Last time we read about the crimes and punishment of Tantalus. Tantalus had three children, Pelops, Broteas and Niobe. Pelops was resurrected by the gods, but the other children had to face the wrath of the gods. Before we move on to Niobe, an important mythical figure, let us briefly refer to Broteas.
Broteas had once insulted the goddess Artemis (a folly repeated by her sister as we will see later) by refusing to honour her and so he was punished by turning him insane. In his insanity, he thought he was indestructible to the flames of fire and to prove it, he jumped into the fire. However, he was consumed by fire and that’s the end of it. His arrogance to the gods was his nemesis, a fate that was similar to that of his father.
Niobe was the daughter of Tantalus. She got married to Amphion, the ruler of Thebes. Amphion incidentally played the lyre so well that his music could sway the trees and move stones. It is said that the walls of Thebes were rebuild by this magical music of his. Niobe had seven handsome sons and seven beautiful daughters (the number of children differs from text to text), collectively referred to as Niobids. It is said that Niobe too had the genetic fault of hubris that she had inherited from her father.
In Thebes, during annual festival of honouring Leto and her offspring’s, Apollo and Artemis (aka Diana), Niobe is supposed to have ridiculed Leto. Dressed in her royal finery, she chastised people for worshipping Leto and her children. She felt that it made no sense in worshipping those who could not be seen. She belonged to the house of Tantalus, the one who dined with the gods. She was the queen of the Thebes, and the wife of Amphion who had built the city. Most importantly, she was the mother of seven sons and seven daughters, whereas Leto had only one son and a daughter.
|A 1772 painting by Jacques Louis David depicting Niobe attempting to shield her children from Artemis and Apollo.|
This brazen display of arrogance hurt Leto so much that she complained to her children, Apollo and Artemis. Apollo shot at Niobe’s sons and Artemis killed all her daughters, leaving her without any children, her objects of pride. Amphion killed himself when he saw the sight of his fourteen dead children. It is said that the dead bodies lay in a pool of blood for nine days and later the gods buried them.
It is said that a violent whirlwind later took Niobe from Thebes and dropped her at Mount Siphylus where she is supposed to be shedding tears till date. The Weeping Rock in Mount Siphylus is supposed to be Niobe which resembles a mourning woman. The rock is always wet, which is why it is called the weeping rock. Geographers and mythologist have found many features on the rock which resemble a face of a sad woman. From a distance, one can see resemblance to long hair, eyes, and nose, etc. This spot today is a major tourist attraction, a stone which is always wet.
This is an interesting myth, where a very loud message is being given. First, that the follies of parents can have repercussions right down to their children and so it is advisable to follow the path of righteousness, not just for one’s own self, but also for their children. Second, pride and arrogance is always the cause of downfall. Niobe was extremely proud of her background, her husband and her children, needless to say, that none of which came to her aid. Her pride was reduced to a pile of dead bodies and her, a stone. Finally, it is good to learn from the lessons that have been laid down before you. Niobe had seen her father’s predicament and ought to have known the outcome of going against the gods, but she too had the streak of hubris in her which led her to a worse state than her father and brother, Broteas.
Modern day scholars might see this as an act of vengeance by the gods, but the Functionalist school of mythology sees this as setting a norm of behaviour in the ancient times. Such tales set an expectation from people towards their gods. The fact that gods were for reverence and not ridicule gets reiterated in the tragedy of Niobe, who doesn’t learn from her father’s tragic end. Except for Pelops, who gets resurrected by the gods, the entire family of Tantalus had tragic end and the successive generations didn't do any better, which were all tragedies of epic proportions.
To conclude, the element Niobium was named after Niobe and in the Periodic Table finds a place right under the element Tantalum, named after Tantalus, Niobe’s father! In the early days, a number of elements were named after Tantalus’s children, like Pelopium, Dianium, Ilmenium, however by the time the Periodic Table was finalised in 1950, only Niobium survived, while the others might have been re-christened.
Is this a case of another tragedy inflicted on Tantalus’s children by the scientists of today?!?
Pics courtesy - Wikipedia