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  Columnist: Victoria Grossack

Image credit: Victoria Grossack

Gods falsely accused

Posted on Tuesday, 25 January, 2011 | 2 comments
Columnist: Victoria Grossack

You may be familiar with the Greek myth of Niobe – but in case your memory needs to be refreshed, a brief summary follows. Niobe, a queen of Thebes during the late Bronze Age, had fourteen children – seven sons and seven daughters – of whom she was very proud. The great number of her children led her to boast that she was better than the goddess, Leto, who had only one of each: the twin Olympian gods, Apollo and Artemis. Furious with Niobe at claiming to be superior to their mother, Apollo and Artemis took out their bows and shot dead all seven of Niobe’s sons and six of Niobe’s seven daughters.

Niobe, naturally, was devastated by the deaths of her children, which was followed rapidly by the death of her husband, King Amphion. She left Thebes and returned to her father, King Tantalus of Lydia. There she sat in the wilderness and wept for the children that she had lost. Her tears flowed so freely that they formed a stream, and Niobe herself turned into stone. Niobe’s stone, located in Manisa, Turkey, can still be seen today.

When they witnessed her grief, Apollo and Artemis realized that they had overreacted. They could not bring back the dead children, but they decided to give Nestor, the son of Niobe’s single surviving daughter, an extremely long life. Nestor appears in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, and is celebrated for his wisdom and his advanced age.

Throughout the millennia, Niobe’s pride has been considered a warning: mortals should not compare themselves with gods! Furthermore, the myth is based on a belief about sudden death that was commonly held. When men in ancient Greece dropped dead without explanation, they were said to have been shot by invisible golden arrows of Apollo. When women expired abruptly and inexplicably, they were supposed to have been pierced by invisible silver arrows of Artemis.

But what if the Niobids – the term given to the children of Niobe – were not killed by Apollo and Artemis?

No one today would accept the idea that Apollo and Artemis could be responsible for sudden deaths. It seems reasonable, therefore, not to accept these gods as responsible for sudden deaths in the past.

Someone, more than three thousand years ago, got away with murder. Someone got away with mass murder and managed to successfully deflect the blame on the gods. So successfully, in fact, that hardly anyone has ever realized that there was a mass murder!

People today may want to say that there’s no evidence that Niobe ever existed. We may never find archaeological evidence, but she’s well established in the mythology, as were her nearest relatives. She was the daughter of King Tantalus of Lydia, and the sister of Broteas and Pelops. Pelops is so well known that a large piece of land – Greece’s Peloponnesian peninsula – bears his name yet today. He was still so important during the original Olympic games, starting in 776 BCE, that they sacrificed to his ghost at the beginning of every Olympiad. Agamemnon and Menelaus, who led the Greeks in the battle against Troy, were supposed to be Pelops’ descendants.

Niobe was married to Amphion of Thebes, another person well known in the myths. Amphion supposedly created the first seven-stringed lyre. He was also the builder of the first walls around Thebes, and was allegedly buried on a hill just north of the city. He appears in many other myths and myth fragments, which are not inconsistent with each other – more reasons to think that some of them might contain a kernel of truth.

So if we accept that Niobe existed, and that all, or nearly all, of her children dropped dead one day, how can we determine who killed them? Well, we can’t do it conclusively, as all forensic evidence must be long gone. But we can examine the other characters in the myths and see who might have had a motive. Two suspects are obvious: Laius, who became King of Thebes right after Amphion died and Niobe returned to her homeland, and Niobe’s brother, Pelops, who was working hard to become a power in the region.

Or were Laius and Pelops in it together? Laius, part of the original royal line of Thebes, should have been king after his father died – but instead he was fostered for many years in the court of King Pelops. Amphion and Pelops were brothers-in-law and must have been allies. Did Amphion and Pelops have a quarrel? Amazingly, Niobe survived the disaster which felled most of the members of her family – did Pelops retain, perhaps, a soft spot for his dear sister?

My coauthor and I don’t have all the answers, but it’s obvious that Apollo and Artemis did not actually kill the Niobids. Someone has gotten away with murder – mass murder – for more than three millennia.

To read more about these mysteries, and the novels my coauthor and I have written based on them, please visit our website at

Article Copyright© Victoria Grossack - reproduced with permission.

Victoria Grossack is the author, with Alice Underwood, of several novels based on Greek mythology, published in both English and Greek. Their books include: JOCASTA: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus; Niobe & Pelops: CHILDREN OF TANTALUS; Niobe & Amphion: THE ROAD TO THEBES; Niobe & Chloris: ARROWS OF ARTEMIS. To learn more about them, their writing and their research, please visit Of course their books make wonderful gifts for those who love Greek mythology!. Celebrate Saturnalia (or any other festival) by enjoying some time in the Bronze Age.

  Other articles by Victoria Grossack

The mystery of the Delphic Oracle
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If you visit Delphi today – a few hours by car from Athens – you will be treated to spectacular ruins in a stunningly beautiful setting. Even on a very hot day...

Income inequality and the end of the Roman Republic
Columnist: Victoria Grossack | Posted on 12-2-2012 | 2 comments
I believe that income inequality played an enormous role in the end of the republic. Why past tense? Because this column is concerned mostly with the end of t...

The myth behind the Olympics
Columnist: Victoria Grossack | Posted on 7-27-2012 | 5 comments
The official ancient Olympics began in 776 BCE in Olympia, Greece, whose ruins you can visit today. However, the ancient Olympics were based on even earlier at...

Love stories from Ancient Greece
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Why turn to ancient Greek myths for inspiration on Valentine’s Day? At first glance, it seems inappropriate. Saint Valentine was a Christian martyr, and had n...

Saturnalia: a source of holiday traditions
Columnist: Victoria Grossack | Posted on 12-16-2011 | 1 comment
As the end of the year draws near, people are hanging wreaths on their doors and decorating their houses and trees with lights. They’re also buying gifts for t...

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