The myth of Niobe is definitely a contender for ancient Greece’s most depressing mythological story. Her story was one of the clearest examples of unrestrained wrath from the gods meted out against humans. What became of Niobe and her family is sure to dampen your eyes and strum on your heartstrings.
According to myth, Niobe was the daughter of King Tantalus and the wife of King Amphion. Alongside her husband, Queen Niobe ruled Thebes. Her proudest achievement, however, was her huge family—Homer wrote that she had twelve children, but many other writers recorded that she had fourteen. The sexes of her children were split evenly in all accounts of her myth; there were either six or seven sons and six or seven daughters.
Niobe’s pride for and love of her family would bring destruction upon everyone she loved. It all began when she acted disrespectfully during a ceremony that honored the titan goddess Leto—Niobe had the gall to compare her motherhood to that of the goddess. Leto did not take kindly to a petty human comparing her motherly achievements with a goddess like herself, so she had her children go put Niobe in her place. In some versions of the story, Leto’s famous divine twins, the archer-gods Artemis and Apollo, sought out retribution against Niobe without any instruction from their mother. Nevertheless, in each way the story was told, the two powerful twins set out to defend the honor of their mother, Leto.
The number of deaths that Artemis and Apollo caused depended on which account was being read—in all cases, however, the majority of Niobe’s family was massacred. Apollo rained arrows down on all of Niobe’s sons and Artemis shot the queen’s daughters. In an alternative telling of the myth, the youngest daughter survived. After witnessing the massacre of his children, King Amphion committed suicide. With her children and her husband dead, Niobe fled from Thebes to Mt. Sipylon (or Sipylus).
After the killing of Niobe’s children, Zeus turned the people of Thebes into stone. As there was no one to bury the dead, the bodies of the slain children were left out in the weather for nine days. Only on the tenth day did Zeus and the gods, themselves, bury Niobe’s deceased children.
As for Queen Niobe hiding in the mountains, she could only cry. She eventually turned to stone, but her tears continued to pour—legend claimed that the Achelous River was created and sustained from Niobe’s ceaseless tears caused by the loss of her children.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.