TO the boy Amphion, dwelling among the shepherds with his brother Zethus, through the crafty cruelty of their stepmother Dircé, came the gracious Hermes with a lyre like that which he gave to Phœbus, his brother, to console him when banished from Olympus; and so well did Amphion study the art which the god taught him, that he drew from the lyre sounds so sweet and so stirring that the rugged tempers of the country folk were softened and a longing after a higher life than that they had hitherto known was awakened in them; so that, little by little, he taught them to look to the common good of all as the first object of desire, to work together for mutual help and comfort, instead of seeking each man only his own profit: and because he showed them how to build out of trees and stones, houses, temples and strong defensive walls, men have said that at his singing trees and stones followed him.
And now Thebes, his fair city, had risen, and the thriving industry of his people had made it famous and populous, but there was still something wanting to make the happiness of the minstrel-king complete, Zethus, his brother, cared not for life in a town; the open plains and the rush of the foaming wild boar were more to his taste, with no dome above his head but the vault of heaven, and no walls but the blue hills; and in the spacious, many-chambered palace which rose in the wide market-place, there dwelt indeed the honoured Antiope, restored to her royal palace by the virtue of her sons, but no other lady, only hand maidens and attendants. Where could Amphion seek the queen who should be worthy to dwell with him in his palace, to order all things duly, to direct the labours of the women, and fill the cedar chests with beautiful garments fit for the necks of kings--where could he find a woman whom he would gladly have sitting at his hearth, who would offer sacrifice for him when affairs of state drew him from his home, who would give him children to adorn his manhood and to protect his age--where could he find her who should be worthy of the love of the king and of the poet?
In many princely houses throughout the Achæan land lovely maidens were growing up, but bard and traveller alike joined to praise Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus and of Taÿgete, the Pleiad, the granddaughter of highest Jove: and so often did Amphion hear of her beauty and her endowments that his mind
became full of the thought of her; and persuading Zethus, his brother, to forego his country life and dwell within the city while he should be away, he set out with his lyre to pleasant Phrygia, where, by the pebbly Hermus, rose the royal house of Tantalus on its lofty marble pillars. Amphion did not approach the palace in a chariot or with a royal retinue; he preferred to come in the dress of a shepherd, thinking that in this lowly guise he would best learn the nature of the princess he had come to seek. He was too wise to ask her in marriage until his own eyes had justified the report of men. So he hired himself as a helper to the king's herdsman, and was gladly accepted for the great knowledge that he had of cattle. Thus he dwelt for a time in the pastures at the foot of Mount Sipylus, where the princess often came with her maidens to gather garlands for the temples or to play at ball, and there Amphion saw her, beautiful and strong, with that divine light about her which might be looked for in a maiden in whose veins a strain of ichor, the vital fluid of the Olympians, mingled with royal human blood. He had not seen her many times when his mind was quite made up, and preluding sweetly on his lyre, so sweetly that Niobe and her maidens stopped to listen, he sung
"I am Amphion,
Jove is my sire;
Hast thou not heard of me--
Heard of my lyre?
How the trees follow’d, each
Bowing his head,
And how the ancient hills
Came where I led,
"Till a fair city
Stood on the plain:
Turret and battlement,
Palace and fane,
Fashion’d by line and rule,
Beams fitting close,
Pillars of marble
In beauty arose!
"Now, alas! Eros,
With bitter sweet shaft
Piercing my liver,
Deadens my craft.
Deeds of the hero
I care not to sing;
Another must look to
The works of the king.
"Come with me, Niobe,
Come in thy truth,
Be to Amphion
The wife of his youth; p. 5
"Ruling his household,
Honour’d and wise;
Come with thy beauty
To gladden his eyes!"
Now, when Tantalus, the king, knew that it was Amphion of Thebes, of whom all men talked, that was dwelling in the lowly guise of a shepherd in his pastures, and that it was for love of Niobe that he had left his royal state, he was mightily pleased; and, a hero himself; he delighted to behold the man who, though he could tame the passions of men and lead nature herself at his will, yet had not shrunk from avenging terribly on the treacherous Dircé the wrongs of the unhappy Antiope, his mother, and he gladly welcomed him, and made no secret of his great joy at Ending in him a son-in-law. So Amphion went home again that he might come and fetch his bride in state, which he shortly did, sailing over the blue Ægean in a swift galley with shining sails, Zethus, the strong hunter, his brother, and many gallant kinsmen bearing him company: and never on summer seas sailed a more jocund crew than that which rowed back the swan-like galley to Aulis, when Niobe the queen sat with her women in the stern, while Amphion's lyre held the Tritons and the sea-nymphs, and the very monsters of the deep, in rapt delight.
Happily sped the years; the fair Boeotian land was like a thriving garden; corn lands and pastures lay in rich beauty about the queenly city, and Amphion and
[paragraph continues] Niobe exulted in their fair domain, in their people, but, above all, in the sons and daughters who were the crowning glory of their lives. So strong and handsome the sons, so fair and skilful the daughters! Who has not heard of them? So many that the mother in her pride boasted that she could count by their names the months of the year. Alas! alas! that some timely sorrow had chastened her pride, and brought to her remembrance in time the vanity of all things human. In vain the wise daughter of Teiresias, Manto the prophetess, uttered her warnings; forebodings of evil darkened her soul with shadows of coming woe. Day by day she urged upon the queen to offer timely sacrifice to Latona, the great Titaness, who, having endured untold woe in her wanderings before the birth of the twin deities Phoebus-Apollo and Artemis, was now with them exalted to the highest place of honour and of glory among the Olympians. Day and night did the streets of the city ring with her warning cry:--
[paragraph continues] But the queen set her face as flint against the new deity; she would worship none but Hera, the Goddess of Marriage and of Motherhood, and when at length
the voice of the prophetess had stirred the women, and high and low gathered with her to the shrine where, by the order of Amphion, the statue of Latona was placed between those of her twin children, unhappy wrath took possession of the soul of Niobe, and gathering her royal robes about her, she swept through the streets, and breaking through the throng of worshippers, exclaimed--
"How is this, ye foolish women? What new divinity have ye set up? Are ye so hard bestead for aught to worship that ye must needs set up the image of an outcast--the offspring of the Titans, the very scourge of heaven and earth? What though she chanced to catch the wandering eye of Jove, think ye he cared much for her when he left her in her trouble to the chance charity of the smallest of the islands? 1 The daughter of Teiresias is in her dotage: the king might have known that no good would come of strange religions. Nay, if ye wanted something to worship, have ye not dwelling among you the offspring of gods and heroes-is not Amphion, your king, the very son of Jove, endowed above the race of men with the divine power of song, which raised for you this fair city, and keeps you in concord, and fear-less of foreign foes within the girth of your mighty seven-gated walls? Was it a man of mortal birth who made such music, think ye? But do ye honour this Latona because of her one son and her one daughter--those same twins of whom we hear so much? A
mother of two children! If that be a claim to worship, what say ye to my seven sons and seven daughters, born and bred among yourselves, and in whom the rare blessings wherewith the Moirae 2 have honoured me have reached their crowning point? Behold how lovely and how many they are! Even should one or two fail me, I can scarce be brought down to Latona's scant two. For very shame, then, leave this miserable shrine to the prophetess and the priests, and lay aside those laurel wreaths!
The women, bewildered and dismayed at the fierce words of the queen, mechanically took the garlands from their hair, and shrunk, cowed and silent, from the shrine, trembling alike at the anger of the queen and at the wrath of Latona. They wist not that the beautiful large stork which sat brooding above the pediment of the shrine was veritably the goddess Latona herself; come thither to do honour to her suppliants; and when she heard the furious speech of the queen, and beheld the worshippers slink away to their homes, lo! the bird rose, and stretching out her long neck to its utmost length, flapped her great wings, and flew with a sharp, whizzing sound away towards the blue Ægean and the shining Cyklades.
The day was waning, and a fresh breeze brought dreamy music from the reedy banks of the Asopus, and sweet refreshment to men and beasts, when the sons of Amphion came forth from the palace, many a noble youth bearing them company, to exercise themselves
in the broad plain that lay between the city and the river. Bright and glossy were their curls, bound with a golden circlet or with bright fillets of wool; the light of youth was in their eyes; lips and cheeks glowed with health, and the limbs that the light robes of Tyrian purple left to view were round and supple--right royal youths, from Ismenius, whose brow already bore the stamp of thought, to Ilioneus, who was scarcely yet past childhood.
Ismenius and Sipylus came driving their chariots, and had engaged in a friendly contest of skill and swiftness, when now in mid-career Ismenius smote his hand upon his side and fell lifeless from his chariot; a sound as of a twanging bow-string rang through the air, and Sipylus, his brother, even as he pulled in his horses in dismay, lay stretched beside him on the plain. A cry of horror and dismay, which rose from all who were observing the princes and who saw them fall, startled Phaedimus and Tantalus, the next in age, who were wrestling breast to breast and knee to knee. They looked round in amazement, and even as they looked, before they could unlock their embrace, they fell together on the plain, smitten by one shaft. Alphenor, their brother, beholding this piteous sight, hurried to render them assistance, but even as he stooped to raise the beloved heads the sharp death overtook him, and he lay himself motionless beside those whom he was striving to succour. Of Niobe's boasted seven sons there now remained but Damasicthon
and Ilioneus, the two youngest--the youngest and best-beloved of their mother. Must these also perish to atone for the pride of the unhappy queen? Will the virtue and the piety of Amphion--a minstrel like thyself, O Phoebus!--avail nothing?
The Delian god paused, the arrow still upon the string, and turned the eyes to which all things are visible to the palace where Niobe, surrounded by her daughters, was just hearing the tidings of the death of her elder sons. O! why was not her heart humbled, why did she not cry for mercy to the offended godheads? Two sons are yet unharmed, and the fatal arrow is still in the hand of the Far-darter; with two sons and all her daughters, Niobe might still have cause for thanksgiving, if not for pride. But alas! the queen was wrathful, not humble, and received the tidings with defiant disbelief. The rising pity fled from the heart of Phoebus; wrath and indignation nerved his hand; the fatal arrow whizzed through the air, and the sons of Niobe were no more.
When the terrible tidings of the swift destruction of his sons came to Amphion, his spirit swooned within him.
"Wilt thou not come and behold them?" cried the messenger. "The arrow is invisible, indeed, but the wound can easily be seen in side, or breast, or heart. Wilt thou not look once more upon the faces of thy sons?"
"Do ye what is right," cried the poet-king, his white head bowed upon his hands. "I also in my
youth wrought a stern deed of vengeance for my mother, but not so stern as this--nay, not so stern as this. I cannot look upon the faces of the young men!" Then he arose and went out of the palace to a grove of myrtle and poplar, where he had often gathered his sons about him to hearken to the tales of heroes and kings, and in that deep shade the thought of his sorrow came so darkly over him that he lost all courage, and, opening the fountains of his life, sought again the boys, who had been the crown and joy of his manhood, in the Elysian fields where those whose life on earth has been darkened by undeserved misery spend sunless but happy ages in groves of changeless beauty.
Niobe, meanwhile, her haughty soul wrung by repeated woes, had stripped off her royal robes, and with long hair dishevelled, tearless eyes, and pallid cheeks, stood with her mourning daughters beside the funeral piles of sire and sons. In that evil hour the very greatness of her sorrow seemed to feed her pride. Husband and sons--and such a husband, and such sons!--the cruel Titaness had slain them all. What grief could equal her grief? And as she kissed each cold brow and gazed her last on the beautiful, still faces, the daughter of Tantalus hardened her heart and did not recognize her sin.
Artemis, the daughter of Latona, had stood beside her brother while he drew his deadly shafts; she stood beside him now watching the kindling piles, and, above all, the angry scowl of the bereaved queen.
"Impious daughter of an impious sire," she exclaimed in wrathful indignation, "hath not thy sin yet come home to thee?" And swift as thought, she drew her silver bow from its case, strung it, and arrow after arrow sped from the string with a sharp twang that rung from heaven to earth, appalling the nations, until of the seven sisters there remained but one, and she the youngest. The queen in terror clasped her to her breast, striving to cover her with garments, arms, and body; and lifting her eyes to heaven, she groaned,--"Spare, ye irresistible, spare this the last, the least!"
Not in vain was this late prayer. Artemis heard and spared; and of the fourteen strong and beautiful children in whom their mother had exulted, there remained to her this little one; but the sights and sounds of those cruel days frighted the blood for ever from her cheeks, and she who had been ruddy as the rose and gay as the lark at morning, grew into a sad, wan woman, whom men called Chloris, and whose thoughts were ever with the dead.
Of the crushed and broken-hearted Niobe what tongue can tell? The fountains of her tears once unsealed in the supreme agony in which she wrestled for the life of Chloris refused to be closed again. Speechless and motionless she sat among the dead, weeping endless floods of tears, speaking nothing, hearing nothing.
For three days the people of Thebes were silent and motionless, struck to stone, as it were, by their calamity;
but on the fourth day they gathered heart to go to the queen, to bear away the dead from her sight and to hide them in the earth.
But neither the weeping and shouting of the people nor the removal of the dead from about her, nor the clinging caresses of her little daughter, drew word or sign from Niobe. With streaming eyes lifted to heaven she wept night and day, until Hera, in compassion, wrought with Jove so that he snatched her away in a whirlwind, carried her to her own land, to Sipylus, the mountain at whose feet she had played in the happy days of her girlhood, and there turned her into stone. There, even to this day, the traveller can discern in the grey stone on the mountain side the figure of a woman weeping in eternal despair.