Spring, by small degrees, is inspiring the bulbs to show off their blooms in the the courtyard at the Penn Museum. The daffodils, with oddly narrow trumpets, are nodding visitors inside as if to say, “The Silk Road mummies may be gone, but we still have a really cool exhibit here! I swear! I’m a daffodil, trust me!”
Although, considering where the daffodil got its name, trust is not a quality you’d associate with this flower.
Narcissus Nodding in the Courtyard at the Penn Museum
Daffodil is the common English name for the Narcissus genus of hardy Spring bulbs native to a large area from southern Europe and north Africa to China and Japan.
We all know Narcissus, the guy who is so in love with his reflection, he either falls in the water and drowns, and a spray of flowers pops up, or he wastes away and basically gets composted into a bulb. Ovid has Narcissus spurning the love of Echo, among other assorted men, women, nymphs, then falls in love with his own reflection and wastes away, then turns into the daffodil. Narcissus is among a number of nymphs who the ancient Greeks had morphing into flowers, trees, or sundry green things to escape the trappings of the desire of another person. Some versions have him falling in love with his reflection which he thinks is his twin sister. Either way, the overarching theme is the self-obsession that gives us the much-used term to describe our obsession with tweeting our every whim and sneeze:
Which makes me wonder what Narcissus’ Facebook page would look like.
In a relationship with: Me.
Status: I just photoshopped fringe (“bangs” for my american fans) on my photo just to see if I could pull off a Ceaser. Me thinks not. Lol!
Here is a flattering photo he might post to his wall, making sure you got to see both front and his perfectly bulbous (snicker) backside.
Bronze sculpture of Narcissus with a pelt tied around his shoulder from Vicolo del Balcon Pensile in Pompeii. Photo by Giorgio Sommer c. 1880. Penn Museum Object #1535. Penn Museum Image #166337 and #166331.
Pliny the Elder, whose own mortal fate was equally spectacular (see Mount Vesuvius), wrote that the flower’s name derived not from Narcissus as we know him, but from the Greek “narc.” The root of “narcotic” meaning something that numbs or stupefies, like the effect his reflection had on him. Pliny noted that a topical application of narcissus was good for tumors, but he also thought that crushed up seahorses cured baldness, so I wouldn’t even trust Mr. the Elder over my HMO.
The myth of Narcissus has all the elements of great drama: spurned love, internal conflict, poetic justice, obvious and pleasing symbolism. The simplicity and mutability of this story has elevated it to the prototypical expression of vanity. Artists as disparate as Dali and Caravaggio have been moved to illustrate their own interpretations of our new Facebook friend.
Salvador Dali’s “Inventions of the Monsters” oil on Canvas, location: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Caravaggio’s Narcissus, 1594-1596, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Courtesy of wikipedia.org and The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
In keeping with the narcissistic tone of this post, I will now quote Wordsworth:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
- William Wordsworth, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, 1804