Pride and haughtiness against the gods were greater offences than any men could commit against one another. Mortals needed to remember that they were inferior beings, neither all powerful nor all wise, and that they owed worship and honour to the immortals, who were far greater than themselves. Greek legend has many stories of heroes who, because of their birth or their wisdom or their daring, sought to have power and worship that was given only to the divine. The vengeance of the gods was swift, that men might learn to know the limitations of their nature.
It was the festival of Leto in the city of Thebes, and all the mothers of the city were making a great procession to her temple, with incense in their hands and wreaths of laurel in honour of the divine mother who bore the twins, Artemis and Apollo. Though the song of the worshippers was loud, however, there was an air of uneasiness over the procession. The watching crowds were murmuring to one another; many an anxious eye was cast at the royal palace, past which the winding train must go. For Niobe, proudest and haughtiest of the women of Greece, was not with the worshipers, though both as queen and as mother her place was with the foremost of all.
To tell the truth, the citizens of Thebes were somewhat frightened of their lordly mistress, who was so rich, so nobly born, and so successful in everything she undertook. It was said her father, Tantalus, had been a friend of Zeus and had even been admitted to Olympus to dine at the tables of the gods. There he had dared to fall in love with Hera, the queen of heaven, and had been dreadfully punished for his insolence. Yet in a sense the very loftiness of his ambition caused his memory to be held in awe. Nor was this all. Tantalus had the name of being a son of Zeus, while Niobe’s mother was a daughter of Atlas, the great giant who holds up the sky.
Ever since Niobe had come to Thebes, she had held herself apart. Did not the blood of immortals run in her veins? Was she not queen? Was she not divinely tall and fair? Had she not seven sons and seven daughters, the like of whose vigor and beauty had never been seen? None of the gods could boast a family such as hers. Niobe even grudged the gods their worship because like honour was not paid to her. She had let it be known that any who sought her favour had best not be seen presenting offerings at the temples. The citizens had respected her wishes, not daring to do the otherwise, but they had been uneasy. Sure enough some days before the city had been awakened by the cry of a prophetess in the streets at early dawn.
“Women of Thebes,” she was calling, “awake! awake! The altars of Leto are cold, her shrines and temples bare. Awake and do honour to the mother of the terrible twin gods, lest arrows of death smite you from the gold or silver bow.”
People thronged the Streets to hear the prophetess, consulting with one another in low voices. On the whole it seemed to them better to brave the anger of Niobe than that of Leto. Moreover, they hoped that Niobe would refuse the direct challenge of the goddess and let the festival take place. All, therefore, was put in readiness. Temples were decorated with laurel, and now on the appointed day the procession of worshipers actually went winding past the palace gates.
Outside the palace the crowd of onlookers was thickest, though their eyes were more on the great bronze doors than on the head of the advancing procession. Sure enough the doors were opening. White clad slaves were holding them apart, while between them, followed by an imposing array of guards and rich attendants, Niobe came out to meet the worshipers. The uneasy murmurs hushed as she approached, while the head of the procession halted, bumped into from behind in an undignified way. The singing died out, and the two parties stood looking at one another for a moment. Very stately was Niobe in scarlet and gold, with her fair hair falling on her shoulders from beneath a tall, embroidered head- dress. Her voice was raised, distinct and haughty, so that in the sudden silence it carried far. “Who is Leto,” she demanded, “that you worship her? Do you bring incense to my altars? I, too, am a child of gods. Moreover I am a great queen among you on earth. Leto wandered over all the world to find a resting place, and none would receive her but the rocky island of Delos. On that barren land the poor exile gave birth to two children. Yet she is honored as most blessed of mothers, while I, the great queen, the god-descended, have borne seven times as many, each one of them as fair. Go home and think things over. Let me not see again that Leto is honored until I am honored first.”
People were frightened at Niobe’s words. Some even looked angry, but the armed guards were fierce and nobody wanted a fight. There was confusion as the procession broke up, but little talk within sight of Niobe’s eyes. Only the laurel wreaths were not thrown down, but taken quietly and soberly home. That night the temple of Leto was heaped with shining branches as people with faces hidden stole secretly inside and laid them there.
The vengeance of the gods was not long in coming. Apollo was the first to listen to the complaint of outraged Leto, and when morning came he sped down from Olympus swift as a ray of light. The golden arrows that never miss their mark rattled in his quiver as he came. Niobe’s seven sons were in the meadowland outside the city, practicing riding, and wrestling, and various other sports. Suddenly the eldest son, who was leading in the horse race, threw up his arms and fell headlong, while the second, frantically reining in his horse, pitched forward over its head onto his brother’s corpse. Two, who were wrestling, Phoebus hit with a single arrow and killed in each other’s arms. One ran to lift them and ell dead likewise. Another minute and the sixth was slain, while the youngest one shrieked so piteously to the unseen archer that he might have spared him, but it was too late. The arrow was already loosed which stretched him with his brothers.
Terrible was the outcry in the city and bitter the grief of the seven sisters of the dead. Only Niobe in the midst of her sorrow was angry. Raising herself from the dead bodies of her sons, she cried to Leto, “These you have slain by treachery, but my daughters I shall keep by me. Still I am greater than you are, in that you have but two children while I have seven.”
Thus she spoke in the palace as the sun went down, and she and her daughters clad in black stood over the scarlet-covered biers of the dead. Presently, however, the silver moon stole through the doorway, and the eldest sister fell dead without a sound across her brothers’ bodies. Before any could move, the second fell, and with that the group broke up shrieking, to drop even as they fled or cowered in corners to escape the pitiless arrows. The poor mother seized the youngest in her arms, bending over her and trying to shield the little girl’s body with her own, while she piteously begged Artemis to spare her this last one. Again the unseen bowstring twanged, and the little body that clung to Niobe twitched suddenly and went limp. The mother set her down and sat down herself in the midst of the hall, too proud to hide her head or to say anything of her sorrow. Only as she looked at the bodies of her children strewn about her, tears rolled from her great, blue eyes and over her pale cheeks, but she neither moved nor said a word.
Niobe’s unhappy husband killed himself from grief, but the queen heard nothing of it, or at least she made no sign. Still she sat deaf and motionless with the slow tears rolling down her cheeks until she seemed to her helpless attendants turned to stone. Even the gods pitied her at last and turned her to stone in actual fact. They set her on a mountain in Phrygia near the place where she was born. There forever Niobe sits, weeping two streams of water in silent memory of her dead.