his love, disappear. It eventually drove him to madness. Then he too, wilted and died, leaving only a flower in his place.

As with most of the Greek myths, there are variations of the story of Narcissus. The same is true of the origins of the word “daffodil” – tracing a word back in time can lead to origins as cloudy as poor Narcissus’ eyes became after staring at his reflection for so long. Originally “daffodil” was affodil, which referred to a plant in the lily family, the asphodel. The “asph” in asphodel became “aff” probably through phonetics and a misspelling. In medieval manuscripts, asphodel was spelled phonetically as “asfodel”. It’s thought probable one scribe could not decipher the lettering of another scribe, and “asfodel” became affodil. The first appearance of “daffodil” came in the sixteenth century, and how the “d” got to the front of the line-up is unclear. Best guesses are that daffodil is corrupted from the Dutch de affodil, “the affodil.” (Then, as now, the Dutch were leaders in bulb cultivation.)

Whatever the story behind the words, one thing is for certain. The sunny-yellow daffodil brightens gardens and hearts alike.