Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Children of Niobe

The Children of Niobe
Painting by Jacques Louis-David
Cursed indeed was the House of Tantalus. A divine and royal line descended from Zeus the Thunderer, polluted by murder and betrayal. For Tantalus, the King of Phrygia, had dared to deceive the gods, had slain his own son and now lay condemned for eternity in the dark unyielding night of unholy Tartarus. Yet far above the blackened plain the accursed king left a daughter, Niobe, a sister to Pelops. Alas that the sole heiress to the line inherited her father's pride! For oft did Niobe dare to think, that she and she alone stood high as the gods, oblivious to Arachne's fate.

There came a day in that Phrygian city, as all years, when the folk gathered from across the land to honour Leto, the Titaness upon whom the eyes of Zeus had once lingered. Hither and thither the Phyrgians strayed, all the land caught up in the hustle and bustle of festival & ceremony, song and dance.  But one among their kind was far from awash with joy, as among the royal guard there appeared proud Niobe bedecked in state., "and mad with rage, yet lovely to behold". Never forgetting her father's fate, a wrathful contempt had she for the Olympians high above. Why do these fools worship the reckless gods above, said she, with a house as mighty as hers within plain sight. Her line, who had dined with gods, held Phyrgia within her grasp, knew the Titan Atlas as an ancestor who bears the Heavens above, and groaned beneath the riches of Asia? Why look to the distant gods beyond, when all this lay here and near? But of no thing was Niobe more proud than the children she bore:

                   " Seven are my daughters, of a form divine,
                     With seven fair sons, an indefective line...
                     There Leto a mother was, of two at most,
                     Only the seventh part of what I boast.
                     My joys are all beyond suspicion fix'd,
                     With no pollutions of misfortune mix'd,
                     Safe on the Basis of my pow'r I stand,
                     Above the reach of Fortune's fickle hand... "
                            - THE HUBRIS OF NIOBE

Far beyond and high above, atop the shady Mount Cynthus the goddess lurked, and clear as daylight did she hear the wicked words. A godly anger rippled through her form, Niobe's offence driven deep to her heart. To her two great children, Apollo and Artemis, she turned. "Nay more, the imp of Tantalus has flung reflections with her vile paternal tongue; has dared prefer her mortal breed to mine, and call'd me childless; which, just fate, may she repine!". In haste golden Apollo set about his vengeful mission, hearkening to his mother's will. Swift behind soared Artemis the lady of the hunt, whose deadly wrath mortals had come to fear.

The Dying Niobid
Sculpture by James Pradier
Beyond the walls of the Phrygian city there was a boy riding on the plain. The first of Niobe's brood, Ismenos, sighed deeply, when Apollo's dart speared his breast, and from his towering steed his body crashed. Sipylus next met deadly fate, when upon seeing his brother's end, he dared to flee. As the stormy winds he flew, but Apollo's aim was true. Transfixed in the neck, paralysed he stood, life force leaking where it could. At youthful Phaedimus the sun god took aim, and his brother Tantalus who bore his grandsire's name. Both brothers were wrestling on the plain, straining every nerve and muscle in their game. With a mighty shot Apollo pierced them both, their life turned black as coal, as from their mortal forms fled their soul. Grieving Alphenor saw their plight, beating his chest with sorrow, he moved to embrace the fallen boys, before by keen aimed dart he fell. Pierced through the heart, for Apollo had aimed for no other part. Damasichthon next, beardless and young, cried out for mercy, but alas the god heard him late. Two arrows sheared his form, one the knee one somewhere warm.

Swiftly did the news reach Niobe's ear, grief and anger mingled into one. But humility she knew not, as towering was her pride still. Poor Amphion her husband, stricken with the darkest thought, had sheathed a dagger and driven into into his breast. Tears streaming from her eyes, Niobe roared in defiance "Tho' seve'n are slain, superior in number I remain". Her daughters looked upon her, seeing the doom their mother had brought on them now. Far above Leto screamed, and to her call deadly Artemis soared. The bow's thunderous twang echoed through the vale, as in terror all wondered what it would hail.

Around the pyres of their seven brothers they stood, seven daughters who need not have suffered, clad in garments of mourning black. From the eyes of one and the eyes of all fell a tear of purest grief. When that one was stung a sudden by more than emotion, the others tried in vain to remove the lethal dart. "But to grim death her blooming youth resigns, and o'er her brother's corpse her dying head reclines". A silent arrow, winged death, arcs through the skies, more cries silenced. The deadly huntress of the moon, so skilled in tracking game, found no challenge in her dark work, as one by one the seven fell, each pierced by a different death.

The Weeping Mountain
Image taken from the Wikimedia Commons
How lamentable now was Niobe's state, hardened with woe, and dying with grief, for my her own word had she condemned herself, and fourteen lives otherwise pure. Her hair moved to no rippling wind, her eyes faded and fixed within her head. Her deadly tongue called no more, within her veins the blood began to stall. Transfixed in stone her body was, atop Mount Sipylus, the Weeping Mountain. Unafflicted by stormy winds, yet pierced by grief and wounded pride, there she stands even today, a warning of unearthly pride, for no rest can she find...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

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