By a stroke of luck, Pindar’s victory odes have survived almost in their entirety. This is not the case for the author’s other works—including hymns, dirges, songs of praise, and processional songs—which have either been lost or are known only from short fragments. Although the victory odes, known as the epinikia, were Pindar’s most famous and influential works, even in antiquity, they seem typical of their author’s general approach and style. Shifting frequently from subject to subject, Pindar’s poems have a dreamlike quality. Each line flows logically from what has preceded it but, by the end of the poem, the author often has made so many twists and turns that he sometimes seems to conclude on a radically different note from the one with which he began.
A second element that adds to Pindar’s complexity of style is his highly ornate language. Pindar avoids the language of everyday speech; his secular works are modeled on Greek hymns. The religious songs that honored the Olympian gods in the fifth century b.c.e. preserved a reverent tone and exalted style that provided Pindar with a model for his own poems celebrating the glories of human achievement. The complex nature of his poetry also appears to be due to a preference among the archaic Greek poets for elaborate metaphors and difficult allusions. The appreciation of a Pindaric poem often necessitates the reader’s knowing much about Greek mythology and athletics. Moreover, it requires the reader to accept each poem as simultaneously having several levels of meaning.
The epinikia were originally choral works, sung in celebration of athletic victories at the four Panhellenic games of antiquity: the Olympian games, held in honor of Zeus at the sacred city of Olympia; the Pythian games, held in honor of the god Apollo in his oracular city of Delphi; the Nemean games, held in honor of Zeus near the site where Heracles is said to have slain the Nemean lion; and the Isthmian games, held in honor of Poseidon near the Argive city of Corinth. The title epinikia suggests that these poems celebrate victory in an athletic event. The works were occasionally performed at the festival where the victory occurred; more frequently, however, they were commissioned for a later celebration in the victor’s home city. The athletic events for which Pindar composed victory odes include boxing, wrestling, the pankration (a combined form of boxing and wrestling in which no holds were barred), the pentathlon (a series of five events featuring running, jumping, throwing the discus, hurling the javelin, and wrestling), running, and chariot racing. Pindar also wrote one ode, Pythian Ode 12, for the victor of a musical competition—Midas of Akragas in a flute contest.
The Panhellenic games were religious celebrations as well as athletic competitions; as a result, Pindar’s poetry tends to mingle religious and athletic imagery. One theme of these poems is that perfecting the human body and winning an athletic victory are supreme acts of worship. The idea behind this value is that, in seeking physical perfection, people honor the perfect gods by trying to imitate them. For this reason, the athletic victory may be viewed as the winner’s sacrifice to the gods. The poet’s song is also represented as a religious act in the poem’s celebrating the victory and making it immortal. Finally, Pindar thought that the euphoria felt after success in the Panhellenic games was as close as human beings would ever come to the bliss eternally enjoyed by the Olympian gods. Even if only for a moment, therefore, athletic victory elevates humanity to the divine level. Glorification of the victor in these poems aims at glorification of the gods.
These values were shared more frequently by the Greek aristocracy than by the common people. To a large extent, the aristocratic nature of Pindar’s poetry reflects the poet’s own upbringing. Pindar’s family claimed ties to the royal families of Sparta, Cyrene, and Thera....
(The entire section is 1,654 words.)