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Leto's Defenders
The Slaying of the Niobids



Leto and Niobe

When the Divine Twins, Artemis and Apollo, were born to their mother Leto, they were two of the most revered and respected Gods. Leto, as their mother, was worshipped in the same breath as her children. She was a Goddess in her own right, very powerful, though the patriarchal Classic writers have stripped her of much of that. But still, Leto was respected. Prayed to. Loved.

Among the mortals there was a woman named Niobe. She was a jealous woman, and had given birth to six daughters and six sons. When she heard people praying to Leto, praising her for her children and her own self, Niobe cried out "Why do you praise the dark robed one? Praise me! For where she has only two children, I have twelve." Leto, the mildest of the gods, the kindest, would probably have done nothing. But Leto's children were Olympians and would allow no such slander of their mother. Apollo, with his fiery golden arrows, shot down each of the six sons and they died in unequalled pain. Artemis, with her painless silver arrows, likewise murdered each of the daughters. Niobe wept with misery to see all of her beautiful children slaughtered in the prime of life. But Apollodorus says that Artemis and Apollo left her two - the same number as themselves. He says they spared both the youngest girl and the youngest boy. Their names were Amphion and Chloris, and though their mother still wept, at least she had them.

This is the story. If you want to read the slightly longer and MUCH more poetic version, continue reading. Change "Latona" to Leto in your heads. Latona was Leto's name in Latin. This is the story of Niobe and Leto from the Metamorphoses by Ovid, thanks to the Perseus Project:

“The prophetess Manto, Tiresias’ daughter, had been spurred by heavenly promptings. Through the city’s streets she cried her holy call: ‘Women of Thebes, come in your throngs, with bay wreaths round your hair, and give Latona and her children twain incense and reverent worship. Through my lips Latona calls!’ And, in obedience, all the Theban women wreathe their brows and bring their prayers and incense to the holy shrine.

But here, escorted by a multitude of courtiers, comes Niobe, superb in a shining Phrygian gown of woven gold. Lovely she was, as far as rage allowed, tossing her graceful head and glorious hair that fell upon her shoulders either side. She stopped, and in her full height cast her gaze, her haughty gaze around. ‘What lunacy makes you prefer a fabled god’, she said, ‘To gods you see? Latona, why should her shrine be revered, when my divinity lacks incense still.

Now ask yourselves the reason for my pride, and dare prefer me to that Titan’s child, whom Coeus sired, whoever he may be, Latona whom the great globe once refused the smallest spot to give her children birth. Not earth, nor sky, nor water would accept your goddess, outcast from the world, until Delos took pity on her wanderings and said, ‘You roam the land and I the sea, homeless’, and gave her drifting refuge there. She bore two children; so her womb was worth a seventh part of mine [Niobe had 14 children]. O happy me! (Who would deny it?) And happy I’'ll remain (Who could doubt that?). My riches make me safe. Yes, I’m too great to suffer Fortune’s blows; much she may take, yet more than much she’ll leave. My blessings banish fear. Suppose some part of this my clan of children could be lost, and I bereft, I’ll never be reduced to two, Latona’s litter – near enough childless! Away with you! Enough of this! Remove those laurels from your hair!’ With wreaths removed, they left the ritual unfinished. They worshipped, as they might, in silent words.

The goddess was outraged; upon the peak of Cynthus she addressed her pair of twins: ‘I, here, your mother, proud to have borne you both, I, who will give no goddess precedence save Juno [Hera], find that my divinity is doubted and unless you children help I’m barred from shrines and altars evermore. Nor is this all that hurts. To injury Tantalus’ child adds insult. Yes, she dares set her own children above you, and calls me childless – may that fall on her own head! Her wicked tongue shows her paternity!’

To this sad tale Latona had in mind to add to her entreaties, when ‘Enough!’ said Phoebus, “Long complaints do but delay the punishment’, and Phoebe said the same. Then clothed in could they glided swiftly down and reached the citadel of Cadmus’ town [and Apollon slew the seven sons of Niobe with his arrows] ...

Rumours of havoc, sorrow in the streets, her household’s tears brought Niobe the news, news of her sudden ruin. She was shocked that it could happen, angry that the gods had dared so far, that they possessed such power … Ah, Niobe!

Alas! How unlike now that Niobe who drove the Thebans from Latona’s shrine, who walked her city’s streets with head so high, the envy of her friends – whom now her foes, even her foes, must pity! On the cold corpses she threw herself and gave her last kisses convulsively to all her sons. Then raising her bruised arms to heaven, she cried ‘Feast, cruel Latona, feast upon my grief! Yes, glut your savage heart! On seven biers I’m borne. Exult! Triumph in victory! Even so, why victory? My wretchedness still gives me more than you your happiness: after so many deaths I triumph still!’

Hard on her words a bowstring twanged, and all were terrified, save only Niobe. Disaster made her bold [Artemis Niobe’s seven daughters with her arrows and Niobe is transformed to stone] ...

Other Tales

Since there is room to tell it, here is another story of Leto and the wrath her children wrecked for her sake:

Then every man and woman, all of them, dreaded the goddess’ [Leto’s] wrath mad manifest, and worshipped more devoutly the divine power of the mother of the heavenly pair.

And, as will happen, new tales bring back old, and one of them this story then retold.

In Lycia’s fertile fields once, long ago, the peasants scorned Latona – not unscathed. It’s not a thing well known – the men of course being low-born louts – but marvellous all the same. I saw with my own eyes the lake and place famed for the miracle. For my old father, too old by then, too worn to take the road, had charged me to retrieve some special steers and given me a Lycian for a guide. With him I traversed those far pasture-lands, when, standing in the middle of a mere, and black with ash of sacrifice, behold and ancient altar, ringed with waving reeds. My guide stood still and muttered anxiously ‘Be gracious to me!’ and I muttered too ‘Be gracious!’; then I asked him if the altar was built to Faunus [Pan] or the Naiads or some local god, and he gave this reply. “Not so, my lad, no mountain deity enjoys this altar; it is claimed by her whom once the queen of heaven [Hera] barred from the world, whom drifting Delos scarcely dared consent to harbour, when that island swam the sea. There, leaning on a palm, Pallas’ tree, Latona in spite of Juno [Hera] bore her twins; from there again she fled the wife of Jove [Zeus], hugging her new-born infants, both divine. And now in Lycia, the Chimaera’s land, the flaming sun beat down upon the fields; the goddess, tired by her long toil, was parched with thirst, so hot heaven’s torrid star; the babes had drained their mother’s milk and cried for more. She chanced to see, down in the dale below, a mere of no great size. Some farmfolk there were gathering reeds and leafy osiers and sedge that marshes love. Reaching the edge, Latona knelt upon the ground to drink the cooling water, knelt to drink her fill. The group of yokels stopped her. ‘Why?’ said she, ‘Why keep me from the water? Everyone has right to water. Nature never made the sunshine private more the air we breathe, nor limpid water. No! A common right I’ve reached. Even so I ask, I humbly ask, please give it me. I do not mean to wash, or bathe my weary limbs, only to quench my thirst. My mouth is dry, as I am speaking, my throat is parched, words hardly find a way. A drink of water – nectar it will be, and life, believe me, too; life you will give with water. And these babies here, who stretch their little arms, must touch your hearts.’ It chanced the twins stretched out their arms. Whom could those words, those gentle words the goddess spoke, not touch? Despite her pleas they stopped her, adding threats unless she went away, and insults too. And, not contents with that, they even stirred the pond with hands and feet, and on the bottom kicked the soft mud about in spiteful leaps.

Her thirst gave way to anger. Of such boors she’d asked no favour now, nor speak again in tones beneath a goddess. Raising her hands to heaven, ‘Live in that pool of yours’, she cried, ‘For evermore!’ And what she wished came true. They love to live in water; sometimes all their bodies plunge within the pool’s embrace; sometimes their heads pop up; often they swim upon the surface, often squat and rest upon the swampy bank and then jump back to the cool pond; but even now they flex their squalid tongues in squabbling, and beneath the water try to croak a watery curse. Their voice is harsh, their throats are puffed and swollen; their endless insults stretch their big mouths wide; their loathsome heads protrude, their necks seem lost; their backs are green; their bodies’ biggest part, their bellies, white; and in the muddy pond they leap and splash about – new-fangled frogs.”

Both stories are from Metamorphoses 6.157-381

As I said before, there are deeper meanings to these stories, but you will have to wait until I have time to write about them to learn them.

Contact me at ailiathena@yahoo.com

Last Updated January 15, 2008