The tragic tale of Niobe is one of the most memorable Greek myths, for Niobe's story features a striking example of the consequences of hubris, a Greek term defined as arrogance or excessive pride. This myth was popular in ancient literature, poetry and art. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the legend of Niobe appears in one of our oldest and best sources for Greek myths, the Iliad of Homer.
The beginning of the story
The tragic tale of Niobe is one of the most poignant in Greek mythology. Her father was Tantalus, king of a town above Mount Sipylus in Anatolia, but we do not know exactly who her mother was. Niobe had two brothers, Broteas and Pelops, who would later be a legendary hero and would give his name to Peloponnese.
When Niobe grew up, she got married to Amphion, king of Thebes. This was a turning point in her life and a series of tragic events followed, to give her a distinct place in one of the most tragic dramas in Greek mythology. Niobe and Amphion gave birth to fourteen children, seven sons and seven daughters.
The fatal mistake and the horrible crime
At a ceremony held in honor of Leto, the mother of the divine twins, Apollo and Artemis, who was also living in Thebes, Niobe, in a fit of arrogance, bragged about her fourteen children. In fact, Niobe said that she was superior to Leto, as she had fourteen children and not only two.
When the twins knew this insult, they got enraged and at once, came down to Earth to kill the children of Niobe. Apollo, the god of light and music, killed all seven of Niobe's sons with his powerful arrows in front of their mother's eyes.
Although Niobe was pleading Apollo to feel mercy for her last surviving son, Apollo's lethal arrow had already left his bow to find its mark with deadly accuracy, thus wiping out all the male descendants of Niobe. Artemis, the virgin goddess of nature and hunting, killed Niobe's seven daughters with her lethal arrows and their dead bodies were lying unburied for nine days.
Turning into a rock
Devastated by the slaughter of his children, Amphion committed suicide. Some versions say that he too was killed by Apollo when he tried to avenge his children's deaths. And so it was that Niobe's entire family had been wiped out by the gods in a matter of moments, and in deep anguish, she ran to Mount Sipylus. There she pleaded Gods to give an end in her pain. Zeus felt sorry for her and transformed her into a rock, to make her feelings of stone.
However, even as a rock, Niobe continued to cry. Her endless tears poured forth as a stream from the rock and it seems to stand as a moving reminder of a mother's eternal mourning. To this day, Niobe is mourning for her children and people believe that her faint image can still be seen carved on a limestone rock cliff on Mount Sipylus, with the water that seeps out of the porous rocks bearing a strong allusion to her ceaseless tears.
The meaning of the Myth
The tragic tale of Niobe centered on the consequences of hybris, a strange concept in the Greek antiquity, which said that if you act with arrogance towards the Gods, then you will be punished. Actually Niobe's story is a classic example of the wrath of gods against human weaknesses and has been beautifully narrated in Homer's Iliad.
The tale of Niobe also finds mention in Metamorphoses, a narrative poem, written by the renowned Roman poet Ovid, who, however, has inverted the traditionally accepted order and portrayed the desires and conquests of the gods with aversion, while elevating human passions to a higher level.