Greek and Roman Mythology > Niobe


The fate of Arachne was noised abroad through all the country,
and served as a warning to all presumptuous mortals not to
compare themselves with the divinities. But one, and she a
matron too, failed to learn the lesson of humility. It was
Niobe, the queen of Thebes. She had indeed much to be proud of;
but it was not her husband's fame, nor her own beauty, nor their
great descent, nor the power of their kingdom that elated her.
It was her children; and truly the happiest of mothers would
Niobe have been, if only she had not claimed to be so. It was on
occasion of the annual celebration in honor of Latona and her
offspring, Apollo and Diana, when the people of Thebes were
assembled, their brows crowned with laurel, bearing frankincense
to the altars and paying their vows, that Niobe appeared among
the crowd. Her attire was splendid with gold and gems, and her
face as beautiful as the face of an angry woman can be. She
stood and surveyed the people with haughty looks. "What folly,"
said she, "is this! to prefer beings whom you never saw to
those who stand before your eyes! Why should Latona be honored
with worship rather than I? My father was Tantalus, who was
received as a guest at the table of the gods; my mother was a
goddess. My husband built and rules this city, Thebes; and
Phrygia is my paternal inheritance. Wherever I turn my eyes I
survey the elements of my power; nor is my form and presence
unworthy of a goddess. To all this let me add, I have seven sons
and seven daughters, and look for sons-in-law and daughters-in-
law of pretensions worthy of my alliance. Have I not cause for
pride? Will you prefer to me this Latona, the Titan's daughter,
with her two children? I have seven times as many. Fortunate
indeed am I, and fortunate I shall remain! Will any one deny
this? My abundance is my security. I feel myself too strong for
Fortune to subdue. She may take from me much; I shall still have
much left. Were I to lose some of my children, I should hardly
be left as poor as Latona with her two only. Away with you from
these solemnities, put off the laurel from your brows, have
done with this worship!" The people obeyed, and left the sacred
services uncompleted.

The goddess was indignant. On top of Mount Cynthus where she
dwelt, she thus addressed her son and daughter: "My children, I
who have been so proud of you both, and have been used to hold
myself second to none of the goddesses except Juno alone, begin
now to doubt whether I am indeed a goddess. I shall be deprived
of my worship altogether unless you protect me." She was
proceeding in this strain, but Apollo interrupted her. "Say no
more," said he; "speech only delays punishment." So said Diana
also. Darting through the air, veiled in clouds, they alighted
on the towers of the city. Spread out before the gates was a
broad plain, where the youth of the city pursued their warlike
sports. The sons of Niobe were there among the rest, some
mounted on spirited horses richly caparisoned, some driving gay
chariots. Ismenos, the first-born, as he guided his foaming
steeds, struck with an arrow from above, cried out, "Ah, me!"
dropped the reins and fell lifeless. Another, hearing the sound
of the bow, like a boatman who sees the storm gathering and
makes all sail for the port, gave the rein to his horses and
attempted to escape. The inevitable arrow overtook him as he
fled. Two others, younger boys, just from their tasks, had gone
to the playground to have a game of wrestling. As they stood
breast to breast, one arrow pierced them both. They uttered a
cry together, together cast a parting look around them, and
together breathed their last. Alphenor, an elder brother, seeing
them fall, hastened to the spot to render them assistance, and
fell stricken in the act of brotherly duty. One only was left,
Ilioneus. He raised his arms to heaven to try whether prayer
might not avail. "Spare me, ye gods!" he cried, addressing all,
in his ignorance that all needed not his intercession; and Apollo
would have spared him, but the arrow had already left the string,
and it was too late.

The terror of the people and grief of the attendants soon made
Niobe acquainted with what had taken place. She could hardly
think it possible; she was indignant that the gods had dared and
amazed that they had been able to do it. Her husband, Amphion,
overwhelmed with the blow, destroyed himself. Alas! How
different was this Niobe from her who had so lately driven away
the people from the sacred rites, and held her stately course
through the city, the envy of her friends, now the pity even of
her foes! She knelt over the lifeless bodies, and kissed, now
one, now another of her dead sons. Raising her pallid arms to
heaven, "Cruel Latona," said she, "feed full your rage with my
anguish! Satiate your hard heart, while I follow to the grave my
seven sons. Yet where is your triumph? Bereaved as I am, I am
still richer than you, my conqueror. Scarce had she spoken when
the bow sounded and struck terror into all hearts except Niobe's
alone. She was brave from excess of grief. The sisters stood in
garments of mourning over the biers of their dead brothers. One
fell, struck by an arrow, and died on the corpse she was
bewailing. Another, attempting to console her mother, suddenly
ceased to speak, and sank lifeless to the earth. A third tried
to escape by flight, a fourth by concealment, another stood
trembling, uncertain what course to take. Six were now dead, and
only one remained, whom the mother held clasped in her arms, and
covered as it were with her whole body.

"Spare me one, and that the youngest! Oh, spare me one of so
many?!" she cried; and while she spoke, that one fell dead.
Desolate she sat, among sons, daughters, husband, all dead, and
seemed torpid with grief. The breeze moved not her hair, nor
color was on her cheek, her eyes glared fixed and immovable,
there was no sign of life about her. Her very tongue clave to
the roof of her mouth, and her veins ceased to convey the tide of
life. Her neck bent not, her arms made no gesture, her foot no
step. She was changed to stone, within and without. Yet tears
continued to flow; and, borne on a whirlwind to her native
mountain, she still remains, a mass of rock, from which a
trickling stream flows, the tribute of her never-ending grief.

The story of Niobe has furnished Byron with a fine illustration
of the fallen condition of modern Rome:

"The Niobe of nations! There she stands,
Childless and crownless in her voiceless woe;
An empty urn within her withered hands,
Whose holy dust was scattered long ago;
The Scipios' tomb contains no ashes now;
The very sepulchres lie tenantless
Of their heroic dwellers; dost thou flow,
Old Tiber! Through a marble wilderness?
Rise with thy yellow waves, and mantle her distress."
Childe Harold, IV.79

The slaughter of the children of Niobe by Apollo, alludes to the
Greek belief that pestilence and illness were sent by Apollo, and
one dying by sickness was said to be struck by Apollo's arrow.
It is to this that Morris alludes in the Earthly Paradise:

"While from the freshness of his blue abode,
Glad his death-bearing arrows to forget,
The broad sun blazed, nor scattered plagues as yet."

Our illustration of this story is a copy of a celebrated statue
in the imperial gallery of Florence. It is the principal figure
of a group supposed to have been originally arranged in the
pediment of a temple. The figure of the mother clasped by the
arm of her terrified child, is one of the most admired of the
ancient statues. It ranks with the Laocoon and the Apollo among
the masterpieces of art. The following is a translation of a
Greek epigram supposed to relate to this statue:

"To stone the gods have changed her, but in vain;
The sculptor's art has made her breathe again."

Tragic as is the story of Niobe we cannot forbear to smile at the
use Moore has made of it in Rhymes on the Road:

"'Twas in his carriage the sublime
Sir Richard Blackmore used to rhyme,
And, if the wits don't do him wrong,
'Twixt death and epics passed his time,
Scribbling and killing all day long;
Like Phoebus in his car at ease,
Now warbling forth a lofty song,
Now murdering the young Niobes."

Sir Richard Blackmore was a physician, and at the same time a
very prolific and very tasteless poet, whose works are now
forgotten, unless when recalled to mind by some wit like Moore
for the sake of a joke.

Myth Collection

Achelous and HerculesAcis and GalateaAdmetus and Alcestis
Agamemnon, Orestes, and ElectraAmphionAmphitrite
AntigoneApollo and DaphneApollo and Hyacinthus
Aurora and TithonusBacchusBaucis and Philemon
CadmusCastor and PolluxCephalus and Procris
Ceyx and HalcyoneClytieCupid and Psyche
DaedalusDiana and ActaeonDryope
Echo and NarcissusEndymionErisichthon
Glaucus and ScyllaHebe and GanymedeHercules
IbycusIo and CallistoLeucothea dnd Palaemon
LinusMarsyasMedea and Aeson
MelampusMenelaus and HelenMidas
Minerva and ArachneMonstersMusaeus
NeptuneNereus and DorisNiobe
Nisus and ScyllaOrionOrpheus and Eurydice
Pegasus and the ChimaeraPenelopePerseus and Medusa
PhaetonPluto and ProsperinePrometheus and Pandora
PygmalionPyramus and ThisbePython
ThamyrisThe Calydonian HuntThe Camenae
The CentaursThe Golden FleeceThe Graeae and Gorgons
The Griffin, or GryphonThe IliadThe Myrmidons
The PygmiesThe Rural DeitiesThe Sphinx
The Trojan WarThe Water DeitiesThe Winds
TheseusThetisVenus and Adonis
Vertumnus and Pomona

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