Nowadays–thanks to Dr. Freud–narcissism is defined as a sort of personality disorder: self-centeredness taken to a pathological point. Freud took the name of the condition from the Greek myth of Narcissus, the beautiful and selfish young man who pined away yearning for the love of his own reflection in a pool of still water.
There’s a ghost story from Ireland about a young woman afflicted with the same illness. She didn’t get her jollies from staring into a pool of still water, though; she had a castleful of mirrors wherein to admire herself. Her absorption in her reflected beauty made her pathologically selfish, and that selfishness cost her–first true love, then her sanity.
As always with James Reynolds’s book Ghosts in Irish Houses (1947), I advise caution; I’ve never found this story in any other source, and have noted before that it’s not always possible to locate the actual physical locations where the ghostly events he writes of took place. Let us specify that he says this story comes from Belvelly Castle in County Cork, where, in the late seventeenth century, there lived a maiden of rare beauty named Margaret Hodnett.
Margaret Hodnett was, without a doubt, the belle of County Cork: wealthy, charming, and a great beauty to boot. She was courted by many men, and by none more assiduously than a neighbor called Clon Rockenby.
Alas, Rockenby truly worshiped the ground under Margaret Hodnett’s dainty feet. . .
while she worshiped naught save her reflection in her myriad mirrors.
These, it’s said, were gifts from the many men she took up with and then cast aside when they began to bore her or–God help them–were not properly reverent of her loveliness. During these little contretemps, she would cast Clon Rockenby aside until her fancy for a new man passed, then call him back. And he always came running. . .
Now Margaret’s favorite mirror was a huge, full-length one from Venice, which gave her back an almost photographically clear reflection whenever she looked into it. She had it hung on a wall just inside Belvelly’s entrance, so that the last thing she saw when she left the castle, and the first when she returned, was her radiant reflection.
Time went on. The faithful Clon Rockenby kept running when she called, hoping that someday her selfish butterfly heart would settle and appreciate his love and devotion and she would at last declare herself his.
Margaret, however, at long last rejected him altogether. She told him she never wanted to see him again, tore up letters he sent her in front of those who delivered them, and, when in disbelief and desperation he called on her himself, slammed the door in his face and shot the bolts home before he could say a word.
please be gone, I’m tired of you. . .
(Okay, no, Stephen Stills really has no place in this story, but it fits 😉 .)
No doubt she thought that, as he had a thousand–or more–times before, he would come running when, in her flightiness, she wanted him again. In this she was sorely mistaken. Clon Rockenby, humiliated and angry, decided he was going to teach this selfish brat a lesson.
So he raised a small army and laid siege to Belvelly Castle, determined to starve them out. He thought, perhaps, that Margaret would give in at the first hint of privation, or that her father–who should have told his flighty daughter a few home truths long before things reached this pass–would come out under a flag of truce and offer his lovely daughter in return for the lifting of the siege.
Lord Hodnett, unfortunately, was as stubborn as his daughter was selfish. Belvelly’s inhabitants held out for three years, eating all the livestock within the castle precincts–and God knows what else–before giving in at last in the third winter of the siege.
Clon Rockenby was the first to enter Belvelly after the surrender, and the first living being he encountered was a mere animated skeleton: Margaret Hodnett herself, so thin the bones showed in every inch of her once lovely face and body. Horrified, he couldn’t speak at first. She, red-eyed and weak almost to the point of death, merely wept and said, See what you have done to me.
And she turned and looked into that great Venetian mirror that still hung in the entrance hall of Belvelly.
The horrified Clon couldn’t stand to look with her at the tottering wreck of her former self. He took his sword by the blade and swung it; the heavy hilt shattered the mirror into a million fragments, whereupon Margaret screamed and fainted.
He carried her outside, and ordered his army to carry food and other necessities into the castle. He was tending Margaret himself, tenderly feeding her a little broth and crooning incoherent love words and self-reproaches and reproaches to her when he died.
Margaret’s younger brother, with some last reserve of strength, had pulled himself up to the roof of Belvelly, carrying a bow and arrow. Despite his starved state, he had enough strength to fit an arrow into the bow and fire it at Clon Rockenby, hitting him in the cheek and slicing through an artery in his face.
Clon’s last words were for Margaret Hodnett.
Margaret, with my last breath I curse you. May you seek for mirrors forever, and never find them.
Margaret Hodnett, it’s said, never regained her beauty, nor did she ever marry. For many years, she would not have a mirror anywhere near her. In her later years, she suffered from dementia, and only then, with her mind wandering, would she allow mirrors in Belvelly again: small ones, in which she vainly sought to see if, miraculously, her beauty had returned.
Toward the end of her life, she lived in a barred room in the castle. The servants feared that she might do herself harm otherwise.
She has haunted Belvelly ever since her death. She appears in the entrance hall where, so long ago, Clon Rockenby had smashed her favorite mirror to pieces–a lady in white, who sometimes wears a thick veil over her face, or sometimes is said to have no face at all; it is obscured by a luminous mist.
One thing she does, all who have seen her agree on: she rubs a place on the wall, in the exact spot where the Venetian mirror once hung, and then peers at that spot as if looking at herself. Rumor has it that she has rubbed a shiny spot on the stone wall over the years. . .
a shiny spot that looks like a mirror–and has been known to throw back the reflections of passersby.
FWIW, I was reminded of this story while watching an old episode of a 1990s TV series called Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction?. One of the featured stories (told for true, and alleged to have happened somewhere in Florida c. 1970) was about a self-absorbed beauty on whom a curse was placed–I curse you with the mirror of your soul– and who ever after saw a hideously ugly, almost monstrous face every time she looked in the mirror, though to others she looked the same as she always had.
Huh–a bit like the picture of Dorian Gray–