Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Niobe

NIOBE is a figure who appears in the legends of many parts of Greece, especially Thebes, Argos, and the Hermus valley. Proud of her numerous family, she scoffed at Leto as the mother of only two children. Apollo and Artemis, the children of Leto, slew all her children with their arrows; and Niobe, after vainly trying to defend them, wept over them till she became a rock which still weeps incessantly. It is probable that this tale was in its simplest form a myth of the annual destruction of the bloom of earth by the shafts of the cruel sun-god, and that Niobe was a form of the mother-goddess, the goddess of all earthly life, whose progeny is thus slain every summer. The tragedians read in this tale a moralized myth of the instability of human bliss: Niobe became a representative of human nature, ever liable to become proud in prosperity and to forget the submission and respect due to the gods. In this form the legend has found permanent acceptance in literature and art. The metamorphosis of Niobe was adopted from the local legends of the Smyrna district; here it is probable that Niobe was originally a title of the Meter Sipylene, the deity worshipped all round the sacred mountain of Sipylus. An archaic figure of the goddess, carved in the northern side of the mountain near Magnesia, gave rise to the tales current in this district, that Niobe had thrown herself down from the rock, or that she had been turned into stone. It seems necessary to distinguish from this archaic figure, which is still visible, the “Niobe” described by Pausanias and Quintus Smyrnæus, both natives of the district. This was an appearance assumed by a cliff in Sipylus when seen from a distance and from the proper point of view. In these later writers the genuine old local legend had been replaced by a new form, founded on the myth as developed by the tragedians; the archaic figure carved in the cliff was known by the natives to be an image of the mother-goddess, whom they worshipped there year by year. But, as with every other point in the legend in its most developed form, the natives had a local representative, of the Niobe, the weeping rock, which they saw in the heart of Sipylus.

On the myth of Niobe and its artistic representation, especially on the famous group thought to be the work of Praxiteles or Scopas, copies of most of the figures in which are preserved at Florence, see Stark, Niobe und die Niobiden. On the “Niobe” in Mount Sipylus, see Hirschfield in Curtius, Beiträge zur Gesch. u. Topogr. Kleinasiens; Stark, Nach dem griechischen Orient; Ramsay, “Sipylos and Cybele,” in Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1882.