In every conflict – from the Trojan War to the Syrian Civil War – the worst misery falls on mothers. Children are killed, and their mothers’ lamentations echo down the ages.
In what is today northern Turkey, the city of Manisa stands on the ancient site of Magnesia ad Sipylum. The upper part of the city is on the lower slopes of Mt Sipylus, where there is a curious rock figure known as the “weeping Niobe”. It was first identified as such by the second century AD geographer Pausanias, who at one time lived nearby:
“I myself have seen Niobe when I was climbing up the mountains to Sipylos. Niobe from close up is a rock and a stream, and nothing like a woman grieving or otherwise; but if you go further off you see a woman downcast and in tears.” Pausanias, Guide to Greece, translated with an introduction by Peter Levi (1971).
According to myth, Niobe had six sons and six daughters. All of them were killed by the gods Apollo and Artemis, the twin offspring of Zeus and Leto, angered by Niobe’s mockery of their mother for only bearing two children, while she herself had many. It is a tale of misplaced pride and disproportionate vengeance. Homer refers to the story in Book 24 of the Iliad, when King Priam is grieving over the death of his son Hector, killed by Achilles, who is trying to persuade the old man to pause in his mourning and to eat. Achilles reminds Priam that Niobe mourned her slain children for nine days before they were finally buried and says that:
“Somewhere among the rocks in the lonely hills of Sipylus, where men say that wood nymphs sleep when they dance on the banks of the Achelesius river, she still continues, although she is made of stone, to brood on the desolation that the gods brought her.” Homer, The Iliad, translated by Stephen Mitchell (2011).
Niobe is inconsolable, bereft of not one child, but twelve. She symbolizes any mother, any country whose children have been killed by flood or earthquake, by famine or war, and whose future has been blighted by senseless loss.
As a tragic muse, Niobe figures in the arts. The Niobe Room at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, holds a group of statues depicting Niobe and her children. Niobe herself is a Roman copy of an original Hellenistic work dating to the 2nd or 3rd century BC. Niobe’s tears are mentioned in Hamlet’s soliloquy (Act 1, Scene 2), in which he contrasts his mother’s grief over the dead King, Hamlet’s father – “like Niobe, all tears” – to her unseemly hasty marriage to Claudius. And the English composer Benjamin Britten based one of his Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe on Niobe, whom Ovid included in his Metamorphoses published in the first decade of the first millennium AD.
Today there are thousands of Niobes in countries like Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan – countries in which warmongers continue to wreak havoc, destruction, and death. Countries whose dead children bear witness to the global insanities that afflict us and whose living children may never know peace.
It takes a blind poet to tell us what we have long known from bitter experience: the world has never been any different and Niobe is its eternal mother. For, as American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has pointed out:
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”