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Niobe - Rock Goddess

Forget the pyramids – the world ’s most fortean ancient monument is not in Egypt, that land of overworked mysteries, but in Turkey. Peter James follows in the footsteps of classical historians and ancient Roman tourists and tracks down the world’s oldest simulacrum.

Niobe in all her rock spelndour
Take a weeping Madonna,combine it with a simulacrum and dash of trompe l’oeil, then add a case of almost supernatural survival over some 3,000 years and a sidelight on the origins of the word syphilis, and there you have her –the ‘statue’ of Niobe.

According to some Greek myths, Niobe was the first woman –a kind of Hellenic Eve – whose descendants populated Greece. She can also make a good claim to be the grandmother of fortean phenomena. I first saw Niobe a few years ago when I was carrying out some archæological reconnaissance work near the Aegean coast of Turkey. The main task was to try to locate the prehistoric monuments which the ancient Greek writer Pausanias located in the hinterland behind Izmir (ancient Smyrna). He was a medical doctor who, in about AD 150, wrote the world ’s earliest surviving guidebook.

In an incredibly detailed 10 volumes, Pausanias described, for the benefit of well-to-do Roman tourists, everything that was worth seeing in ancient Greece. No serious traveller to the Aegean can afford not to pack a copy of Pausanias. It was by using the clues he provided that,during the 1870s, the German adventurer Heinrich Schliemann discovered the prehistoric monuments of Mycenæ on mainland Greece. Now according to legend, the Mycenæan dynasty of Agamemnon was descended from Niobe’s father Tantalus,who had once ruled over a fabulously rich kingdom based at Mount Sipylus in Asia Minor.

It was for the remains of the Tantalid dynasty, Niobe amongst them,that I was searching,with the help of my Greek archæologist colleague Dr Nikos Kokkinos. Only an hour ’s drive away from Izmir, where people fly in to be bussed to their beach holidays, Mt Sipylus has been amazingly neglected by tourists and archæologists alike.

At Sipylus, Pausanias promised rich pickings,from the miraculous “weeping ”statue of Niobe to traces of the lost city of Tantalus. We were not disappointed. Sipylus is a wonderland of archæological curiosities. Our journey to Sipylus was made all the more exciting by the fact that were on Pausanias’ home ground. He was probably born in Magnesia,the Greek predecessor of the Turkish city of Manisa, which now flourishes near the mountain.

Though his guidebook only really covers the Greek mainland, Pausanias gives us occasional titbits of information about the rock marvels to be seen ‘back home’. Put together, these glimpses describe a cluster of features and monuments around Mount Sipylus, modern Manisa Dagi. Though some of these had already been clearly located near Manisa, misreading of one classical source had meant that others had been sought on the neighbouring mountain of Yamanlar, which lies just behind Izmi (Smyrna).

Having examined and eliminated the Yamanlar sites, we went to Sipylus, where everything fell into place just as Pausanias had described it. We climbed the mountain to reach a crag with a carved ‘throne’, where Tantalus’ son Pelops sat to view his kingdom. Below is a massive gorge of haunting beauty, which must be the crack in the mountain referred to by Pausanias; in a massive upheaval, he relates, the mountain opened up and water gushed out, flooding the city of Tantalus on the plain. On another cliff face is a magnificent Late Bronze Age carving of the Mother Goddess, locally known as ‘Cybele’. (It dates to about the 14th –13th centuries BC.) According to Pausanias, this was the earliest representation of the Mother ever created, and it was carved by Tantalus’ son Broteas.

Not far away is a unique rock-cut tomb, thought to be the last resting place of Tantalus. And there are two lakes: the lake of Tantalus on the mountain, where Pausanias says he saw white eagles; and the lake of Saloe (now dry), underneath which lie the remains of the lost city of Tantalus, or Tantalis. I have argued elsewhere in detail that the story of Tantalis, destroyed by an earthquake and covered by a flood, was actually the main source for Plato ’s Atlantis.(1) But that ’s another story.

Returning to Pausanias, last but not least of the marvels he described was Niobe herself: “I myself have seen Niobe when I was climbing up the mountains to Sipylus. Niobe from very close up is a rock and a stream, and nothing like a woman either grieving or otherwise; but if you go further off you seem to see a woman downcast and in tears.” (2)

So what was this curious monument? I use the term monument loosely; Niobe is actually a natural rock, so convincingly sculpted by the elements into the shape of a mourning woman that ancient writers frequently referred to it as a statue. It is in fact the world’s oldest recorded simulacrum, being referred to as early as Homer in the 8th century BC. In the Iliad (24:612ff) he says that Niobe “stands among the crags in the untrodden hills of Sipylus, where people say the Nymphs, when they have been dancing on the banks of Achelous, lay themselves down to sleep. There Niobe, in marble, broods on the desolation that the gods dealt out to her.”

So how did Niobe come to this sorry pass? The tragedy of Niobe was a favourite theme of Greek art and literature. Sophocles wrote a whole play about her, of which now only a few lines are left, but many other accounts survive. The most vivid comes from the Metamorphoses (3), an extraordinary collection of mythological transformations written by the Roman poet Ovid, which is itself a rich and untapped source of forteana.

Princess Niobe, daughter of the haughty king Tantalus, had come from Sipylus to Thebes in Greece, where she married its ruler Amphion. Amphion could play the lyre so magically that he could charm trees and cause stones to move, a skill he employed to rebuild the walls of Thebes. The couple were blessed with many children – six sons and six daughters (or in other accounts as many as 10 of each).(4) But Niobe's pride led to her downfall. She boasted that she had more children than the goddess Leto, who had borne only one pair of twins, Apollo and Artemis, to Zeus. Leto reported this insult to her children, who wasted no time in slaughtering all of Niobe’s sons with a rain of arrows. Amphion was devastated and committed suicide. Niobe however, was unrepentant, so Apollo and Artemis shot all her daughters as well. Niobe was now so overcome with grief that Zeus turned her to stone –as an act of mercy.(5)

Ovid concluded the story with a fortean flourish of his very own – to explain why the petrified Niobe was to be seen on Mount Sipylus, rather than at Thebes, the scene of her tragedy: “A violent whirlwind caught her up,and carried her away to her own country, where she was set down on a mountain top. There she wastes away, and even now,tears trickle from her marble face.” Less adventurous mythographers said that before her miraculous transformation, she simply sailed home.

Then where exactly is Niobe? Her location was presumably preserved under the Byzantine Empire, but was then lost, probably during the Turkish invasion of the 14th century. In the 18th century, European antiquarians began the search for Niobe among the crags of Sipylus, but their first answer was hopelessly incorrect. For reasons best known to themselves, they identified ‘Cybele’, the Hittite sculpture of the Mother Goddess on the northern face of the mountain, with Niobe.

The misidentification was repeated in the literature for nearly 100 years until, in 1937, the orientalist Bossert was exploring the region.There he rediscovered the indisputable original, just where Pausanias placed it – on the route up the mountain.(6) Thanks to Bossert, Niobe is easy to find today. She is now a minor tourist attraction and the way to her is just as Pausanias described, 18 centuries earlier, as he was “climbing up the mountains to Sipylus.” The easiest way to the blustery peak of Mount Sipylus (1,517 metres [5,000 ft ] above sea-level) is the route that curves around its north-western side – now a tarmacked road that leads to the outskirts of the Spil (Sipylus) National Park. Along the way you will find Niobe, a signposted site of great local pride.

As one walks up the slope from the road, all one sees is a stonyoutcrop  poking out of the landscape – as Pausanias said, “nothing like a woman either grieving or otherwise.” But when you go to the side she suddenly comes into focus. The crag takes on the shape of a hag-like woman with long flowing hair, craning forward with an agonised expression of abject misery. From different vantage points one can see her ‘eyes ’and different nuances of her expression – all made easy by the steps of the modern, cement-built ‘classical’ theatre which has been constructed at the right vantage point so that tourists can sit, stand and take photographs.

And impressive though she is now, one can only wonder how she looked in Homer’s time, without the benefit of some 3,000 years’ worth of erosion,exposed to the lashing storms which are famous on the mountain.

Running past the rock and along by the road down to Manisa is the stream which Pausanias mentions – “Niobe is a rock and stream.” As one mounts the road, the little bridges on the way have Roman or Byzantine brick and stonework, while at the top there is part of an aqueduct of the same date. The whole setting suggests that this was a tourist spot in Roman times – perhaps after Pausanias described Niobe. Now there is a tea-shop by the aqueduct, where one can sit and view the picturesque gorge from which the stream springs.

As we sat drinking tea (and water,and Coca Cola), much to our surprise there was another simulacrum staring at us from across the gorge – two leering faces with slanting eyes, superimposed on top of each other like a Red Indian totem pole. Not having a ladder, we couldn't examine them at first hand to see whether they were natural or man-made ‘heads’. But on our second trip to Manisa in 1998, we asked local friends about these other faces and were told that there were many more further up the gorge. There ’s simulacra in them thar hills!

We plan to search for these extra figures on a future trip, but in the meantime it is interesting that they may, like Niobe, be referred to in Homer. He states that after being massacred by Apollo and Artemis, Niobe’s children lay unburied for nine days in pools of blood – “as there was no one to bury them, the Son of Kronos [Zeus] having turned the people to stone.” Thus, according to Homer, we should expect to see other simulacra in the region – those of the local people who were petrified alongside Niobe. What is baffling is why the stone at this part of the mountain should lend itself so readily to forming not just one, but a number of human forms.

One of Niobe’s sons, Sipylus, was said to have given his name to the mountain. It is a name curiously garbled by an indexing error in the second edition of the Cambridge Ancient History (1975). The entries directing the reader to brief discussions on the Hittite rock carvings near Manisa are split between “Sipylus, Mount ”and something else called “Siphylus, in Asia Minor”. Strangely enough, the unintentional joke –or typesetter’s prank – might even have some sense in it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary(1933), the word syphilis first appeared in a poem (Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus) published in 1530, written by Girolamo Fracastoro, a physician and poet of Verona. The poem related the woes of Syphilus, a shepherd described as the first sufferer from the disease.

According to the OED, the source of this name ‘Syphilus’ is disputed, but the suggestion has been made that it is a mediæval corruption of Sipylus, the son of Niobe who gave his name to the mountain. The idea seems plausible, as Sipylus was an unfortunate youth struck down in his prime by Apollo, the god of plague as well as of medicine.

As for Niobe herself,what gave rise to the idea that, even turned to stone, she still wept tears over her lost children? Pausanias was sceptical of the story that the Niobe rock actually cried, and he bundled the claim together with other stories which he found completely ridiculous: “And they say Niobe on Mt Sipylus weeps in the summer. And there are other stories I have heard told: that griffins have spots like leopards and tritons speak in human voices, and some people say they blow through a pierced conch. People who enjoy listening to mythical stories are inclined to add even more wonders of their own, and in this way they have done injuries to the truths, which they have mixed up with a lot of rubbish.”(7)

It should be explained that Pausanias had very particular views on the miraculous. He clearly believed that transformations of this kind were possible, but only in the most ancient times. This becomes crystal clear in his discussion of werewolves. In Arcadia, in central Greece, belief in werewolves was endemic. It was said that Lycaon, king of Arcadia, had once sacrificed a child to Zeus, and that, at the moment of sacrifice, Lycaon was transformed into a wolf as a punishment.(8)

Pausanias accepted this because, like all ancient Greeks, he believed that there was once a time when relations between deities and mortals had been much more intimate. But when the age of the Heroes ended, and gods and mortals no longer consorted, the golden thread was broken. In the view of men like Pausanias, miracles simply ceased to happen: “No human being ever becomes a god …and the curse of the gods is a long time falling on the wicked, and is stored away for those who have departed from this world.”(9) So when the Arcadians told him that every time a sacrifice was made to Lykaian, Zeus turned someone into a wolf, he simply deemed it impossible; things like that simply don’t happen any more.

So, while Pausanias was happy to accept that Niobe was a woman who had been turned into stone in times gone by, there was no way he could accept that her “statue ”still wept. But, by his very denial, Pausanias provided testimony to a belief that other ancient Greek writers refer to: it was claimed that the rock would miraculously shed tears. The usual ‘rational’ explanation for this is that snow collecting on the head of Niobe would melt in the spring and trickle down her nose as tears. The explanation underestimates ancient observers who, we are asked to believe, were not capable of recognising snow when they saw it; nor has anyone in modern times ever reported such a melting snow effect on Niobe ’s head. Besides which, Pausanias said that Niobe was supposed to weep in the summer. There is little chance of snow or ice at this time of the year at this latitude.

We are left merely guessing as to whether ancient eyewitnesses really saw the ‘statue' weep and what the possible explanation might be. But whether the weeping was a real phenomenon or not, the belief was there. To the ancient Greeks, Niobe was the archetypal bereaved mother and it is remarkable that, along with this archetype, the idea that statues of the Mother can weep has continued right into the 21st century. Readers of FT need no reminding of the myriad claims of weeping effigies of the Virgin Mary. It would be interesting to know whether there are any other pre-Christian reports of weeping female statues, other than Niobe.

In the meantime, she can claim to be ot only the world ’s earliest known simulacrum but also the oldest weeping Madonna. The rock of Niobe draws together so many items of mythical and paranormal interest from the Greek world that she is almost the quintessential fortean monument. There is one final mystery attached to her. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Niobe rock is the miracle of her survival. Sipylus is subject to frequent and violent earth quakes. One of the worst occurred in AD17; its results, in the words of one recent Roman scholar, “were comparable to a biblical catastrophe.” (10) Twelve neighbouring cities were flattened by an earthquake during the night. Tacitus talks of “fugitives being swallowed up in yawning chasms. Accounts are given of huge mountains sinking, of former plains seen heaved aloft, and of fire gashing out amid the ruin.” The damage was assessed by a massive relief programme organised by the Emperor Tiberius, and Magnesia was rated as the second most serious casualty.

The power of even the relatively small earthquakes experienced in modern times is vividly shown by the serious cracks which have already appeared in the cement-built theatre opposite Niobe. Somehow this curious overhanging chunk of rock has survived for nearly 3,000 years, at least since the time of Homer. It seems that when Zeus sentenced Niobe to be perpetuallyfrozen in stone, “brooding on the desolation that the gods dealt out to her ” (Homer), he really meant it. Not even Poseidon, the mighty Earthshaker, can countermand the wishes of Zeus.

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A unique rock-cut tomb, thought to be the last resting place of Tantalus


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