What Are the Origins of the Word Echo?

The word echo has origins in Greek mythology, and the misadventures of a doomed mountain nymph (or Oread) named Echo.

Oct 8, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
what are the origins of the word echo

 

The word echo is derived from Greek mythology, and the tragic story of an Oread, or Mountain Nymph, named Echo. The most famous version of Echo’s story is outlined in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. According to Ovid, Echo, who was known for being a great talker, was tasked by Zeus, king of the gods, with distracting Hera, Zeus’s wife, so he could go and have an endless stream of affairs without being caught. On discovering what Echo had been up to, Hera put a curse on her, which meant she was doomed for eternity to only repeat back the words of another who had just spoken to her. Following Hera’s curse, Echo’s eventual demise led her to become nothing but a disembodied voice, hence the term ‘echo’ that we know today.

 

The Story of Echo, the Oread (Mountain Nymph)

waterhouse-echo-study
Study for the head of Echo for Echo and Narcissus, John William Waterhouse, 1903, via johnwilliamwaterhouse.net

 

According to Ovid, Echo was an Oread who resided on Mount Cithaeron. Educated in music by younger muses, she was kind, beautiful and talented, with a powerful singing voice. Echo had several ardent admirers including Apollo and Pan, however, she rejected both their advances. Echo’s particular skill was for talking – she became widely known for chatting, regaling long stories, and interrupting others in her need to be heard. 

 

Echo: A Voice of Distraction

talbot hughes echo mountain nymph oread
Echo, by Talbot Hughes, 1900

 

Zeus, King of the Greek Olympian gods, noted Echo’s chatty personality, and began hatching a plan to use it to his own advantage. He persuaded Echo to keep his wife Hera, goddess of women, marriage, family and childbirth, busy with long stories, conversation, and flattery. Once Hera was distracted, Zeus could go on and pursue affairs with the other nymphs who had caught his attention. 

 

Doomed to Repeat the Words of Others

cabanel-echo-painting
Echo, Alexandre Cabanel, 1874, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

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Once Hera realized Echo had been distracting her all along while secretly helping her husband to be unfaithful, she was so furious that she struck Echo with a terrible curse. In a bid to take away what most mattered to Echo, she removed her ability to speak her mind. Instead, Echo was doomed to only speak the last words spoken to her by another, thus ‘echoing’ their words. The effect of losing her agency was catastrophic for Echo, and it paved the way for her eventual downfall.

 

Echo’s Demise Led Her to Become a Floating Voice

nicolas-poussin-narcissus-myth-painting
Echo and Narcissus, Nicolas Poussin, ca. 1630, Louvre

 

After being cursed by Hera, Echo fell deeply in love with Narcissus. Unable to speak to him, she watched him from afar. Her love grew stronger by the day as she waited for him to break the silence between them. When Narcissus realized that he was being spied on by a mysterious stranger, he approached Echo. But her inability to express herself only left Narcissus confused and angry. As he could not love anyone but himself, Narcissus rejected her physical advances, leaving Echo bruised and humiliated. Broken-hearted, she retreated into the woods, where her body eventually wasted away into nothing but a pile of bones. Only her floating voice lived on within the woods and the hills, heard by passers-by as it drifted through the wind. 

 

Echo and Pan

francesco da sangallo reclining god pan
Reclining Pan by Francesco da Sangallo, c.1535, via Saint Louis Art Museum

 

The 2nd century CE Greek novelist Longus wrote a version of Echo’s myth in which the protagonist suffers a different fate. Longus describes Echo as a beautiful singer whose voice becomes even more piercing and powerful than the gods. Pan, the Greek god of the wild, shepherds, and rustic music, was driven mad with jealousy by her musical talent which outshone his own. In a bid for revenge, he drove all the humans and animals around her to madness. Together they launched a frenzied attack on Echo, consuming her entirely, leaving behind only her voice, which they each carried around with them wherever they went. Eventually Gaia, the goddess of the earth, intervened, gathering together the fragments of Echo’s voice and hiding them within her, thus preserving and immortalizing the mysterious sound of Echo’s voice for all of eternity.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.