Hellenic mythology is not known for being overtly subtle about its lessons, but very few are so apparently obvious about it as the myth about Niobe and her children. It is a story most of us know: Niobe, Queen of Thebes, daughter of Tantalos, gave birth to fourteen children, and boasted that she was far superior to Leto, mother to Apollon and Artemis, because Leto had only given birth to two children, and she to fourteen. Rushing to their mother's defense, Apollon and Artemis struck down the children of the Queen in a rain of arrows, and when her husband, Amphion, stood by his wife, Apollon killed him too. So great was Niobe's sorrow that she turned to stone, and the weeping rock still stands at the foot of Mount Siphylus. The retribution is depicted below, on the Niobic krater.

The oldest account of the myth is by Hómēros in the eighth century BC, recorded in the Iliad. Here, there are twelve children, a number later changed to fourteen in a lost pay by Aeschylus tiled 'Niobe', which was adopted by later writers like Euripides and Aristophanes. There is also no mention of a husband. From the Iliad:

"[N]oble Achilles returned to the hut and sat down again on his richly inlaid chair opposite Priam, saying: ‘Venerable lord, your son’s body has been placed on a bier and I shall release it to you as you wished. At dawn you may look on him, and carry him back, but now let us eat. Even long-haired Niobe eventually thought to eat, though her twelve children had been slain, six daughters, six sons in their prime. Apollo angry that Niobe had boasted of bearing so many children compared with Leto who had borne but two, killed the sons with arrows from his silver bow, while his sister Artemis killed the daughters. The pair slew them all, and left them lying in their blood, for nine days, since Zeus had turned the people to stone and there was no one to bury the corpses. On the tenth day the heavenly gods gave them burial, and only then did Niobe, exhausted by her grief, take sustenance. Now, turned to stone herself, she stands among the crags on the desolate slopes of Sipylus, where men say the Nymphs that dance on the banks of Achelous take their rest, and broods on the sorrows the gods sent her. Come let us too take sustenance, venerable lord:  in  Ilium you can lament your son once more, and grieve for him with a flood of tears.’" [XXIV:552-620]

Fourteen children and a husband are mentioned by later writers, but there is another huge difference with a previous account: there are survivors of the tale, most often a daughter alone, or a daughter and a son. In this account of Aollodorus, in book three of his Bibliotheca, for example, we find:

"Amphion married Niobe, daughter of Tantalus, who bore seven sons, Sipylus, Eupinytus, Ismenus, Damasichthon, Agenor, Phaedimus, Tantalus, and the same number of daughters, Ethodaia (or, as some say, Neaera), Cleodoxa, Astyoche, Phthia, Pelopia, Astycratia, and Ogygia, But Hesiod says that they had ten sons and ten daughters; Herodorus that they had two male children and three female; and Homer that they had six sons and six daughters. Being blessed with children, Niobe said that she was more blessed with children than Latona. Stung by the taunt, Latona incited Artemis and Apollo against them, and Artemis shot down the females in the house, and Apollo killed all the males together as they were hunting on Cithaeron. Of the males Amphion alone was saved, and of the females Chloris the elder, whom Neleus married. But according to Telesilla there were saved Amyclas and Meliboea, and Amphion also was shot by them." [3.5.6]

There are some very interesting revelations in this account: not only is there a reference to an older version of the myth written by Herodotos where the number of children is unevenly numbered and far less than the fourteen of later time, there is reference to a version by Hesiod as well, and here, the children are named--seven sons and seven daughters--with the names of surviving children provided as well.

The ancient Mount Sipylus (Σίπυλος) is located in what is now the Manisa Province in Turkey. It used to lay in the heartland of the Lydians. It is stated that here, the Rock of Niobe stands to this day. Quintus Smyrnaeus, for example, in the fourth century AD, describes the rock in 'Fall of Troy'. I picked this one because it is a beautiful account, but there are many older versions.

"Weird marvel seems that Rock of Niobe to men that pass with feet fear-goaded: there they see the likeness of a woman bowed, in depths of anguish sobbing, and her tears drop, as she mourns grief-stricken, endlessly. Yea, thou wouldst say that verily so it was, viewing it from afar; but when hard by thou standest, all the illusion vanishes; and lo, a steep-browed rock, a fragment rent from Sipylus -- yet Niobe is there, dreeing her weird, the debt of wrath divine, a broken heart in guise of shattered stone." [308]

Niobe, like others who have suffered divine retribution, teach us a valuable lesson in hubris: the Theoi are always greater than us, and when we step out of line, They will put us back into it. Fear of the Gods has become something dirty--outdated--in the Pagan world; these days everyone has Hermes on speed dial, and Hekate is always happy to be the patroness of an eager seeker. Within Hellenismos, fear of the Gods is not outdated at all; it's a cornerstone of the faith. Fear of the Gods, here, is not meant in the Christian sense where any sin committed is seen by God, and jeopardizes you place in heaven; here it is meant as a reminder of kharis: that the Gods look favorably upon those who honor Them properly. The implication here is, of course, that they do not look favorably upon those who do not honor Them properly, and this is correct, yet, committing hubris does not automatically mean that you will be punished by the Theoi; it simply means a drop in kharis.

When I first heard the story of Niobe, I was a lot younger and rightfully spooked. It was a modern interpretation full of blood and guts, where all children died, and the youngest daughter died right in the arms of Niobe. I wondered who these monsters were, these vengeful Gods, who took lives so easily and gruesomely. These are good questions. It is true that our mythology is sometimes hard to deal with, especially if you take the accounts literally. Murder, kidnapping, rape, war, infanticide, patricide, jealousy, genocide--sometimes, the stories are hard to read, and even harder to explain to others who lack the mediating frame of mind Hellenists have developed.

It is often encouraged to not take the myths literally, that the impact of these events can be lessened by seeing rape as an outpour of divinity, and murder as either a cleansing or a fanciful story, thought up by an imaginative writer. I am not one of the people who propagates this; I think taking the myths literally to some degree is not only good for your personal devotion, but also for your health. Our Gods are not cuddly; I firmly believe They do not always wish the best for us. Sometimes, They punish us for our actions, and sometimes, They withhold favor simply because they are in a fowl mood. That said, I do not think the myths should be held up as gospel: they were recorded by humans, and we can never capture the entirety of the Gods in words. They should simply serve a indicators of the character of the Theoi, and used as a guide for proper life, and proper worship. These are the stories of the lives of those we revere, and in that regard, they are priceless, and should not be whitewashed to appear more appealing to the masses.

'Literally', in this regard, does not equal 'historically accurate'. I very much doubt most of these events actually took place, but I do not doubt that they were constructed based upon actual events. I encourage placing the myths into their proper framework, a frame where the myths meet the society they were written down in, and are explained that way. Take the story of Niobe, for example. It might be that there actually was a woman, perhaps even this woman, who boasted that her great number of children made her superior to Leto. If these children died by way of battle or disease shortly after, the ancient Hellenes might have automatically assumed it was divine punishment for her hubris. Writers then do what writers do, and a myth is born. This is the way I encourage people to look at mythology.

Niobe is a powerful reminder to remember your place in the world. Her children were a gift from the Theoi--especially in a time where childbirth was often fatal for either the mother, the child, or both--and to then turn around and place yourself above the Gods because you possess something They have provided for you is just about the pinnacle of arrogance, stupidity, and hubris. It seems this situation will never apply to us, but at its base is a simple message: do not take the gifts of the Gods for granted: They can take them from you as easily as They gave them. We all have these gifts: perhaps it is good health after illness, wealth after poverty, love after lovelessness, hope after hopelessness; gifts from the Gods as part of kharis, in exchange for proper ritual and (regular) worship. This is the lesson Niobe teaches us, and it is one that should never be forgotten.

Image source: Rock of Niobe