“How Does a Stone Mourn”? Achilles, Priam and Niobe

In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles tells Priam a story about the death of the Niobids. The story he tells is a bit strange–but the reaction of ancient scholars may be a bit tone-deaf.

Iliad 24.596-620

“And then shining Achilles went back into his dwelling
And sat on the finely decorated bench from where he had risen
near the facing wall. Then he began his speech [muthon] to Priam:

‘Old man, your son has been ransomed as you were pleading—he
Lies now on the platform. You will see him at dawn yourself
When you lead him away. But now, we should remember our meal.
For fair-tressed Niobê, too, remembered to eat,
Even though her twelve children perished at home.
Six daughters and six sons.
Apollo killed them with his silver bow
Because he was angry at Niobê, and Artemis helped too,
Because their mother had considered herself equal to fair-cheeked Leto.
She claimed that Leto birthed two children while she had many.
And so those mere two ended the lives of many.
They lingered in their gore for nine days and no one went
To bury them—Kronos’ son turned the people into stone.
On the tenth day, the Olympian gods buried them.
And she remembered to eat, after she wore herself out shedding tears.
And now somewhere in the isolated crags on the mountains
Of Sipylus where men say one finds the beds of goddesses,
Of the nymphs who wander along the Akhelôis,
She turns over the god-sent sufferings, even though she remains a stone.
So, come, now, shining old man, let’s the two of us remember
Our meal. You can mourn your dear son again
After you take him to Troy—he will certainly be much-wept.”

῏Η ῥα, καὶ ἐς κλισίην πάλιν ἤϊε δῖος ᾿Αχιλλεύς,
ἕζετο δ’ ἐν κλισμῷ πολυδαιδάλῳ ἔνθεν ἀνέστη
τοίχου τοῦ ἑτέρου, ποτὶ δὲ Πρίαμον φάτο μῦθον·
υἱὸς μὲν δή τοι λέλυται γέρον ὡς ἐκέλευες,
κεῖται δ’ ἐν λεχέεσσ’· ἅμα δ’ ἠοῖ φαινομένηφιν
ὄψεαι αὐτὸς ἄγων· νῦν δὲ μνησώμεθα δόρπου.
καὶ γάρ τ’ ἠΰκομος Νιόβη ἐμνήσατο σίτου,
τῇ περ δώδεκα παῖδες ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ὄλοντο
ἓξ μὲν θυγατέρες, ἓξ δ’ υἱέες ἡβώοντες.
τοὺς μὲν ᾿Απόλλων πέφνεν ἀπ’ ἀργυρέοιο βιοῖο
χωόμενος Νιόβῃ, τὰς δ’ ῎Αρτεμις ἰοχέαιρα,
οὕνεκ’ ἄρα Λητοῖ ἰσάσκετο καλλιπαρῄῳ·
φῆ δοιὼ τεκέειν, ἣ δ’ αὐτὴ γείνατο πολλούς·
τὼ δ’ ἄρα καὶ δοιώ περ ἐόντ’ ἀπὸ πάντας ὄλεσσαν.
οἳ μὲν ἄρ’ ἐννῆμαρ κέατ’ ἐν φόνῳ, οὐδέ τις ἦεν
κατθάψαι, λαοὺς δὲ λίθους ποίησε Κρονίων·
τοὺς δ’ ἄρα τῇ δεκάτῃ θάψαν θεοὶ Οὐρανίωνες.
ἣ δ’ ἄρα σίτου μνήσατ’, ἐπεὶ κάμε δάκρυ χέουσα.
νῦν δέ που ἐν πέτρῃσιν ἐν οὔρεσιν οἰοπόλοισιν
ἐν Σιπύλῳ, ὅθι φασὶ θεάων ἔμμεναι εὐνὰς
νυμφάων, αἵ τ’ ἀμφ’ ᾿Αχελώϊον ἐρρώσαντο,
ἔνθα λίθος περ ἐοῦσα θεῶν ἐκ κήδεα πέσσει.
ἀλλ’ ἄγε δὴ καὶ νῶϊ μεδώμεθα δῖε γεραιὲ
σίτου· ἔπειτά κεν αὖτε φίλον παῖδα κλαίοισθα
῎Ιλιον εἰσαγαγών· πολυδάκρυτος δέ τοι ἔσται.

niobid-vase

Some Scholia on this passage:
bT ad Il. 24.601 “now—dinner”: not in the midst of pain, but as a general rule.
The length of the narrative is persuasive. For the comparison of the suffering makes [Priam’s suffering] lighter”
ex. νῦν—δόρπου: οὐκ ἐν τῷ πένθει, ἀλλὰ καθόλου.
b(BCE3E4)T παραμυθητικὸν δὲ τὸ τῆς διηγήσεως μῆκος (sc. Ω 602—17)· ἐπικουφίζεται γὰρ τὰ πάθη πρὸς ἀλλοτρίας συμφορὰς συγκρινόμενα. b(BE3E4)T

bT ad. 24.602a ex

“Some say that this Niobê is the daughter of Pelops; others say she is the daughter of Tantalos. Others claim that she is the wife of Amphion or of Zethus. Still more claim that she is the wife of Alalkomeneus. Among the Lydians she is called Elumê. And this event occurred, as some claimed, in Lydia; or, as some claim, in Thebes. Sophokles writes that the children perished in Thebes and that she returned to Lydia afterwards. And she perished, as some claim, after she swore a false oath about the dog of Pandareus because [….] or later when she had been ambushed by the Spartoi in Kithaira. There were two Niobes, one of Pelops and one of Tantalus. He explains the whole tale because the story is Theban and unknown to Priam.”

ex. | ex. <καὶ γάρ τ’ ἠΰκομος Νιόβη:> τὴν Νιόβην οἱ μὲν Πέλοπος, οἱ δὲ Ταντάλου· γυναῖκα δὲ οἱ μὲν ᾿Αμφίονος, οἱ δὲ Ζήθου, [οἱ δὲ] ᾿Αλαλκομένεω. ἐκαλεῖτο δὲ παρὰ Λυδοῖς ᾿Ελύμην. ἡ δὲ συμφορὰ αὐτῆς, ὡς μέν τινες, ἐν Λυδίᾳ, ὡς δὲ ἔνιοι, ἐν Θήβαις. Σοφοκλῆς (cf. T.G.F. p. 228 N.2; II p. 95 P.) δὲ τοὺς μὲν παῖδας ἐν Θήβαις ἀπολέσθαι, νοστῆσαι <δὲ> αὐτὴν εἰς Λυδίαν. ἀπώλετο [δέ], ὥς τινες, συνεπιορκήσασα Πανδάρ[εῳ] περὶ τοῦ κυνός, ὡς δὲ [..], ἐνεδρευθεῖσα ὑπὸ τῶν Σπαρτῶν ἐν Κιθαιρῶ[νι]. οἱ δὲ δύο Νιόβας, Πέλοπος καὶ Ταντάλου. T | ὡς Θηβαῖον ὄντα τὸν μῦθον καὶ ἀγνοούμενον Πριάμῳ ἐπεξεργάζεται. b(BE3E4)T
bT ad. 605b ex

“He expands the narrative rhetorically, essentially “eat, for Niobê ate. Who was she? She lost twelve children. Because of whom? Apollo and Artemis. Why? Because of arrogance.”

ex. τοὺς μὲν ᾿Απόλλων <πέφνεν>: ῥητορικῶς ἀνέστρεψε τὴν διήγησιν· φάγε· καὶ γὰρ Νιόβη. τίς αὕτη; ἀπολέσασα δώδεκα παῖδας. ὑπὸ τίνος; ὑπὸ ᾿Απόλλωνος καὶ ᾿Αρτέμιδος. διὰ τί; δι’ ὑπερηφανίαν. b(BCE3E4)T

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