Echo: The Original Master of Disguise
The story of Echo in Ovid’s Metamorphoses may seem to be just an unscientific view of the origin of the echo, but it demonstrates an ever present reality of deception. Echo practiced deception just like those in clandestine operations today, and just like some who perform clandestine operations today, she ended up losing a significant part of her identity.
Arguably, many who perform deception do not do so because they enjoy falsehood; they have a motive. Con men desire money, magicians desire fame, pranksters desire laughter, and politicians desire power. Most of the time, this distortion is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. This was likely the case with Echo. Ovid does not give a specific reason Echo distracts Juno from her husband Jove’s cheating on her with the Nymphs, but we can assume her motive was not simply to deceive Juno. There is a good chance she was a “voice for hire” by Jove that was receiving some sort of payment for her duties. She could have been seeking fame; she would be a legend if she could fool the queen of the gods. She could have been seeking laughter; the look on Juno’s face when she found out may have, for at least a moment, conjured laughter. She could have been seeking power; Jove may have promised her a position of influence. It could have been a combination of the four mentioned or some other motive entirely. Since the author does not specify, a debate on such will have to be limited to speculation. What we do know is that what Echo would have planned to be a transitory event is what she will forever be remembered for.
As the story goes, Echo was punished by Juno to be limited to repeating other people’s words. By practicing deception, she lost a major part of her true identity; she no longer had full control over her voice: she had to find her voice in others. Though not a curse thrown down from a god, this occurs today among those who deceive for benevolent purposes. Michel Girodo found in a study of 72 undercover cops that six were disciplined for acting inappropriately during their missions: one for using cocaine, another for conspiracy to sell classified information about ongoing investigations, another for actually selling classified information, another for sexual involvement with a confidential informant, another for excessive use of force, and another for theft of money from an evidence locker.(Girodo 237-260) All these cops lost their true identity in a way; their original role was to be that of the “good guy”, but instead they became just like the criminals they intended to convict. However, just as it can be argued that Echo found the romantic side of her true identity in Narcissus, it can be argued that the undercover cops found an unseemly part of theirs.
Though these cops lost part of their exterior identity (the part they display to other people) as defender of the public good, they revealed their more important interior identity (the part that holds their values) of criminality. These cops always had the ability to become criminals, but it was not until the opportunity arose that this was manifested. At this point, their external title finally matched up with their internal disposition. This is not the only situation where someone who by practicing deception discovered part of their true identity. Jews concealed due to persecution sometimes convert to Christianity, and sleeper agents (spies without an immediate mission) sometimes fail to respond to later communications.(Suedfeld 479-492) This cannot be attributed to simple identity loss. Yes, their exterior identities have been altered, but their disposition towards the cultures they are immersed in remains the same. The Jews who converted did not wake up one day and decide to embrace a totally foreign value system, and neither did the spies who defected from their host nation. Just as Echo realized her value of beauty in Narcissus, they both realized an alignment with the values they had always embraced. The Jews may just have recognized their value of honesty in seeing the fulfillment of scripture in Jesus Christ, while the defectors may just have embraced their values of freedom and individual responsibility in their new country. The exterior identity is thus a distorted reflection of the interior identity just as an echo is a distorted reflection of noise, as the part of the echo that is most noticeable is the period before the silence.
The story of Echo is not simply a superstitious explanation of a physical phenomenon, but a brilliantly crafted reflection on humanity’s identity. It speaks to our motivation to deceive originating from the reality of who we are. Our temporal desire to deceive contrasts with our physical reality of truthfulness. If we decide to lie, we do so out of a value system that we cannot deny. If part of our external identity is lost, our internal one still remains. If something is in our internal identity, it is only a matter of time until it is translated into our external identity. Just like an echo, the story of Echo reflects back to us all the repercussions of humanity from one source, our value systems.
Girodo, Michel. "Undercover Agent Assessment Centers: Crafting Vice and Virtue for Imposters." Journal of Social Behavior & Personality 12.5 (1997): 237-60.
Suedfeld, Peter. "Harun Al-Rashid and the Terrorists: Identity Concealed, Identity Revealed." Political Psychology 25.3 (2004): 479-92.
©2008 Jorge Eduardo Fernandez