Week 6: Ovid's Metamorphoses

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Book 6: Niobe

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

Now the story shifts to Niobe, who had known Arachne before she was turned into a spider. But Niobe does not learn the lesson of Arachne's story - just like Arachne, Niobe is going to boast that she is greater than a goddess. Niobe's claim to fame is the number of her children: she has fourteen sons and daughters, while the goddess Latona has only two children. But those two children are the gods Apollo and Diana (Artemis)...

All of Lydia murmurs: the tale goes through the towns of Phrygia, and fills the whole world with talk. Niobe had known Arachne. As a girl, before her marriage, she had lived in Maeonia, near Mount Sipylus. Nevertheless she was not warned by her countrywoman's fate, to give the gods precedence, and use more modest words. Many things swelled her pride, but neither her husband Amphion's marvellous art in music, nor both of their high lineages, nor the might of their great kingdom of Thebes, pleased her, though they did please her, as much as her children did. And Niobe would have been spoken of as the most fortunate of mothers, if she had not seemed so to herself.

Now Manto, the daughter of Tiresias, prescient of the future, stirred by divine impulse, went through the middle of the streets, declaiming. 'Women of Thebes, Ismenides, go, as a crowd, and wreathe your hair with laurel, and bring incense with holy prayer to Latona, and Latona's children, Diana and Apollo. Latona commands it through my mouth.'

They obey: all the Theban women, as commanded, dress their temples with sweet-bay, and bring incense and words of prayer to the sacred flames.

Look, Niobe comes, followed by a crowded thong, visible, in her Phrygian robes woven with gold, and as beautiful as anger will let her be. Turning her lovely head with the hair falling loose over both her shoulders, she pauses, and looks around with pride in her eyes, from her full height, saying ' What madness, to prefer the gods you are told about to the ones you see? Why is Latona worshipped at the altars, while as yet my godhead is without its incense? Tantalus is my father, who is the only man to eat the food of the gods. My mother is one of the seven sisters, the Pleiades. Great Atlas, who carries the axis of the heavens on his shoulders, is one of my grandfathers. Jupiter is the other, and I glory in having him as my father-in-law as well. The peoples of Phrygia fear me. Cadmus's royal house is under my rule: and the walls, built to my husband's lyre, and Thebes's people, will be ruled by his power and mine. Whichever part of the palace I turn my eyes on, I look at immense wealth. Augment it with my beauty, worthy of a goddess, and add to this my seven daughters, as many sons, and soon my sons- and my daughters-in-law! Now, ask what the reason is for my pride, and then dare to prefer Latona to me, that Titaness, daughter of Coeus, whoever he is. Latona, whom the wide earth once refused even a little piece of ground to give birth on. Land, sea, and sky were no refuge for your goddess. She was exiled from the world, until Delos, pitying the wanderer, gave her a precarious place, saying 'Friend, you wander the earth, I the sea.' There she gave birth to twins, only a seventh of my offspring. I am fortunate (indeed, who can deny it?) and I will stay fortunate (and who can doubt that too?). My riches make me safe. I am greater than any whom Fortune can harm, and though she could take much away, she would leave me much more. Surely my comforts banish fear. Imagine that some of this host of children could be taken from me, I would still not, bereaved, be reduced to the two of Latona's family. In that state, how far is she from childlessness? Go home - enough of holy things - and take those laurel wreaths from your hair!'

They relinquish them, and leave the rite unfinished, except what is their right, reverencing the goddess in a secret murmur.

The goddess was deeply angered, and on the summit of Mount Cynthus she spoke to her twin children. 'See, it will be doubted whether I, your mother, proud to have borne you, and giving way to no goddess, except Juno, am a goddess, and worship will be prevented at my altars through all the ages, unless you help me, my children. Nor is this my only grief. This daughter of Tantalus has added insult to injury, and has dared to put her children above you, and has called me childless, may that recoil on her own head, and has shown she has her father's tongue for wickedness.'

Latona would have added her entreaties to what she had related, but Phoebus cried 'Enough! Long complaint delays her punishment! Phoebe said the same, and falling swiftly through the air, concealed by clouds, they reached the house of Cadmus.

There was a broad, open plain near the walls, flattened by the constant passage of horses, where many wheels and hard hooves had levelled the turf beneath them. There, a number of Amphion's seven sons mounted on their strong horses, and sitting firmly on their backs, bright with Tyrian purple, guided them using reins heavy with gold. While Ismenus, one of these, who had been the first of his mother's burdens, was wheeling his horse's path around in an unerring circle, and hauling at the foaming bit, he cried out 'Oh, I am wounded!' and revealed an arrow fixed in his chest, and loosing the reins from his dying hands, slipped gradually, sideways, over his mount's right shoulder.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • who told the women of the city to make sacrifices to the goddess Latona?
  • what did Niobe say about the sacrifices the women were making to Latona?
  • how did the god Apollo kill the oldest of Niobe's sons?

Source: Ovid's Metamorphoses. English translation by A.S.Kline. 2000. "This work MAY be FREELY reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any NON-COMMERCIAL purpose." Website: Ovid and Others.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM