Olympian Ode 1 Summary
Pindar's Olympian Ode 1 is a poem that serves a similar purpose as a speech at the end of an athletic event. It is meant to commemorate a victory and to allow the victor to bask in his glory for a while. The speech is from Pindar's perspective and honors Hieron and the Greek gods for a glorious victory.
The poem starts out by establishing the Olympic games as among the best things in life, as good among contests as water or gold are among things. Pindar establishes his own function as a sort of poet-priest by saying that he will commemorate Hieron's victory in the single-horse race. His approach is to use religious stories to compare Hieron to both Tantalus and Tantalus's son, Pelops.
Like Hieron, Tantalus and Pelops are both favored at one point by the gods. However, unlike Tantalus, Hieron must not let his prestige turn him greedy and arrogant. At a feast with the gods, a supposed honor in itself, Tantalus steals nectar and ambrosia from heaven and gives the food of the gods to mortals. In another version of the story, which Pindar refers to, Tantalus chops up his own son, Pelops, feeding him to the gods to see if they really know everything. Demeter, distressed by contention between her daughter and Hades, distractedly eats Pelops's shoulder; thus, when the gods put him back together again to resurrect him, he has to have a prosthetic shoulder. Pindar does not tell the whole tale, but he makes a theological argument against this version of the tale, saying that he does not believe this part of the story. He says, as an aside,
For me it is impossible to call one of the blessed gods a glutton. I stand back from it.
It it initially unclear why Pindar chooses to compare Hieron to a victim of the gods, especially because he has to take time to defend the gods for making such a gruesome mistake. Pindar's reason becomes clear, however, when he explains that Pelos later participates in a horse race to win the heart of a woman, Hippodaemia, whom many suitors have bravely raced for—and died for. Poseidon shows favor to Pelos:
Honoring him, the god gave him a golden chariot, and horses with untiring wings. He overcame the might of Oenomaus, and took the girl as his bride.
Pelos and Hippodaemia go on to have six children. In the end, he has won the victory, the girl, and a legacy in the form of both children and eternal bragging rights:
Now he has a share in splendid blood-sacrifices, resting beside the ford of the Alpheus, where he has his attendant tomb beside the altar that is thronged with many visitors. The fame of Pelops shines from afar in the races of the Olympic festivals, where there are contests for swiftness of foot, and the bold heights of toiling strength. A victor throughout the rest of his life enjoys honeyed calm, so far as contests can bestow it.
Pindar establishes Pelos's race as a precursor to Hieron's race, implying that they both share the same level of victory and deserve the same length of commemoration. Pindar is careful, too, to warn Hieron not to become excessively proud in his victory:
Some men are great in one thing, others in another; but the peak of the farthest limit is for kings. Do not look beyond that! May it be yours to walk on high throughout your life . . .
Olympian 1, which opens the collection of Pindar’s forty-five victory odes, sets the template for all of his subsequent poems in this genre. It was produced to celebrate the victory in the horse race at the Olympia of Hieron of Syracuse in 476 b.c.e. At this time, Hieron was master of most of the Greek settlements on the island of Sicily and was establishing himself as a patron of the arts, especially poetry. Pindar, who was invited to Syracuse in 476, was an eyewitness to the magnificence of Hieron’s court and to his benevolent, if autocratic, rule. Olympian 1 is a response to what he saw and contains a mixture of praise and advice to the victor.
The ode opens with the famously impenetrable phrase “Best of all is water” and...
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