Week 6: Ovid's Metamorphoses

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Book 6: Niobe, cont.

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

Ovid describes the death of each and every one of Niobe's seven sons and seven daughters, who all fell victim to the twin gods, Apollo and Diana. Niobe's husband Amphion kills himself in grief - but Niobe does not kill herself, and the gods do not kill her. Instead, like Arachne, Niobe is transformed at the end of the story, turned from a human being into something else entirely.

Next Sipylus, hearing the sound of a quiver in the empty air, let out the reins, just as a shipmaster sensing a storm runs for it when he sees the cloud, and claps on all sail, so that not even the slightest breeze is lost. Still giving full rein, he was overtaken, by the arrow none can avoid, and the shaft stuck quivering in his neck, and the naked tip protruded from his throat. Leaning forward, as he was, he rolled down over the mane and the galloping hooves, and stained the ground with warm blood.

Unlucky Phaedimus, and Tantalus, who carried his grandfather's name, at the end of the usual task imposed on them, had joined the exercise of the young men, and were gleaming with oil in the wrestling match. And now they were fully engaged, in a tight hold, chest to chest, when an arrow, loosed from the taut bow, pierced them both, as they were. They groaned as one, and fell as one, their limbs contorted with pain. As they lay there, they cast a last dying look, as one, and, as one, gave up the ghost.

Alphenor saw them die, and striking at his breast in anguish, he ran to them to lift their cold bodies in his embrace. In this filial service he also fell, for Delian Apollo tore at his innermost parts with deadly steel. As the shaft was removed, a section of his lung was drawn with it, caught on the barbs, and with his life's blood his spirit rushed out into the air.

But it was not a simple wound that longhaired Damasicthon suffered. He was hit where the shin begins, and where the sinews of the knee leave a soft place between. While he was trying to pull out the fatal shaft with his hand, another arrow was driven into his throat as far as the feathers. The rush of blood expelled it, and gushing out, spurted high in the air, in a long jet.

The last son, Ilioneus, stretched out his arms in vain entreaty. 'O you company of all the gods, spare me!' he cried, unaware that he need not ask them all. The archer god Apollo was moved, though already the dart could not be recalled: yet only a slight wound killed the boy, the arrow not striking deeply in his heart.

The rumour of trouble, the people's sorrow, and the tears of her own family, confirming sudden disaster to the mother, left her astounded that the gods could have done it, and angered that they had such power, and dared to use it. Now, she learned that the father, Amphion, driving the iron blade through his heart, had, in dying, ended pain and life together.

Alas, how different this Niobe from that Niobe, the one, who a moment ago chased the people from Latona's altar, and made her way through the city with head held high, enviable to her friends, and now more to be pitied by her enemies. She threw herself on the cold bodies, and without regard for due ceremony, gave all her sons a last kiss. Turning from them she lifted her bruised arms to the sky, and cried out 'Feed your heart, cruel one, Latona, on my pain, feed your heart, and be done! Be done, savage spirit! I am buried seven times. Exult and triumph over your enemy! But where is the victory? Even in my misery I have more than you in your happiness. After so many deaths, I still outdo you!'

She spoke, and the twang of a taut bowstring sounded, terrifying all of them, except Niobe. Pain gave her courage. The sisters, with black garments, and loosened hair, were standing by their brothers' bodies. One, grasping at an arrow piercing her side, falling, fainted in death beside her brother's face. A second, attempting to comfort her grieving mother, fell silent, and was bent in agony with a hidden wound. She pressed her lips together, but life had already fled. One fell trying in vain to run, and her sister fell across her. One tried to hide, while another trembled in full view.

Now six had been dealt death, suffering their various wounds: the last remained. The mother, with all her robes and with her body, protected her, and cried out 'Leave me just one, the youngest! I only ask for one, the youngest of all!' While she prayed, she, for whom she prayed, was dead. Childless, she sat among the bodies of her sons, her daughters, and her husband, frozen in grief.

The breeze stirs not a hair, the colour of her cheeks is bloodless, and her eyes are fixed motionless in her sad face: nothing in that likeness is alive. Inwardly her tongue is frozen to the solid roof of her mouth, and her veins cease their power to throb. Her neck cannot bend, nor her arms recall their movement, nor her feet lead her anywhere. Inside, her body is stone. Yet she weeps, and, enclosed in a powerful whirlwind, she is snatched away to her own country: there, set on a mountain top, she wears away, and even now tears flow from the marble.


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

  • how did Niobe's husband, Amphion, react to the death of their sons?
  • how did Niobe react when she learned that her sons were dead?
  • what did Niobe become at the end of the story?

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