NIOBE

NIOBE, queen of Thebes, had much to be proud of. The Muses had given her husband Amphion a lyre whose strings breathed sounds of such persuasive sweetness that once at his playing the very stones had joined themselves to rear the palace of Thebes. Her father was Tantalus, the guest of the immortals. She herself ruled over a mighty realm and was famed for her noble spirit, for her beauty, and for her stateliness. But nothing made her heart beat higher than the thought of her fourteen children, seven sons and seven daughters. Niobe was known as the happiest of all mothers, and this she would, indeed, have been, had she not vaunted her happiness too exultantly. As it was, her awareness of it proved her destruction.

One day the seeress Man to, daughter of Tiresias, was moved to cry out in the streets, exhorting the women of Thebes to do honor to Leto and her twin children Apollo and Artemis. She bade them wreathe their brows with laurel, make fervent prayer, and offer sacrifice. While the women of Thebes gathered to listen, Niobe suddenly appeared amid a throng of her followers. She wore a gown worked with golden thread. Radiant in her beauty, except where anger clouded her countenance, tossing her lovely head with its lustrous hair rippling down over her shoulders, she stood among the women who were preparing the sacrifice under the open sky. Her haughty glances swept over the assembly, and she said:

“Are you mad that you honor the gods, who are no more than idle tales among you, while beings more favored by heaven actually dwell in your midst? You set up altars to Leto! Why does not incense rise to my divine name? Is not my father Tantalus the only mortal who ever ate at the board of Zeus? My mother Dione is sister to the Pleiades, who shine as a brilliant constellation in the skies. One of my ancestors, Atlas, was so strong that he carried the broad heavens on his shoulders. My father’s father is Zeus himself. Even the peoples of Phrygia obey me. The city of Cadmus, the walls that rose to the playing of Amphion, are subject to me and my husband. Every chamber in my palace is filled with marvellous treasures. Add to this that I have a face worthy of a goddess, and children such as no other mother can boast of: seven flower-like daughters and seven sturdy sons, and soon I shall have an equal number of sons- and daughters-in-law! But you have the boldness to prefer to me Leto, the unknown daughter of Titans, whom the wide earth once grudged even a little space wherein to bear children to Zeus, until the floating island of Delos took pity on her and granted her a temporary refuge! And there the poor creature bore her two children—a mere seventh part of my joy-bringing harvest. Who will deny that I am happy? Who will doubt that I shall remain so? The Fates would have much to do if they set about harming my possessions. Even if they took one or the other of my brood, how could their number ever sink to a mere two, such as Leto’s children? So away with your offerings! Snatch the wreaths from your heads! Disperse and go home, and never again let me find you engaged in such foolishness.”

The women were afraid. They tore the laurel from their brows, left the sacrifice unfinished and crept home, honoring the offended goddess with silent prayers.

On the peak of Mount Cynthus in Delos stood Leto with her twin children, gazing with divine eyes upon what was happening in far-off Thebes. “Behold, my children,” she said, “I, your mother, who am so proud to have borne you, I who give place to no goddess but Hera, must suffer the disdain of insolent mortals! Unless you aid me, I shall be thrust away from my ancient holy altars. Yes, and Niobe is slandering you also by placing you second to her own brood.” She was complaining thus when Phoebus interrupted her.

“Leave off lamenting, mother,” he said. “You are only delaying punishment.” And his sister seconded him. Both veiled themselves in cloud and sped through the air to the city of Cadmus. Before its walls was a spacious field, not intended for sowing and reaping, but for races and practice with horses and chariots. There the seven sons of Amphion were engaged in gay sport. Ismenus, the eldest, was just driving his mount in a circle at a trot, reining him in with a sure hand close to the bit in his foam-flecked mouth, when he suddenly groaned, “Alas!” and the rein slipped from his powerless fingers. Struck to the heart by an arrow, he slowly sank to earth at the horse’s right flank. His brother Sipylus, who was nearest him, had heard a quiver rattling in the air and fled at full gallop, like a helmsman who catches the lightest wind in his sails to make the harbor before the storm. And yet an arrow whirring down from the sky pierced him in the nape of the neck, and its iron point jutted from his throat. Over the mane of his speeding horse he slid to the ground and spattered the earth with his blood. Two others, Tantalus, named after his grandfather, and Phaedimus were wrestling with each other, locked breast to breast. Once more the bowstring twanged, and an arrow stabbed both at once. They moaned, writhed on the earth, their limbs contorted with pain, their eyes dimmed, and they died in the dust at the selfsame moment. A fifth son, Alphenor, saw them fall. Beating his breast, he ran toward them and tried to warm the cold bodies of his brothers in his embrace, but while he was performing this office of love, Apollo launched a deadly dart at him, and when he drew it forth from his heart, his blood and breath flowed from him. Damasichthon, the sixth, a charming youth with long locks, was struck in the hollow of the knee, and when he bent backward to pull out the missile, a second arrow entered his open mouth up to the feathering, and his blood spurted out like a fountain. Ilioneus, a mere boy, the last and youngest son, who had watched his brothers perish one after another, fell on his knees, spread wide his arms, and began to plead: “O gods, all ye gods, spare me!” Even the grim archer was moved to compassion, but it was too late. The arrow could not be recalled. The boy fell, but he died of a painless wound, for the point barely grazed his heart.

Rumor of the disaster soon spread through the city. When Amphion heard the awful tidings, he pierced his own breast with his sword. Presently the loud laments of the servants and the people reached the women’s chambers. For a long time Niobe could not grasp her misfortune. She did not want to believe that the immortals had so much power, that they dared, that they had succeeded! But soon she could no longer doubt the truth. Ah, how different was this Niobe from her who had just driven the people away from the altars of the mighty goddess and paced through the city, her head held high! Then she had seemed enviable to her dearest friends, but now she evoked the pity even of her foes. She rushed out to the field and threw herself on the cold bodies of her sons, kissing now this one, now that. Then she lifted her weary arms to the sky and cried: “Gloat over my misery! Sate your angry heart, cruel Leto! The death of these seven will cast me into the grave! Triumph over me, yours is the victory!”

Now her seven daughters, already garbed in mourning and with loosened locks, came and stood beside their fallen brothers. At sight of them a gleam of malice flickered over Niobe’s pale face. She forgot herself, shot a mocking glance at the sky, and said: “Victory? No! Even in my wretchedness I have more than you in your triumph! Though all these are dead, I am still the richer!”

Hardly had the words left her lips, when through the air came a sound as of a sinew tightened on the bow. Everyone trembled, all but Niobe, whom disaster had dulled. Suddenly one of the sisters put her hand to her heart and drew out an arrow. She fainted, and as she fell turned her dying gaze upon the dead body of the brother lying nearest her. Another of the girls hastened to her mother, to give her words of comfort, but her mouth was forever closed by an unseen dart. A third fell as she turned to flee, and still others faltered while they bowed over their dead sisters. Only the youngest was left. She fled to her mother, hid her face against her knees and clung to her, covering herself with the folds of her robe.

“Leave me this one!” Niobe cried out to heaven in pain. “Only this youngest of so many!” But even as she uttered her plea, the child loosened her hold on her, and now Niobe sat alone among the bodies of her sons and daughters. She grew rigid with sorrow. Not a hair on her head stirred in the wind. The color ebbed from her cheeks. Her eyes stared motionless in her ravaged face. The blood stopped running in her veins. Her pulse fluttered and died. Her neck, her arms, her feet were utterly still. Even her heart had turned to stone. She was lifeless save for the tears flowing unceasingly from her stark eyes. And now a tempest swept her through the air and across the sea to her old home in Lydia and set her down among the cliffs of Sipylus. Here, on the peak of the mountain, she still stands, a block of marble, which even now is washed with her tears.

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