Niobe





Niobe, Queen of Thebes, was proud of many things. Amphion, her

husband, had received from the Muses a wonderful lyre, to the music of

which the stones of the royal palace had of themselves assumed place.

Her father was Tantalus, who had been entertained by the gods; and she

herself was the ruler of a powerful kingdom and a woman of great pride

of spirit and majestic beauty. But of none of these things was she so

proud as she was of her fourteen lovely children, the seven sons and

seven daughters to whom she had given birth.



Indeed, Niobe was the happiest of all mothers, and so would she have

remained if she had not believed herself so peculiarly blessed. Her

very knowledge of her good fortune was her undoing.



One day the prophetess Manto, daughter of the soothsayer Tiresias,

being instructed of the gods, called together the women of Thebes to

do honor to the goddess Latona and her two children, Apollo and Diana.

"Put laurel wreaths upon your heads," were her commands, "and bring

sacrifices with pious prayers."



Then while the women of Thebes were gathering together, Niobe came

forth, clad in a gold-embroidered garment, with a crowd of followers,

radiant in her beauty, though angry, with her hair flowing about her

shoulders. She stopped in the midst of the busy women, and raising her

voice, spoke to them.



"Are you not foolish to worship gods of whom stories are told to you

when more favored beings dwell here among you? While you are making

sacrifices on the altar of Latona, why does my divine name remain

unknown? My father Tantalus is the only mortal who has ever sat at the

table of the gods; and my mother Dione is the sister of the Pleiades,

who as bright stars shine nightly in the heavens. One of my uncles is

the giant Atlas, who on his neck supports the vaulted heavens; my

grandfather is Jupiter, the father of the gods. The people of Phrygia

obey me, and to me and my husband belongs the city of Cadmus, the

walls of which were put together by the music that my husband played.

Every corner of my palace is filled with priceless treasures; and

there, too, are other treasures--children such as no other mother can

show: seven beautiful daughters, seven sturdy sons, and just as many

sons- and daughters-in-law. Ask now whether I have ground for pride.

Consider again before you honor more than me Latona, the unknown

daughter of the Titans, who could find no place in the whole earth in

which she might rest and give birth to her children until the island

of Delos in compassion offered her a precarious shelter. There she

became the mother of two children--the poor creature! Just the seventh

part of my mother joy! Who can deny that I am fortunate? Who will

doubt that I shall remain happy? Fortune would have a hard time if she

undertook to shatter my happiness. Take this or that one from my

treasured children; but when would the number of them dwindle to the

sickly two of Latona? Away with your sacrifices! Take the laurel out

of your hair. Go back to your homes and let me never see such

foolishness again!"



Frightened at the outburst, the women removed the wreaths from their

heads, left their sacrifices and slunk home, still honoring Latona

with silent prayer.



On the summit of the Delian mountain Cynthas stood Latona with her two

children, watching what was taking place in distant Thebes. "See, my

children," she said, "I, your mother, who am so proud of your birth,

who yield place to no goddess except Juno, I am held up to ridicule by

an upstart mortal, and if you do not defend me, my children, I shall

be driven away from the ancient and holy altars. Yes, you too are

insulted by Niobe, and she would like to have you set aside for her

children!"



Latona was about to go on, but Apollo interrupted her: "Cease your

lamentations, mother; you only delay the punishment."



Then he and his sister wrapped themselves in a magic cloud cloak that

made them invisible, and flew swiftly through the air until they

reached the town and castle of Cadmus.



Just outside the walls of the city was an open field that was used as

a race-course and practice ground for horses. Here the seven sons of

Amphion were amusing themselves, when suddenly the oldest dropped his

reins with a cry and fell from his horse, pierced to the heart by an

arrow. One after another the whole seven were struck down.



The news of the disaster soon spread through the city. Amphion, when

he heard that all his sons had perished, fell on his own sword. Then

the loud cries of his servants penetrated to the women's quarters.



For a long time Niobe could not believe that the gods had thus brought

vengeance. When she did, how unlike was she to the Niobe who drove the

people from the altars of the mighty goddess and strode through the

city with haughty mien. Crazed with grief she rushed out to the field

where her sons had been stricken, threw herself on their dead bodies,

kissing now this one and now that. Then, raising her arms to heaven,

she cried, "Look now upon my distress, thou cruel Latona; for the

death of these seven bows me to the earth. Triumph thou, O my

victorious enemy!"



Now the seven daughters of Niobe, clad in garments of mourning, drew

near, and with loosened hair stood around their brothers. And the

sight of them brought a ray of joy to Niobe's white face. She forgot

her grief for a moment, and casting a scornful look to heaven, said,

"Victor! No, for even in my loss I have more than thou in thy

happiness!"



Hardly had she spoken when there was the sound of a drawn bow. The

bystanders grew cold with fear, but Niobe was not frightened, for

misfortune had made her strong.



Suddenly one of the sisters put her hand to her breast and drew out an

arrow that had pierced her; then, unconscious, she sank to the ground.

Another daughter hastened to her mother to comfort her, but before she

could reach her she was laid low by a hidden wound. One after another

the rest fell, until only the last was left. She had fled to Niobe's

lap and childlike was hiding her face in her mother's garments.



"Leave me only this one," cried Niobe, "just the youngest of so many."



But even while she prayed the child fell lifeless from her lap, and

Niobe sat alone among the dead bodies of her husband, her sons and her

daughters. She was speechless with grief; no breath of air stirred the

hair on her head; the blood left her face; the eyes remained fixed on

the grief-stricken countenance; in the whole body there was no longer

any sign of life. The veins ceased to carry blood; the neck stiffened;

arms and feet grew rigid; the whole body was transformed into cold and

lifeless stone. Nothing living remained to her except her tears, which

continued flowing from her stony eyes.



Then a mighty wind lifted the image of stone, carried it over the sea

and set it down in Lydia, the old home of Niobe, in the barren

mountains under the stony cliffs of Sipylus. Here Niobe remained fixed

as a marble statue on the summit of the mountain, and to this very day

you can see the grief-stricken mother in tears.





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