Metamorphoses VI:146-312 – Niobe


Artist Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Nuremberg edition, 1703.

All Lydia was in an uproar about Arachne’s punishment, and rumor raced through the cities of the wider world. Niobe had known Arachne before their marriages, in the days when she was a girl in Maeonian Sipylus. Nevertheless the punishment of her compatriot didn’t warn Niobe to give place to the gods and to hold her tongue when speaking of them. 

Niobe had many reasons for pride: her husband Amphion was a great musician; They were both of noble lineage; and they ruled the great kingdom of Thebes. Haughty though she was about all these things, her children were a still greater source of pride. Niobe would be remembered as the most fortunate of mothers, had she not thought so herself.

Manto, a descendent of Tiresias and who also could see the future, staggered through the streets of the city under the goad of divine inspiration, crying, “Daughters of Thebes! Gather to offer frankincense to Latona and her two offspring. Pray to Latona with laurel bound into your hair, for thus she orders you to do through me.”

The Theban women obeyed at once, plaiting their hair with laurel fronds before burning incense before the temple as they prayed. To them came Niobe, surrounded by her brilliant band of attendants and splendid in her gold-shot Phrygian garments. She was as lovely as her anger allowed her to be, graceful, and her long hair spilled over both shoulders from her shapely head.

She stopped before the temple, surveying the throng with haughty eyes. “What madness,” she cried, “makes you prefer gods who are merely names to me whom you can see? Why do you throng Latona’s altar instead of burning incense to me? My father was Tantalus, the only mortal who ate at the tables of the gods! My mother is the sister of the Pleiades. My grandfather great Atlas bears the starry firmament on his shoulders, and my other grandfather is Jupiter, whom I glory also to claim for my father-in-law. The people of Phrygia bow to me, I direct the palace of Cadmus, and the walls of Thebes which my husband built are under my rule and his, along with all those who dwell within them. Wherever you glance in our mansion, the wealth will dazzle you. My face is worthy of a goddess.

“Then add to that the fact I have seven daughters and as many sons, all of whom are about to marry! Ask yourselves now: have I not the right to be proud? Who would dare prefer Latona, a daughter of Coeos the Titan, to me? Why, the very Earth once denied her a place to give birth! Not sky nor land nor the seas would receive this fine goddess of yours! She was exiled from the whole world, wandering miserably till she reached the floating island of Delos and said, ‘I will lodge on your soil while you bob on the waves.’ Here she became mother of two–a seventh part of what my womb brought forth!

“I am happy indeed–who would deny this? And I will remain happy–who doubts this either? The magnitude of my blessings will keep me safe! I am too great for fortune to harm; though I lost much, more would still remain. Even if some were removed from the vast crowd of my sons, I would still have more than the two which Latona calls a throng! Why, she’s almost bereft even now! Take the laurel out of your hair and quit this foolish worship!”

And so the women of Thebes stopped and changed their dress as the queen ordered; but they continued to whisper prayers to Latona under their breath.

Latona was indignant. On the peak of Mt Cynthos she said to her offspring, “Behold me, your proud parent, who would not yield place to any goddess but Juno–now I am asked to doubt my own divinity. I will never again be worshipped, oh my children, unless you come to my defense.

“Nor is that the only cause of my anger: Niobe adds to her abuse a boast of the crimes of Tantalus. She claims you aren’t the equal of her offspring, and she even calls me bereft! Indeed, her tongue proves that she’s foul Tantalus’ true heir.”

Latona would’ve gone on to beg them, but Phoebes said, “I’ve heard enough. Time spent talking just delays retribution.” Phoebe said the same thing. Plunging swiftly through the air, they took their stand on the roof of the palace of Cadmus, wrapped in cloud.

Below them a broad plain stretched almost to the walls of the city. The wheels of chariots and the hard hooves of exercising horses hammered the turf. Some of Amphion’s sons were riding there, using saddleblankets of Tyrian purple and golden reins. Ismenus, the first contents of his mother’s womb, was guiding his foaming horse in a tight circle when he cried, “Woe is me!” and snatched at the arrow springing from his breast. The reins fell from his dying hand and he slipped off the right side of his mount.

Sipylus, the second son, lashed his reins when he heard a quiver rattle as an arrow was removed. He knew what was coming and reacted like the shipmaster who sets all his sails to catch the present light breeze in a desperate attempt to outrun the storm clouds bearing down on him. Nonetheless the inexorable missile pierced the back of his neck as he fled, and the bare iron point stood out from his Adam’s apple. Because he was leaning forward, he tangled in the mane as he pitched over the horse’s neck, then stained the earth with his hot blood.

Unlucky Phaedimus, and Tantalus who was his grandfather’s namesake, were concluding their exercise as usual on the wrestling ground. They’d locked their arms as they struggled breast to breast. The arrow driven by the taut bowstring pierced them both as they strove. The boys groaned together and flung their convulsing bodies to the ground. Together also their eyes rolled up and they breathed out their lives.

Alphenus saw the slaughter. Weeping and beating his breast, he ran to lift the cooling limbs in his embrace–and doing so, he toppled in turn; for Delian Apollo had ripped his heart out with a lethal arrow. As the missile exited, the barbs took with them part of his lung. His blood spurted into the air, carrying his soul with it.

Demasichthon, though too young to shave, received multiple wounds. First he was shot through the cartilage of the knee. While he was trying to pull out the crippling arrow, another drove through his throat to the fletching. Blood fountained in a high, glittering arc from the latter wound, leaving a red mist in the air.

The last victim, Ilioneus, raised his arms in useless prayer and cried, “Great company of heaven, spare me!” for he didn’t know his quarrel was with one god alone. Bow-bending Apollo was moved, though he could not recall the arrow. Nevertheless the missile that slew the boy made only a slight wound instead of slamming through his heart.

Word of the disaster came to the palace; the grief and tears of those who’d seen what happened compelled the mother to believe the truth of her ruin. She was stunned that the gods could do this, and furious that they had the right to do it. Amphion, the boys’ father, threw himself on his sword, ending his grief and his life with the same stroke.

Alas, how much the present Niobe differed from the one who’d driven the crowd away from Latona’s altar. She stumbled through the city, her face upturned: hating the gods, but an object of pity even to her enemies.

Niobe threw herself on the cold bodies, giving her last wild kisses to her sons. Raising her bloody arms to the heavens she cried, “Feed on my grief, cruel Latona, feed on it! Fill your breast with my misery! Satiate your bestial soul as I cry during seven funerals–brag and boast, my conquering enemy! Yet why do you consider yourself the victor? For more offspring remain to me in my misery than you have in your triumph! Despite so many funerals, I am still your better!”

So she spoke, and as she did so the thrum of a bowstring terrified all–all but Niobe alone, for she had the courage of despair. Her daughters stood in black raiment beside the pyres of their brothers, their hair loosened in grief. One grabbed the shaft of the arrow piercing her vitals; she fell across her brother and died with her lips kissing the corpse. Another girl, trying to console her miserable mother, fell suddenly silent. She doubled up, concealing the wound that slew her.

A third fell vainly fleeing; a fourth died on the body of her sister; a fifth died hiding; the sixth died in frantic terror.

With six girls sent to death with varied wounds, the last alone remained. Her mother tried to hide the girl in the folds of her own garment. “Spare this one, my youngest!” she cried. “I demand to keep this part of what I had!” And as she pleaded, the one for whom she pleaded died.

Bereft, the mother sat among the lifeless bodies of her sons, her daughters, and her husband, clawing her cheeks with her nails. No breeze disturbed her hair; her face grew bloodless; her eyes remained set in her sad face. Nothing in her appearance seemed alive.

Niobe’s feet froze. Her organs congealed into stone. Nevertheless even as a statue she wept while a whirlwind tore her off to the land of her birth, where the marble continues to weep.

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