[Notes by LKG]
This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).
All of Lydia murmurs: the tale of Arachne goes through the towns of Phrygia, and fills the whole world with talk. Niobe had known Arachne. As a girl, before her marriage, Niobe had lived in Maeonia, near Mount Sipylus. Nevertheless she was not warned by her countrywoman’s fate, to give the gods precedence, and use more modest words. Many things swelled her pride, but neither her husband Amphion’s marvellous art in music, nor both of their high lineages, nor the might of their great kingdom of Thebes, pleased her, though they did please her, as much as her children did. And Niobe would have been spoken of as the most fortunate of mothers, if she had not seemed so to herself.
Now Manto, the daughter of Tiresias, prescient of the future, stirred by divine impulse, went through the middle of the streets, declaiming. ‘Women of Thebes, Ismenides, go, as a crowd, and wreathe your hair with laurel, and bring incense with holy prayer to Latona, and Latona’s children, Diana and Apollo. Latona commands it through my mouth.’
They obey: all the Theban women, as commanded, dress their temples with sweet-bay, and bring incense and words of prayer to the sacred flames.
Look, Niobe comes, followed by a crowded thong, visible, in her Phrygian robes woven with gold, and as beautiful as anger will let her be. Turning her lovely head with the hair falling loose over both her shoulders, she pauses, and looks around with pride in her eyes, from her full height, saying ‘What madness, to prefer the gods you are told about to the ones you see? Why is Latona worshipped at the altars, while as yet my godhead is without its incense? Tantalus is my father, who is the only man to eat the food of the gods. My mother is one of the seven sisters, the Pleiades. Great Atlas, who carries the axis of the heavens on his shoulders, is one of my grandfathers. Jupiter is the other, and I glory in having him as my father-in-law as well. The peoples of Phrygia fear me. Cadmus’s royal house is under my rule: and the walls, built to my husband’s lyre, and Thebes’s people, will be ruled by his power and mine. Whichever part of the palace I turn my eyes on, I look at immense wealth. Augment it with my beauty, worthy of a goddess, and add to this my seven daughters, as many sons, and soon my sons- and my daughters-in-law! Now, ask what the reason is for my pride, and then dare to prefer Latona to me, that Titaness, daughter of Coeus, whoever he is. Latona, whom the wide earth once refused even a little piece of ground to give birth on.
‘Land, sea, and sky were no refuge for your goddess. She was exiled from the world, until Delos, pitying the wanderer, gave her a precarious place, saying “Friend, you wander the earth, I the sea.” There she gave birth to twins, only a seventh of my offspring. I am fortunate (indeed, who can deny it?) and I will stay fortunate (and who can doubt that too?). My riches make me safe. I am greater than any whom Fortune can harm, and though she could take much away, she would leave me much more. Surely my comforts banish fear. Imagine that some of this host of children could be taken from me, I would still not, bereaved, be reduced to the two of Latona’s family. In that state, how far is she from childlessness? Go home – enough of holy things – and take those laurel wreaths from your hair!’
They relinquish them, and leave the rite unfinished, except what is their right, reverencing the goddess in a secret murmur.