Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Death of Niobe's Children

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).


The gods’ vengeance: Niobe’s sons are killed

The goddess Latona 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.

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.

Niobe’s daughters are killed: Her fate.

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.


(1200 words)

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