Olympian Ode 1

by Pindar

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

The poem contains a religious lesson, which comes through the retelling of the myths of Tantalus and his son, Pelops.

Tantalus is favored by the gods until the dreadful day when he tests the gods by preparing his own son, Pelops, as a meal and feeding him to those gathered around Zeus's table. In the story, Demeter digs in and starts eating Pelops's shoulder; by the time the gods realize they have been served human meat, they can only offer the resurrected Pelops a prosthetic shoulder. Tantalus also steals nectar and ambrosia, which is thought to keep the gods immortal. In some versions of the myth, he distributes this immortality elixir to mortals, which thus elevates mankind to the status of the gods.

Tantalus is eternally punished in Hades for his deception; he is subjected to continual thirst and hunger, with water and food placed before him that he can't quite reach. Symbolically, since Tantalus gave into his arrogant desire to be like the gods and to have the power to bestow immortality to others, he is eternally denied the most basic of human needs: water and nourishment.

However, Pindar's poem mentions a different aspect of Tantalus's punishment in his version of the tale, saying that Tantalus has a stone hung above his head and is constantly "divided from joy" due to the threat that looms above him. This can symbolically be read as a separation from the same kind of joy victory can bring—prestige in the community, respect, the honor of the gods. The threat of being crushed perpetually looms over him, which keeps him in an eternally humble state of mind. Pindar moralizes on the tale by teaching that if a man is honored by the gods, he should handle his glory with humility, or he may lose the fortune that has been bestowed upon him.

In contrast, Tantalus's son, Pelops, takes the favor of the gods humbly, which can be seen in how he addresses Poseidon in the myth:

Look you, Poseidon, if you have had any joy of my love and the Kyprian's sweet gifts, block the brazen spear of Oinomaos, and give me the fleeter chariot by Elis's river, and clothe me about in strength. Thirteen suitors he has killed now, and ever puts aside the marriage of his daughter.

The speech to Poseidon is humble. In it, Pelops does not presume equality with the gods, nor does he try to commandeer victory from them. Instead, he reminds Poseidon of his own faithful service to the gods, of his love and sacrificial offerings, and then requests the resources and strength to be able to win the race. Clearly, he knows he does not possess strength equal to the gods, nor does he believe he can achieve glorious victory without their help. He also appeals to Poseidon’s pity with an argument:

The great danger never descends upon a man without strength; but why should one sit to no purpose in darkness and find a nameless old age without any part of glory his own?

Pelops desires his own version of immortality: the kind of eternal legacy that can come through prestigious victory. Unlike his father, he seeks the help of the gods rather than trying to force favor from their hands. He appeals to the generosity of his god instead of taking advantage of blessings already bestowed.

By making these allusions to the myths, Pindar reminds Hieron to stay humble, despite his Olympic victory, and give glory to the gods who helped him achieve that victory.

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