1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Niobe

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NIOBE, in Greek mythology, daughter of Tantalus and Dione, wife of Amphion, king of Thebes. Proud of her numerous family, six daughters and six sons, she boasted of her superiority to her friend Leto, the mother of only two children, Apollo and Artemis. As a punishment, Apollo slew her sons and Artemis her daughters. Their bodies lay for nine days unburied, for Zeus had changed the people to stones; on the tenth day they were buried by the gods. Out of pity for her grief, the gods changed Niobe herself into a rock on Mount Sipylus in Phrygia, in which she continued to weep (Homer, Iliad, xxiv. 602–617; Apollodorus iii. 5; Ovid, Metam. vi. 146–312). The names and number of her children, and the time and place of her death, are variously given. This “Niobe,” described by Pausanias (i. 21) and Quintus Smyrnaeus (i. 293–306), both natives of the district, was the appearance assumed by a cliff on Sipylus when seen from a distance and from the proper point of view (see Jebb on Antigone, 831). It is to be distinguished from an archaic figure still visible, carved in the northern side of the mountain near Magnesia, to which tradition has given the name of Niobe, but which is really intended for Cybele.

According to some, Niobe is the goddess of snow and winter, whose children, slain by Apollo and Artemis, symbolize the ice and snow melted by the sun in spring; according to others, she is an earth-goddess, whose progeny—vegetation and the fruits of the soil—is dried up and slain every summer by the shafts of the sun-god. Burmeister regards the legend as an incident in the struggle between the followers of Dionysus and Apollo in Thebes, in which the former were defeated and driven back to Lydia. Heffter builds up the story round the dripping rock in Lydia, really representing an Asiatic goddess, but taken by the Greeks for an ordinary woman. Enmann, who interprets the name as ”she who prevents increase” (in contrast to Leto, who made women prolific), considers the main point of the myth to be Niobe’s loss of her children. He compares her story with that of Lamia, who, after her children had been slain by Zeus, retired to a lonely cave and carried off and killed the children of others. The appearance of the rock on Sipylus gave rise to the story of Niobe having been turned to stone. The tragedians used her story to point the moral of the instability of human happiness; Niobe became the representative of human nature, liable to pride in prosperity and forgetfulness of the respect and submission due to the gods.

The tragic story of Niobe was a favourite subject in literature and art. Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote tragedies upon it; Ovid has described it at length in his Metamorphoses. In art, the most famous representation was a marble group of Niobe and her children, taken by Sosius to Rome and set up in the temple of Apollo Sosianus (Pliny, Nat. Hist. xxxvi. 4). What is probably a Roman imitation of this work was found in 1583 near the Lateran, and is now in the Uffizi gallery at Florence. In ancient times it was disputed whether the original was the work of Praxiteles or Scopas, and modern authorities are not agreed as to its identitiy with the group mentioned by Pliny.

On the whole subject see C. E. Burmeister, De fabula quae de Niobe ejusque liberis agit (Wismar, 1836); L. Curtze, Fabula Niobes Thebanae (Corbach, 1836); W. Heffter in Zeitschrift für Gymnasialwesen, ix. (1855); C. B. Stark, Niobe und die Niobiden (1863), the standard work; E. Thrämer, Pergamos (1888); C. Friedrichs, Praxiteles und die Niobegruppe (1865); A. Mayerhöfer and H. Ohlrich, Die Florentiner Niobegruppe (1881 and 1888); for the on Mount Sipylus, see C. B. Stark, Nach dem griechischen Orient (1874); G. Weber, Le Sipylos et ses monuments (1880); W. Ramsay, "Sipylos and Cybele," in Journal of Hellenic Studies, iii. (1882); Frazer's Pausanias, iii. 555; for vase-paintings, see Heydemann, Niobe und Niobiden auf griechischen Vasenbildern (1875). For further literature on the subject, see A. Preuner's mythological bibliography in C. Bursian's Jahresbericht über die Fortschritte der klassichen Altertumswissenschaft, vol. xxv. (1891); the various interpretations of the name and interpretations of the legend are given in Enmann's article in Roscher's Lexikon de Mythologie.

In Greek Art, fig. 29 (from an Orvieto vase) represents the slaying of the children of Niobe by Apollo and Artemis; fig. 78 (Pl. VI), Niobe shielding her youngest daughter.