Skip to main content Skip to navigation

‘Being on Fire’: Using Embodied Metaphor to Analyse Ovid’s Story of Echo and Narcissus

Gerjanne Hoek, Classical Mythology, University College Roosevelt


The focal point of Ovid's myth of Echo and Narcissus (Metamorphoses III, 339–510) is the body, its visual appearance to Echo and Narcissus themselves, and physical experiences of the body such as pain and arousal. By making use of embodied cognitive linguistic theory, this article aims to add new insights to interpretations of Ovid's poetic metaphors in the myth of Echo and Narcissus. With this interdisciplinary approach, a relevant example is set for further exploration and application of embodied cognition theories to the reading and interpretation of mythological texts.

The method is a comparative, in-depth analysis of the metaphors used in both texts, within an interpretative framework of embodied metaphor. Literary scholars agree on the clarifying merits of embodied metaphor for the ways in which readers process metaphor, but this has never been applied to mythological poetry.

It is argued that the approach is effective here in two ways. First, a metaphor-based analysis points to deeper links between words and events; second, these implicit links can provide valuable insights into the message that the story and its writer want to convey. The outcome shows that embodied metaphor analysis is effective for interpretation, and recommends the development of a more defined method for future application.

Keywords: Classical myth, Ovid, Metamorphoses, textual analysis, embodied metaphor, cognition.

The focal point of Ovid's myth of Echo and Narcissus (Metamorphoses III, 339–510) is the body, its visual appearance to Echo and Narcissus themselves, and physical experiences of the body such as pain and arousal. As I will show, the encounter between Echo and Narcissus and the personal struggles and punishments that become fatal to both are of intrinsically embodied nature. (Psycho)-analysis over several decades and different fields has now separated the two: Narcissus is a poetic representation of 'knowing oneself' to be 'radically split and fragile', and he 'overturns received notions of the self as fixed, autonomous, and unitary' (Janan, 2007: 289); and Echo is construed the embodiment of unrequited love and the acoustical echo itself (Greenberg et al., 1998: 319). How then did Ovid in this story, through the realms of words and sentences, communicate these themes? Inspired by Canovas's cognitive linguistic approach to the creation of the Arrows of Love, this article aims to argue how a cognitive linguistic approach to the analysis of this myth can add meaningful insights into answering this question (Canovas, 2011: 559). It also hopes to show that an embodied approach to myth can shed light on how ancient authors created the immersive, timelessly captivating reading experience that inspires adaptation, analysis and study until today.

A concise explanation of cognitive metaphor is needed before analysis of Ovid's text can be initiated. The theory of cognitive metaphor has its foundations with Lakoff and others (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, 1999; Lakoff and Turner, 1989) and holds as a core idea that metaphors appear on the surface as purely linguistic expressions, but in fact represent deep and abstract ways of thinking and feeling about concepts such as life and death, and emotions such as love and desire. Thus metaphors help us to 'express the inexpressible' (Senkbeil and Hoppe, 2016: 5). Another core idea that comes out of this is that metaphor itself arises from recurring and shared patterns of embodied experience, and that people somehow play out embodied simulations when they start processing verbal metaphors they hear or read (Gibbs, 2010: 685). An example of embodied metaphor could therefore be the manner in which people may talk about life problems as if they are physical burdens that they have to carry. Or how perception of physical forms can be turned into abstract expressions when one refers to, for example, something important being 'something big' (e.g., 'I have big plans for tomorrow'). Scholars agree that, in the same way that people write or read, they create and interpret metaphors by linking or 'simulating' them to their individual experiences and bodies. Cognitive linguistic research analyses patterns of conventional, and novel, verbal expressions to uncover patterns of metaphorical thought such as the abovementioned example; these are called 'conceptual metaphors', a term coined by Lakoff and Johnson in their pioneering work Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980).

Critics, however, have pointed out that the methodology behind conceptual metaphor theory relies too heavily upon intuitive and unsystematically found metaphors. Furthermore, there is discussion about whether metaphor analysis should be done top-down or bottom-up: i.e., whether the focus of analysis should be upon small sets of conceptual metaphors or on a large number of expressions (Kövecses, 2008: 169; Pragglejaz Group, 2007 on methodology; Stefanowitsch, 2007 on corpus-based approach). For both criticisms it can be argued that quantitative embodied metaphor analysis goes hand in hand with a certain amount of intuitive qualitative analysis, and that the two approaches therefore complement each other. The aim of the following analysis is to show how Ovid uses strong examples of embodied, conceptual metaphors in order to help readers make sense of the abstract messages that his story of Echo and Narcissus might convey.

The myth starts with the blind prophet Tiresias, who gives truthful answers to all people who consult him. Narcissus' mother, the Naiad Liriope, asks Tiresias whether her child will live a long life. The prophet replies 'si se non noverit' (Ovid, Met. III: 348) which translates as: 'if he does not know himself'. The story then jumps to the year that Narcissus has reached the age of sixteen. He is very attractive to both men and women, but apparently he is also very conscious of this fact and that makes him believe that none deserve him, and in his pride he turns everyone away (Ovid, Met. III: 355). One day, as he is hunting, the nymph Echo sees him, but she cannot call him because of her rhetorical handicap, a rather unfortunate gift from Jupiter's wife, Juno. Echo cannot begin conversations, she can only finish the ends of spoken sentences. Ovid describes how she can only repeat (ingeminat) and return the last of what is spoken. When Echo sees Narcissus wandering through the woods, she became inflamed with desire.

Sequitur vestigia furtim, quoque magis sequitur, flamma propiore calescit, non aliter quam cum summis circumlita taedis admotas rapiunt vivacia sulphura flammas.
(Ovid, Met. III: 371–74)
[And the more she followed the closer she burned with hot flames, no different than inflammable sulphur that catches fire on the tops of torches when a flame is brought near it.]

One of the most obvious and widespread metaphors in literary discourse around love is the DESIRE is FIRE metaphor. For most people, the related concepts of fire and heat are primarily associated with the metaphorical comprehension of emotions such as love, desire, passion and so on (Kövecses, 2003: 89). The main meaning of this domain of metaphor seems to be the intensity of the situation, or the heat of the fire. Ovid uses this metaphor in an exceedingly poetic way of ascribing the metaphor to Echo's situation, to make clear to the reader that the intensity of her desire is extreme, and that it is growing more intense, because her feelings become inflammable as sulphur. Arguably, the use of the word sulphur into the metaphor can also be interpreted as an indicator of how suffocating her desire for Narcissus would become, because burning sulphur has an extremely choking and poisoning odour. And Ovid knew this, plausibly, because sulphur was used in Roman temples and houses for fumigation and purification of real and supernatural pests (Kutney, 2007: 6).

Another metaphor of desire can be found in the myth, later, as Narcissus sees his reflection in the pool by which he is sitting. Ovid describes that, while he desires to quench his thirst, a different thirst is created (Kline, Metamorphoses III: 405). This is the metaphor of DESIRE is THIRST. Again, Ovid provides a fine example of a bodily experience used to express an abstract emotion. The feeling of thirst has settled in human verbal expression as a parallel to longing or lusting for something or someone. The experience of how a person can long for water when they are thirsty is being used to cover the feeling of lusting after someone whom they may find sexually attractive. Moreover, both metaphors already point to failure. Echo's fire will suffocate her, and Narcissus's thirst will never be quenched. In this parallel, another interesting comparison can be made between Echo's ever-burning fire, and Narcissus' unquenchable thirst. Both fire and thirst are phenomena that can be lightened or solved by quenching them with water. In the case of Echo and Narcissus, both of their desires can only be solved if their love could be returned.

The myth then continues with a highly metaphorical description of Narcissus falling in love with himself, after one of his rejected suitors cursed him with unrequited love. Ovid describes the scene as a pool with silvery-bright water, touched by neither animals nor humans. This has been interpreted as an umbrella metaphor for Narcissus' virginity, as he was pure and untouched himself as well (Parry, 1964: 273). Then, as he lies down next to the pool, 'He contemplates two stars, his eyes. His youthful cheeks and ivory neck, the beauty of his face, the rose-flush mingled in the whiteness of snow, admiring everything for which he is himself admired' (Kline, Metamorphoses III: 420–25). With this description, Ovid makes use of what are now called 'bodily metaphors' (Schnall, 2014: 227). Such embodied metaphors originate in the cognitive theory that people's interactions with their environment, and the objects it contains, can result in categories of associated emotions. As Goschler notes, these categories can be tied to metaphors that use different domains, such as machines and plants to describe the body or bodily functions. Thus, the body is a target domain, being metaphorised in terms of technology or other domains (Goschler, 2005: 36).

An example might be the interaction of touching and perceiving an ivory statue, its surface looking and feeling smooth, without blemishes or imperfections. Fascinatingly, embodied metaphors indeed reflect physiological experiences; the metaphor of IVORY is SKIN (or perfect skin) is one that was universally sound already in the time of Ovid's writings. The rose-flush mingled with the whiteness of snow metaphor gives another insight in beauty ideals of that time and age, which can be translated to the question: Do metaphors provide clues to bodily experiences fitting the time of the written text? In other words, by applying human metaphoric strategy, potentially we might gain insight in subconscious, cognitive values and constructs of ancient cultures.

Narcissus sees himself, and, just like Echo, he inflames and burns with desire. Ovid writes 'quid videat, nescit; sed quod videt, uritur illo', which translates as: 'what he sees, he does not understand, but what he sees, he burns for' (Ovid, Met. III: 430). The narrator calls him a fool, because what he sees is nothing but the shadow of a reflected form. Narcissus laments to the woods surrounding the pool about how miserable he is because he cannot touch his lover in the water. But then he notices that the boy in the water makes all the same movements as he does, and the turning point in the myth becomes the moment that Narcissus realises that he is in love with himself. 'Iste ego sum' ['I am he'] (Ovid, Met. III: 463). His sadness drives him mad, and sick, and he knows that he is going to die. Janan makes the interesting note that, for the first time in his life, he feels passionately: his ivory-cold body and its physical emotions burn with passion, and he even puts his beloved's interests ahead of his own when he wishes that his love might live on as he dies (Janan, 2007: 289).

In the last part of the myth, the metamorphosis of Narcissus is described. Whether it be a sign of his madness or his naivety, Narcissus seems to forget his previous realisation as he returns to speak to his reflection, and as he cries out, his tears touch the water, and it makes his reflection ripple with the water. Narcissus sees his lover disappear, as Kline translates:

Where do you fly to? Stay, cruel one, do not abandon one who loves you! I am allowed to gaze at what I cannot touch, and so provide food for my miserable passion!
(Ovid, Met. III: 475–79)

Whereas in the first instance of the desire metaphor it was noted that his desire was like a thirst that has to be quenched, here it can be read that PASSION is HUNGER. Narcissus realised that his desire cannot be fulfilled, and he seems to switch to a hunger-like passion that can be fed by looking at his reflection. His reflection is a stimulus for the hunger he has for himself. In an act of desperation, he performs a dramatic chest-beating that causes his skin to bruise. Here, another excellent example of body metaphors is given, as Ovid uses the images of multi-coloured unripe apples and grapes to describe how Narcissus' chest looks after it has been beaten:

Pectora traxerunt roseum percussa ruborem, non aliter quam poma solent, quae candida parte, parte rubent, aut ut variis solet uva racemis ducere purpureum nondum matura colorem.
(Ovid, Met. III: 482–85)
[His chest flushes red when they (his hands) strike it no different than apples that are often pale in part, part red, or how grapes in their different bunches are stained with purple as they have not yet reached a ripe colour.]

As mentioned previously, the body in these kind of metaphors is a target domain. For Ovid here, the colours perceived in unripe apples and grapes resemble the colours that a bruised patch of skin may have. Arguably, the metaphor of unripe fruits could also allow the deeper interpretation that they refer to Narcissus himself, who has not reached a ripe age yet, and never will.

Narcissus can bear his sufferings no longer. And the last paragraph of the myth describes the grande finale of the story of Narcissus and Echo; 'as yellow wax in a light flame, as morning frost thaws in the sun, so he is weakened and melted by love, and worn away little by little by the hidden fire' (Kline, Metamorphoses III: 505–07). The kind of metaphor that can be traced here is that of DEATH is FADING. The action in this piece of text is that Narcissus is slowly dying and going to the Underworld. This act of dying is illustrated with examples of earthly materials that the human eye can register as they are disappearing: candle wax melting in a flame and morning dew or frost that evaporates in the sunlight. As explained by Zoltán Kövecses, this metaphor can be called a conventional metaphor, wherein conceptual phenomena or materials are utilised to comprehend the target, as is done in this text by using melted wax and frost to comprehend the fact that Narcissus is fading into death (Kövecses, 2010: 665). During this metamorphosis, Echo is still watching, and she returns Narcissus' last words to him, feeling the same pain.

He can bear it no longer, but as yellow wax melts in a light flame, as morning frost thaws in the sun, so he is weakened and melted by love, and worn away little by little by the hidden fire. And when his hands strike at his shoulders, she (Echo) returns the same sounds of pain. His last words as he looked into the familiar pool were 'Alas, in vain, beloved boy!' and the place echoed every word, and when he said 'Goodbye!' Echo also said 'Goodbye!'
(Ovid, Met. III: 500–10)

An embodied theory perspective shows how a rich variety of embodied metaphors in this episode of Ovid's Metamorphoses conveys and foregrounds the most important scenes in the myth. Deeper meanings behind character's bodily states and utterances were found and pointed to alternative interpretations of said utterances, for example, in the DESIRE is FIRE framework that is described in both Narcissus' and Echo's cases of unrequited love, which pointed to links between the extinguishing of a fire for which water is needed, as a parallel to the fulfilling of desire (for which in Narcissus' case he finds his love in the water, but the qualities of water sever him from his beloved too). The suggestion was made that an embodied metaphor analysis can be used to not only discover more about themes in a text itself, but, when adapting an embodiment-focused reading strategy, one could extract information about perceptions of body, beauty and cognitive constructs of ancient cultures. Critics have pointed to problems in methodology and analytical approach of the use of embodied metaphors, but this article argues that a first, important step can be made by comparing single metaphors in their contexts, instead of corpuses of metaphors extracted from their original texts.

To conclude, a defined and well-argued method for application of embodied analysis to myth is essential, but this paper hopes to have shown how it can open up a wide range of new approaches to future analysis in the reading and interpreting of ancient myth.


Primary sources

Naso, Publius Ovidius (1999), 'Metamorphoseon Liber III', Metamorphoseon, University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, available at, accessed 31 Oct 2016

Secondary sources

Cánovas, C. P. (2015), 'The genesis of the Arrows of Love: diachronic conceptual integration in Greek mythology', American Journal of Philology, 132 (4), 553–79

Gibbs Jr, R. W. and A. C. P. Silva De Macedo (2010), 'Metaphor and embodied cognition', DELTA: Documentação de Estudos em Lingüística Teórica e Aplicada, 26, 679–700

Goschler, J. and T. U. Darmstadt (2004), 'Embodiment and body metaphors', Metaphorikde, 9, 33–52

Greenberg, J. (1998), 'The echo of trauma and the trauma of Echo', American Imago, 55 (3), 319–47

Janan, M. (2007), 'Narcissus on the text: psychoanalysis, exegesis, ethics', Phoenix, 61 (3), 286–95

Kline, A. S. 'Metamorphoses, the Ovid collection' Metamorphoses Book III, A.S. Kline's Version. University of Virginia Library, n.d., available at, accessed 26 Oct 2016

Kövecses, Z. (2003), 'The scope of metaphor', in Barcelona, A. (ed.), Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads: A Cognitive Perspective, New York: Mouton De Gruyter, pp. 80–92

Kövecses, Z. (2008), 'Conceptual metaphor theory: some criticisms and alternative proposals', Annual Review of Cognitive Linguistics, 6 (106), 168–84

Kövecses, Z. (2010), 'A new look at metaphorical creativity in cognitive linguistics', Cognitive Linguistics, 21 (4), 663–97

Kutney, G. (2007) 'The sulfur age', in Sulfur: History, Technology, Applications & Industry, Toronto: ChemTec, pp. 5–39

Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson (1980), Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1999), Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, New York: Basic Books

Lakoff, G. and M. Turner (1989), More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Parry, H. (1964), 'Ovid's Metamorphoses: violence in a pastoral landscape', Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 95, 268–82

Pragglejaz Group (2007), MIP: A Method for Identifying Metaphorically Used Words in Discourse, vol. 22, available at, accessed 31 Oct 2016

Senkbeil, K. and N. Hoppe (2016), '"The sickness stands at your shoulder": embodiment and cognitive metaphor in Hornbacher's Wasted: a memoir of anorexia and bulimia', Language and Literature, 25 (1), 3–17

Schnall, S. (2014), 'Are there basic metaphors?', in Landau, M. J., M. D. Robinson and B. P. Meier (eds), The Power of Metaphor: Examining its Influence on Social Life, American Psychological Association, pp. 225–47

Stefanowitsch, A. (2007), 'Words and their metaphors. A corpus-based approach', in Stefanowitsch, A. and S. Gries (eds), Corpus-based Approaches to Metaphor and Metonymy, Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, pp. 63–105


To cite this paper please use the following details: Hoek, G. (2017), ''Being on Fire': Using Embodied Metaphor to Analyse Ovid's Story of Echo and Narcissus', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, BLASTER 2017, Special Issue, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.