The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like an incubus upon the brain of the living. — Karl Marx

Book of Myths - Jeanie Lang




Niobe

". . . Like Niobe, all tears."

Shakespeare.

The quotation is an overworked quotation, like many another of those from Hamlet; yet, have half of those whose lips utter it more than the vaguest acquaintance with the story of Niobe and the cause of her tears? The noble group—attributed to Praxiteles—of Niobe and her last remaining child, in the Uffizi Palace at Florence, has been so often reproduced that it also has helped to make the anguished figure of the Theban queen a familiar one in pictorial tragedy, so that as long as the works of those Titans of art, Shakespeare and Praxiteles, endure, no other monument is wanted for the memory of Niobe.

Like many of the tales of mythology, her tragedy is a story of vengeance wreaked upon a mortal by an angry god. She was the daughter of Tantalus, and her husband was Amphion, King of Thebes, himself a son of Zeus. To her were born seven fair daughters and seven beautiful and gallant sons, and it was not because of her own beauty, nor her husband's fame, nor their proud descent and the greatness of their kingdom, that the Queen of Thebes was arrogant in her pride. Very sure she was that no woman had ever borne children like her own children, whose peers were not to be found on earth nor in heaven. Even in our own day there are mortal mothers who feel as Niobe felt.

But amongst the Immortals there was also a mother with children whom she counted as peerless. Latona, mother of Apollo and Diana, was magnificently certain that in all time, nor in eternity to come, could there be a son and daughter so perfect in beauty, in wisdom, and in power as the two that were her own. Loudly did she proclaim her proud belief, and when Niobe heard it she laughed in scorn.

"The goddess has a son and a daughter," she said. "Beautiful and wise and powerful they may be, but I have borne seven daughters and seven sons, and each son is more than the peer of Apollo, each daughter more than the equal of Diana, the moon-goddess!"

And to her boastful words Latona gave ear, and anger began to grow in her heart.

Each year the people of Thebes were wont to hold a great festival in honour of Latona and her son and daughter, and it was an evil day for Niobe when she came upon the adoring crowd that, laurel-crowned, bore frankincense to lay before the altars of the gods whose glories they had assembled together to celebrate.

"Oh foolish ones!" she said, and her voice was full of scorn, "am I not greater than Latona? I am the daughter of a goddess, my husband, the king, the son of a god. Am I not fair? am I not queenly as Latona herself? And, of a surety, I am richer by far than the goddess who has but one daughter and one son. Look on my seven noble sons! behold the beauty of my seven daughters, and see if they in beauty and all else do not equal the dwellers in Olympus!"

And when the people looked, and shouted aloud, for in truth Niobe and her children were like unto gods, their queen said, "Do not waste thy worship, my people. Rather make the prayers to thy king and to me and to my children who buttress us round and make our strength so great, that fearlessly we can despise the gods."

In her home on the Cynthian mountain top, Latona heard the arrogant words of the queen of Thebes, and even as a gust of wind blows smouldering ashes into a consuming fire, her growing anger flamed into rage. She called Apollo and Diana to her, and commanded them to avenge the blasphemous insult which had been given to them and to their mother. And the twin gods listened with burning hearts.

"Truly shalt thou be avenged!" cried Apollo. "The shameless one shall learn that not unscathed goes she who profanes the honour of the mother of the deathless gods!"

And with their silver bows in their hands, Apollo, the smiter from afar, and Diana, the virgin huntress, hasted to Thebes. There they found all the noble youths of the kingdom pursuing their sports. Some rode, some were having chariot-races, and excelling in all things were the seven sons of Niobe.

Apollo lost no time. A shaft from his quiver flew, as flies a bolt from the hand of Zeus, and the first-born of Niobe fell, like a young pine broken by the wind, on the floor of his winning chariot. His brother, who followed him, went on the heels of his comrade swiftly down to the Shades. Two of the other sons of Niobe were wrestling together, their great muscles moving under the skin of white satin that covered their perfect bodies, and as they gripped each other, yet another shaft was driven from the bow of Apollo, and both lads fell, joined by one arrow, on the earth, and there breathed their lives away.

Their elder brother ran to their aid, and to him, too, came death, swift and sure. The two youngest, even as they cried for mercy to an unknown god, were hurried after them by the unerring arrows of Apollo. The cries of those who watched this terrible slaying were not long in bringing Niobe to the place where her sons lay dead. Yet, even then, her pride was unconquered, and she defied the gods, and Latona, to whose jealousy she ascribed the fate of her "seven spears."

"Not yet hast thou conquered, Latona!" she cried. "My seven sons lie dead, yet to me still remain the seven perfect lovelinesses that I have borne. Try to match them, if thou canst, with the beauty of thy two! Still am I richer than thou, O cruel and envious mother of one daughter and one son!"

But even as she spoke, Diana had drawn her bow, and as the scythe of a mower quickly cuts down, one after the other, the tall white blossoms in the meadow, so did her arrows slay the daughters of Niobe. When one only remained, the pride of Niobe was broken. With her arms round the little slender frame of her golden-haired youngest born, she looked up to heaven, and cried upon all the gods for mercy.

"She is so little!" she wailed. "So young—so dear! Ah, spare me one," she said, "only one out of so many!"

But the gods laughed. Like a harsh note of music sounded the twang of Diana's bow. Pierced by a silver arrow, the little girl lay dead. The dignity of Latona was avenged.

Overwhelmed by despair, King Amphion killed himself, and Niobe was left alone to gaze on the ruin around her. For nine days she sat, a Greek Rachel, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they were not. On the tenth day, the sight was too much even for the superhuman hearts of the gods to endure. They turned the bodies into stone and themselves buried them. And when they looked on the face of Niobe and saw on it a bleeding anguish that no human hand could stay nor the word of any god comfort, the gods were merciful. Her grief was immortalised, for Niobe, at their will, became a stone, and was carried by a wailing tempest to the summit of Mount Sipylus, in Lydia, where a spring of Argos bore her name. Yet although a rock was Niobe, from her blind eyes of stone the tears still flowed, a clear stream of running water, symbol of a mother's anguish and never-ending grief.