Litany – “Niobe”

Greek mythology is replete with cautionary tales of the consequences of hubris, that tendency of exceptional humans to push the bounds of the natural order and transgress upon the prerogatives of a pantheon of jealous gods and goddesses. It is inherent in a human condition caught between the bestial and the divine: what is the proper balance, what are the limits? Through tales of heroes and heroines transcending these limits do we “learn by suffering” what those boundaries are. “Outrage”, “violation,” “arrogance” are all contained within this untranslatable word hubris, but its manifestations are manifold: Oedipus thinking he can outwit the oracles of Apollo; Salmoneus thinking he can be worshiped as a god for imitating the thunder and lightning of Zeus; Icarus thinking he can “fly like an eagle” into the heavens where only the divine may dwell. Women, too, are liable to this tragic flaw, such as Arachne, whose supreme skill at weaving led her to challenge Athena herself, who drove her to suicide by hanging, then out of pity revived her as a spider who eternally plys the craft that spun her fate.

Arachne excelled at a skill that was central to the ideal of the Greek woman, to produce through spinning and weaving the means to keep her family warm and protected from the elements. Another woman, a daughter of the tantalized Tantalus named Niobe, excelled at the other major expectation of her gender, the production of children. Niobe was blessed with 14 children in all, seven girls and seven boys. She was the envy of mortals not only for her fertility, but also for the privilege and wealth to be able to maintain that many children: seven daughters means seven dowries, after all.

But this fame for fertility eventually went to Niobe’s head, prompting her fatal boast that she, a mortal, surpassed Leto, the Titan mother of the divine twins Artemis and Apollo. That simple utterance was all it took to bring celestial vengeance down on her. Artemis already had the reputation of a deadly and unscrupulous huntress who at a whim killed infants in their crib (and early explanation for SIDS). Apollo, on the other hand, is in Homer’s poetry the “far-shooter” who deals death from afar. These twins were masters of archery, and they emptied their quivers upon each of Niobe’s children, suffering though innocent for the sin of their mother. Like Creon at the end of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” condemned to suffer the rest of his life bereft of his wife and son who took their own lives through his arrogant treatment of the title heroine, so Niobe’s punishment was worse than death. She lived out the remainder of her days, mourning for her lost children, her grief multiplied 14 times. She eventually turned to stone, resembling the angels of modern cemeteries, the rain staining their faces with tearful erosion.

The Greek epic doom metal band Litany open their 2016 album Pyres of Lamentation with this lugubrious narrative of Niobe’s downfall. Niobe utters her hubristic pronouncement in the second stanza, that not only does she surpass Leto in fruitfulness, but is entitled to divinity herself. Leto retorts in the next stanza, enjoining her children to avenge her dishonor and make Niobe pay with her tears. Apollo guns down the male children one by one, Artemis their sisters. Juvenile corpses encircle their helpless mother, whose tears are mixed with blood. Petrified by the shock of the sudden aerial assault, she becomes a monolithic warning to all women: bearing many children doesn’t make you special.

She boasted about her seeds o’ fairness
That filled the bottle of her life’s pride and consciousness
Seven sons and seven daughters her doughty heritage
Blessed under a royal veil covering all her needs

She decreed: ‘I am bonifate! Much more blessed as Leto is!
Tantalus daughter hail! I am divine!’
Her delirium forced Leto to incite Apollo
And Artemis to rage and vengeable wrath

‘Shine on and kill, with all your might
Die is her children dew, mourning tears her price
Make her see all ‘em dead, doom her to wail
Therewithal un-ended pain to jar upon her life’

Artemis slew the females and Apollo chas’d the males
Upon the Mount Kynthus they all tasted his arrows’ nails
Ismenos the first-born fell lifeless with an arrow from above
Eft-soon time came for a’ to be at death’s door
(And then they finally died)

Niobe now’s bairnless, rich-less with an umbrageous heart
Nothin’ can ease her pain, she’s been torn a-part
Her arrogance and stoutness against god’s omnipotence
Alas! Lo and behold! Her voiceless woe

Crimson procession baited her eyes
Dead slain bodies all around, ghastly doom her price
She wept for days, (a fin) was turned into a stone
That sheds tears on and on upon the Mont Sipylon

Crimson parade baited her eyes
Dead slain bodies all around, grisly doom her price
She wept for days, (a fin) was turned into a stone
That sheds tears on and on upon the Mont Sipylon

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