Study Guide

Pindar

Pindar Biography

Biography (Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

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Life

Pindar (PIHN-dur) composed elaborate and complex odes sung to musical accompaniment of lyres and pipes (reed instruments) and danced by choruses. Of his seventeen books of poems collected in the Hellenistic period, only four books containing forty-five epinician (victory) odes have been preserved in manuscript. These books, however, have established Pindar’s fame as the greatest Greek lyric poet. In these poems, Pindar praises athletic victors throughout Greece, from powerful rulers such as Hieron I of Syracuse, Theron of Acragas, and Arcesilas of Cyrene to boys just beginning their athletic careers.

Varying in length from nineteen to nearly three hundred verses, the odes contain aphoristic reflections on life, brief mythological narratives, advice, prayers to gods, and praise of hard-won achievement. The odes are composed of stanzas called strophes, antistrophes, and epodes. These three stanzas make up triads, each of which is metrically identical in its poem. Pindar’s style is grand, with abundant use of metaphor; his language is extremely complex and notoriously difficult to translate.

Influence

The Roman authors Horace and Quintilian acknowledged Pindar’s greatness. After the Renaissance, the “Pindaric” ode became synonymous with any grand-style, serious poem. Imitators include French poet Pierre de Ronsard, English playwright Ben Jonson, English poet and playwright Abraham Cowley, French poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, and English poet Thomas Gray.

Further Reading:

Carne-Ross, D. S. Pindar. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. A brief work addressed to the general reader, with a...

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Pindar Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

0111205877-Pindar.jpgPindar (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek lyric poet{$I[g]Greece;Pindar} As the greatest lyrical poet of classical times, Pindar influenced literature, music, and culture for centuries.

Early Life

Pindar (PIHN-dehr), the greatest of ancient Greek lyric poets, was born in Cynoscephalae, near Thebes, around 518 b.c.e. A city rich in history and legend, Thebes was located in the region known as Boeotia, north of the Gulf of Corinth. Pindar came from a noble Dorian family whose lineage went back to ancient times and included heroes whom he celebrated in his poems. His uncle was a famous flute player; Pindar, who excelled at that instrument, may have acquired his skills from him. Lyric poems were written primarily for solo or choral singing, with instrumental accompaniment, and Pindar learned his craft in writing poetry from two important lyric poets, Lasus of Hermione and Corinna of Tanagra. It is said (but disputed by some) that Corinna defeated Pindar five times in lyric competition.

In the framing of his poetry, Pindar drew from the vast store of myths—many of them associated with Thebes—that he had learned in his youth. To him, the Olympians and other figures from ancient stories were not mythical but real. He accepted reverently, for example, the stories of the oracle of Delphi, and he devoutly worshiped Zeus (even composing a famous hymn to him) and other gods and goddesses all his life. He was also the heir to several priestly offices, which buttressed his natural inclination toward religion. In addition to being educated near Thebes, he is said to have received instruction in Athens, which was a great academic and cultural center. Studying in Athens would account for his having known the Alcmaeonids, a politically active family in Athens for which he wrote laudatory poems—probably, as was customary, under commission.

Pindar was schooled in history, philosophy, religion, music, and literature. His poetry is filled with allusions to those fields as well as to his homeland and relatives. He secured his reputation as a young man, and fabulous legends grew up around him. For example, one story explaining his talent claimed that as he slept out in the fields one day, bees had deposited honey on his lips.

Pindar received a constant flow of engagements to write poems for important figures, including the victors of athletic contests, the odes for which are the only surviving works of the poet. Usually these victory odes, the Epinikia (498-446 b.c.e.; Odes, 1656) were performed in processionals welcoming the heroes home. Pindar’s odes are named for the particular games at which they were performed—the Olympian Odes, Pythian Odes, Nemean Odes, and Isthmian Odes. This celebratory tradition was at one with the Greek belief that great deeds—including the greatest of all, the creation of the world—should be artistically remembered so as not to pass into oblivion. For a time, Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse, was a patron of Pindar and of other poets, such as Simonides, Bacchylides, and the great tragedian Aeschylus. This activity helped Syracuse to rival Athens and Thebes as an intellectual center and helped perpetuate Pindar’s already considerable fame.

Life’s Work

In the Alexandrian list of the nine best lyric poets, Pindar’s name came first. In his own time and in later centuries he was remembered as “soaring Pindar.” The fact of music is inseparable from the fact of lyric poetry in Pindar, for it is clear that his poems were written to be sung. What is not known is how to reproduce for modern performance the melody and the meter of his lyrics, all of which were written in celebration of an individual or an event, often an athletic victory. This is to speak only of the four books that have survived, for there are fragments of his other works (or allusions to them) that prove that his genius was not limited to the choral lyric. He produced thirteen books in genres other than the epinikia, including hymns, processionals, and dirges.

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Pindar Biography (Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

0111205877-Pindar.jpgPindar (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Other Literary Forms

Pindar is remembered only for his poetic achievement.

Achievements

Pindar’s victory odes are among the greatest achievements of ancient Greek poetry, but they are also probably the most consistently misunderstood. Composing in a genre (epinikion) and mode (choral lyric poetry) foreign even to later Greek audiences, Pindar stands alone as the chief archaic Greek poet whose works survive in any bulk. The archaic age itself—that period from the time of Homer in the eighth century to the rise of classical literature in fifth century Athens—is relatively obscure. The events, manners, and traditions of the period were not those of later times, so that it is hard to extrapolate from literary activity at Athens when analyzing the work of Pindar a generation earlier. The additional difficulty of having little to compare with Pindar’s work in his own genre (only some poems by his contemporaries Bacchylides and Simonides) means that any assessment of his achievement is necessarily limited. What comparison one can make shows Pindar to have a distinctive style, complex and exciting. So highly compressed is the style, in fact, that the general opinion of Pindaric odes, from antiquity on, can be summed up in the remark of the English poet Abraham Cowley: “If a man should undertake to translate Pindar word for word, it would be thought that one madman had translated another.” Yet Cowley is only one among a number of poets who have been fascinated by Pindar, in whom they have found a model for “inspired” verse (Pierre de Ronsard and Friedrich Hölderlin are among the great poets deeply influenced by Pindar). Even Horace, the astute transposer of old Greek lyric verse into Roman poetry, failed to get beyond the fixation on Pindaric style, which later led to Pindar’s image as that of a rather wild, raving, “natural” bard:

Rushing down like a mountain stream
Which rains have swollen over its known banks,
Unmeasurable Pindar boils and flows, deep mouth. . . .

Pindar’s legacy, then, has little to do with his real achievement. His imitators dwelt on style; divorced from the context and conventions of the poetry, this style is bound to seem odd at best and at worst, incomprehensible. In his own terms, however, Pindar might best be judged by determining whether he has achieved what he set out to do. In that case, he has been a successful composer of epinikia, because he has fulfilled the promise that lies behind this genre: He preserves the names and victories (often otherwise unknown) of fifth century aristocrats who desired the prestige of Pindar’s poetry to commemorate their participation in the Panhellenic games. Pindar, like the epic poet Homer before him, conferred immortality on heroic deeds, this being the ideology behind his poetry as expressed in Nemean Ode 7:

. . . if a man succeeds in an exploit, he casts
a delightful theme upon the streams of the Muses
for great deeds of strength, if they lack songs,
are sunk in deep obscurity.

Biography

Little is known about Pindar beyond what has been recorded by ancient scholars in elucidating the circumstances of composition for various poems. This produces a sort of lifelong itinerary around the Greek world rather than a clear biography of the poet. Clearly, his life was spent in aristocratic circles. He was born into a socially superior family having connections with the Aegid clan, a far-flung kinship group that included members of the Spartan ruling elite. Ancient tradition records that Pindar went to Athens for schooling in the art of choral poetry; the district of Boeotia was apparently backward in such matters (as Pindar implies, referring to the old insult “Boeotian sow,” that his poetry has cast aside). Pindar’s first recorded poem, Pythian Ode 10, was written when he was about twenty and performed in Thessaly for an aristocratic patron.

Pindar’s later life was ruled by this pattern. He traveled throughout the Greek world at the invitation of local tyrants, self-made absolute rulers (not despots, as implied by the modern sense of the word) who were at that time in the process of replacing hereditary kings as the supreme authority in the Greek city-states. They needed the prestige that an internationally known poet such as Pindar could bring to their accomplishments—not only athletic, but military and political as well. Pindar was not the first poet to be patronized by tyrants: The sixth century poet Ibycus and, later, Simonides and Bacchylides also celebrated the deeds of these wealthy and powerful men. All, including Pindar, were certainly paid for their efforts, in money and lavish hospitality.

Pindar would either write a choral ode for his patrons, then oversee its performance, or send a poem with instructions for the accompanying song and dance, while he himself remained in Thebes. Pindar seems, at times, to have accompanied the victor from the games to his hometown, where the ode would then be performed at festival occasions. It is even possible that a few odes were actually composed extempore at the games. These compositions survive, it appears, because the aristocratic patron families handed down manuscripts as treasured heirlooms. The Alexandrian scholars Zenodotus and Aristophanes helped to collect Pindar’s poetry in the third century b.c.e.

Further, acquaintance with one aristocratic family often led to commissions from others. Thus, after celebrating the victory of Xenocrates at Delphi in 490 b.c.e., Pindar became known to the family and, in 476 b.c.e., was invited to compose epinikia for Xenocrates’ brother Theron and for Hieron, another tyrant, in Sicily. In such a fashion, Pindar’s patrons came to include aristocrats in Sparta, Rhodes, Corinth, Cyrene, and Athens. His international reputation is reflected in the geographical distribution of the epinikia: Only five of the surviving forty-five poems are addressed to victors from Pindar’s home state of Thebes; fifteen are for Sicilians and eleven for victors from the island of Aegina, for which Pindar had a special affection.

The patron-poet bond, however, based as it was on traditional Panhellenic codes of behavior, led to conflicts for Pindar when the political situation during the years of the Persian invasions of 490 b.c.e. and 480 b.c.e. polarized the Greek city-states. Pindar tended to identify his patrons’ families with their homelands. In praising Athens, then, as he did in Nemean Ode 2, the poet risked offending the citizens of Aegina, with whom Athens was at war during the decade after Marathon in 490 b.c.e. Similarly, his continuing affirmations of support for the Theban oligarchy, even when it joined with the Persians against most of the other Greek states, posed problems of loyalty. Nevertheless Pindar, in most instances, was able to reconcile his conflicting affiliations by an appeal to the common Greek ideals and myths; references to both occur frequently in the epinikia. Once, however, shortly after the Persians were repulsed, the jealous rivalry between Thebes and Athens did affect Pindar, resulting in the levy of a heavy fine on the poet by the Thebans after he praised Athens in a dithyramb, calling it “defense of Greece, Athens renowned, divine citadel,” and recalling the Athenian naval victory over the Persians at Salamis in 480 b.c.e.

Although Pindar fascinates historians because of the unusual perspectives he offers on the turbulent events of the fifth century b.c.e., to look to his poetry for reasoned historical judgments would be as much in vain as it would be to seek therein a coherent picture of his life. His poetry was not meant to be either biography or chronicle, but rather a celebration of a series of victorious moments, which, by their semisacred nature, move personal and political history into the background.

Analysis

Of the seventeen books representing Pindar’s vast production in a variety of poetic genres, only four books of one genre, the victory odes (epinikia), survived antiquity intact. These odes are named for the periodic Panhellenic festival games held at Olympia (the Olympian odes), Delphi (the Pythian odes), Nemea (Nemeans), and Corinth (Isthmians).

Fragments

The remaining books of Pindar survive as several hundred fragments, some of them only a line long. As was usual in Greek archaic poetry, his compositions were most often meant for public performance, and the now lost books were arranged by third century b.c.e. editors according to the social occasions for which the poems were written: encomia (praise poems), threnoi (dirges), hymns, paians (hymns to Apollo), dithyrambs (to Dionysus), hyporchemata (dance songs), parthenia (maiden songs), and prosodia (processionals). While the modern reader might regret the loss of the huge mass of verse Pindar wrote, the fragments of these other genres make it clear that the Pindaric style known from the epinikia is representative of his works as a whole.

The Greek Games

To understand the epinikia requires an appreciation of both their occasional nature and the nature of those occasions for which they were written. The most prestigious games—Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian—occurred at regular intervals and united the independent Greek city-states as few other traditions, with the exception of Homeric poetry, could. So important were these Panhellenic athletic and musical contests that a sacred truce prevailed whenever they were held. To their local communities, victors became heroes; although their immediate reward at the games consisted only of a wreath of laurel leaves, their later perquisites very often included free meals at public expense, statues, coins with their imprint, and inscriptions. In this context, poetry was yet another...

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Pindar Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Pindar (PIHN-dur; also known as Pindaros) was born in the small village of Cynoscephalae, which was controlled by the city-state of Thebes in the region of Greece called Boeotia. This was a mountainous and rustic territory, which also contained the most important religious site among the ancient Greeks, namely the cult and oracle of Apollo at Delphi. There was a popular story that Pindar was actually born during the Delphic, or Pythian, festival held every four years in honor of the god. If so, the year of his birth would have been either 522 or 518 b.c.e. Boeotia was also a region famous for producing poets, especially those who specialized in choral lyric song, and so Pindar would have been born into...

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Pindar Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The subject of Pindar’s poetry, as evidenced by his forty five victory odes, is not the description of how an athlete won his particular event but the elucidation of the moral qualities that enabled him to achieve the status of an ideal human examplar, one who is in touch with the laws of the gods. It is the virtues of courage, moderation, and piety that can elevate a man to the highest glories of achievement. This is an attitude grounded in the aristocratic system to which Pindar was politically and culturally attached.

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Pindar Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111205877-Pindar.jpgPindar Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Pindar (PIHN-dur) was born at Cynoscephalae, near Thebes, about 518 b.c.e. Through his parents, Daiphantus and Cleodice, who came from a family claiming descent from Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, Pindar could regard ancient Greek gods and heroes as part of his family. As training for his poetic career, Pindar began to study the flute, first in Thebes under his uncle Scopelinus, and later in Athens. He began writing odes at the age of twenty, losing in his first competition, to a poet named Corinna, because he had neglected to use mythology. He learned his lesson, and for the next fifty years he was highly regarded for his paeans to Apollo and Zeus and his hymns to Persephone and others.

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