It is said by many that in religions across the world we create gods in our own flawed images of humanity, no more is it so obvious in the legends of Europe. The gods of Greece and Rome; the Arthurian legends of the British Isles and the Norse gods with their weapons and violent tempers. I am not sufficiently versed in Eastern Mythology and that of The Americas and the Pacific Rim to know if the same pattern is repeated elsewhere, but I suspect it is. In our legends and stories we tell about ourselves and our cultural inheritance is stocked full of narcissists. If this is true, then is it a case of life imitating art or the other way around ? An interesting question.
Myths are stories which have survived and taken on a life stronger than that of the originator. They have power and are generally thought to teach us something about what is desirable and what is not. Whilst different version of myths exist, the message and most times the characters are the same.
Narcissus, the progenitor
By all accounts there was nothing to love about Narcissus’ personality, a hunter, the son of a river god and a nymph Liriope. He was very beautiful, haughty and proud and like some A-lister he strutted his stuff through a woodland where the poor Echo, a nymph saw him and fell in love. She followed him and he sensed her presence calling out “who is there?” she was cursed by a goddess and could only repeat the end of phrases. Eventually declaring her love, she was roundly rejected and went away and faded in a cave ‘till all that was left was an echo. Nemesis, the god of revenge heard about the story and decided to punish Narcissus for his vanity. She tricked him to look at a pool and seeing his own reflection he fell in love, just as Echo had done. Narcissus refused to leave the place of his love and foolishly starved to death. When his body had lain, grew a lovely yellow flower, more delicate in shape and appearance than a daffodil, a narcissus. This excessive self-love entered the annals of psychology and became synonymous with the personality disorder we associate with that name.
A welsh king and according to the writer Mary Stewart at least, the uncle of Merlin and the father of Arthur the legendary king of Britain who defended the country against Saxon invasion. Although Arthur had his faults, Uther was, in legend, like a Narcissist. He was sexually rapacious and disguised himself (some say by the magic of Merlin) so that he could sleep with his enemy’s wife Ygrain, effectively raping her and conceiving Arthur. He was moody, mercurial in temper and very proud. He was an admirable soldier and led from the front but was neither magnanimous or merciful and modern interpretations suggest he was not wise. Ultimately, Arthur’s fate is sealed because of his father’s behaviour before he was born.
Thor is well known in the circles of Marvel comics and media today for Chris Hemsworth’s bravura performance and the things he does with his hammer! Thor has his origins in Norse mythology where he is the god of war and thunder. He has the characteristic of acting first showing his temper and then thinking. He is impulsive and proud as well as being associated with fertility. Thunder was believed to be him passing by in anger. Whilst Odin, his father was the “king” of the Norse gods it is Thor’s name we recognise in the language, from Thursday to place names: Torshavn in the Faroes; “Thornwick Bay” in Yorkshire, England and through many Germanic and Scandinavian countries.
The Sheriff of Nottingham
The title sheriff has its origins in the term “reeve” or “reef” which is a name given to an administrator. There is a real-life sheriff of Nottingham to this day, but the role is purely ceremonial. After the Norman conquests, however, a real sheriff was appointed to administer the area for the king and bring the lawless to justice. This is the one whom legend has it, made Robin Hood’s life a misery. After Richard the Lionhart’s death, his brother John assumed the throne but did such a bad job that the earl’s and knights made him sign the Magna Carta a bill of human rights. Amongst the demands was a plea for the removal of the then Sheriff of Nottingham – Philip Mark – to be removed because he was a tyrant.
The legendary sheriff, was arrogant and bold, making elaborate plans to kill Robin or to imprison him. The most famous of these legends was the contest for a “golden arrow” which only Robin could win and then be captured. In each case the arrogance and self-belief of the sheriff lets him down and he is usually defeated by Robin who in legendary terms is the antithesis of a narcissist. The Sheriff famously dresses well and uses his position to ruthlessly fleece the peasants and enact his ambition including trying to marry The Lady Marion
So what do legends tell us about Narcissism?
It appears that whilst the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder has only existed for a relatively short time, narcissists have always existed and been part of a collective consciousness within our culture for a very long time indeed. The dominant role of narcissists in a culture to some degree is inevitable given that they have self-belief and a ruthless desire to exploit, but that in the long term they tend not to be successful and are defeated, often because they over reach themselves. Is it real, or perhaps a story that we tell ourselves to give comfort in a cold world where there is little evidence that good ultimately conquers evil ?