In his epinikian odes, of which forty-five survive, grouped under the names of the four great Panhellenic festivals—the Olympia, Pythia, Nemea, and Isthmia—Pindar strives to express what has often been labeled as the Panhellenic ideal. To understand what this means, it is vital to realize that ancient athletic competitions were primarily events of religious and cultural significance, rather than simple displays of physical prowess. The victory ode would originally have been written more or less on the spot by the poet commissioned for the purpose and performed on the evening of the contest; most of Pindar’s, however, were composed after an interval of some time and then delivered to the home city of the victor. In such an ode, the victorious athlete was celebrated as the finest specimen of male virtue available and was associated with the realm of the divine through his achievements. Thus, while it often comes as a surprise to modern readers, an epinikian ode has little to say about the particular athlete’s appearance or how he won his victory crown.
In his poems, Pindar strives to express the religious and cultural traditions that all Greeks shared as a common heritage. The unifying concepts included the two great poems of Homer, the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), the mythological tradition of stories about the gods and heroes, and the centrality of such holy places as Delphi, with its oracle of Apollo. Thus every ode contains a large mythological component, often focused on one major figure, such as Heracles, Jason, Apollo, or Perseus, but the stories are rarely told in a conventional, straightforward narrative form. Fleeting references to well-known events are combined with more detailed descriptions of minor incidents or complicated allusions to obscure, lesser-known parts of the myth. Chronological disruption is frequent, so that the end of the story may be mentioned before earlier parts of the tale are told. One of Pindar’s favorite devices is to mix into his mythological material some references to the home city of the athletic victor in order to involve the victor’s achievement with the great deeds of past heroes.
The epinikian ode extols the virtues, or the outstanding qualities, which have enabled the athlete to achieve his victory in whatever event he competed, be it wrestling, boxing, running, or the pentathlon. Certain key terms appear again and again, the most important of which is arête: in Greek, this covers a range of meanings, including “courage,” “excellence,” and “skill.” It is the excellence of spirit that has brought the athlete to the rewards of the highest skill a mortal can reach. Such excellence—which the poet believes he shares—at the same time requires an appropriate sense of modesty and restraint in order to avoid incurring the jealousy or anger of the gods. Pindar also speaks much of such praiseworthy attributes as loyalty, filial devotion, and respect for the gods. His poems are the product of a basically conservative outlook, one which has reverence for traditional institutions and religious practices. They are also tied to the aristocratic elements of Greek society, which were increasingly threatened by ideas about democracy and wider political participation. He often comments, for example, on the superiority of inborn or inherited qualities to those skills which can be taught or learned.
While the ideas expressed in Pindar’s poems are derived from a common storehouse of Panhellenic and aristocratic ideology, the language in which they are expressed is unique in the ancient world. At the root of Pindar’s skill as a poet is his mastery of all the varied meters in which Greek lyricists composed. His metrical forms and versification are extremely complex and were imitated by later poets, such as the Roman poet Horace. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to reconstruct the music or dances that were an integral part of the original performance.
The other remarkable element of the Pindaric ode is its language, especially in regard to word choice and word placement. Imaginative vocabulary and vivid metaphors run throughout the poems, and he is the master of the striking juxtaposition and the surprising turn of phrase. The focus of the poem shifts quickly, often unexpectedly, so that a general impression of speed and vitality is created. At the same time, the elaborate sentence structure, numerous asides and interjections, and difficult grammar all contribute to a sense of fluidity. It could be said that Pindar’s poetry is “experienced” rather than “understood” as it unfolds.
Each epinikian opens with an invocation of the Muses or some other divinity and moves to praise the individual victor and his city and family. Then comes the mythical content, which usually takes up the central part of the poem. The piece concludes with further praise of the victor or his homeland, as well as some praise of the poet himself, and some tribute to the presiding god of the festival, such as Zeus or Apollo. Although there are some variations, this pattern holds for the overwhelming majority of the odes.
Readers, ancient and modern, have reacted with varying enthusiasm to the Pindaric mode of expression. The ancients were fascinated by the notion that Pindar quarreled with his fellow...
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