A Choral Ode by Pindar (518?-438? BC)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
Type of Work and Critical Assessment
......."Olympian 1" by Pindar (pronounced PIN der) is a choral ode, a poem sung by a chorus to musical accompaniment. Because the primary purpose of "Olympian 1" and other odes of Pindar was to express in elevated language his feelings about a person, a place, an event, or an idea, the odes are classified as
lyric rather than narrative poems. However, his odes contain narrative episodes based on myths.
......."Olympian 1" honors Hieron (alternate spelling, Hiero), ruler of the Sicilian kingdom of Syracuse, for his triumph in a horse race in the athletic games at Olympia, in southwestern Greece on the Peloponnesian peninsula, in 476 BC.
.......An ode celebrating an athletic victory had a special name: epinicion (plural, epinicia). All of Pindar's epinicia survive; the rest of his choral odesincluding hymns extolling the gods, drinking and dancing songs, funeral songs, and dithyrambs (impassioned poems addressed to the god of wine
and revelry, Dionysus) are lost except for fragments of them.
Isthmian: 8Title of the Ode
......."Olympian 1" received its title from Aristophanes of Byzantium (257-180 BC), a Greek editor, literary critic, and grammarian. His placement of the ode as number one in the list of Pindar's forty-five odes was based on the importance of its content, not on the year in which it was written. Its importance lay in the fact that it glorified the founder of the Olympian games, Pelops. (He won a horse race that inspired the Greeks to establish the games.)
.......Of all the athletic competitions in ancient Greece, the Olympian games were the most prestigious. Athletes vied in horse races, chariot races, footraces, wrestling and boxing matches, and other events. Each winner of an Olympian contest received a wreath woven from branches of the olive tree as his reward.
.......A victory in the Olympian games was one of the highest achievements a Greek citizen could attain. It demonstrated that the winner possessed the character, self-discipline, skill, perseverance, and resourcefulness to succeed. On his return home, he was hailed as a hero in a glorious celebration that included the presentation of a choral ode. But his victory burdened him with the task of living up to the promise of his Olympian feat in his everyday life.
.......Pindar's "Olympian 1" and other choral odes each contained three stanza formats: strophe, antistrophe, and epode. The strophe and antistrophe were similar in structure; the epode was different. The chorus sang the strophe (derived from a Greek word meaning to turn) while dancing across the stage and the antistrophe (derived from Greek words meaning to turn in an opposite direction) while dancing back across the stage. The chorus then sang the epode (derived from Greek words meaning to sing afterthat is, to sing after the strophe and antistrophe) while standing still. Afterward, the chorus presented additional sets of strophes, antistrophes, and epodes with new wording. When a poet decided that an ode had sufficient development, he ended it with a concluding epode.
.......Stringed and piping instruments, such as a kithara (a type of lyre) and an aulos (instrument resembling an oboe), were available to accompany the singers of Pindar's choral odes. The music itself was most likely monophonic rather than polyphonic. Pindar is believed to have composed the music and choreographed the dance steps in harmony with the meter of the poem.
Alpheus (or Alpheos): God of the river near the plain of Olympia.
.......In all the good things of nature, nothing is better than water; it brings and sustains life. In all the treasures of princes, nothing is better than gold; it shines with a fiery light. And in all the athletic contests, nothing is better than Olympic sport; it confers on the winner a crown as bright as the sun. Then the poets acclaim the victor, singing of his glory. Today, the name that rings out far and wide is Hieron (pronounced HY run).
.......This is a man who rules with a righteous scepter as king of Syracuse, a land of many shepherds and flocks. And this is a man whose horse, Pherenikus, ran to victory on Olympian fields in southern Greece near the river sacred to Alpheus (also spelled Alpheos). Now at his victory banquet, Hieron will listen to the music of my words sung by a chorus to the accompaniment of a lyre.
CommentBernard Knox says a jockey in the service of Hieron rode Pherenikos, not Hieron himself (252). Apparently, Hieron reaped glory for sponsoring the horse and its rider, just as the owner of a modern professional football or baseball team reaps glory if his or her team finishes first. Epode 1
.......The glory of Hieron's name crosses the sea, even to the land of Pelops in Greece. In bygone days, Pelops was the first Olympic hero, winning glory in a chariot race that marked the beginning of the famed athletic games. When Pelops was born, it was Clotho (also spelled Klotho)one of the three Fates charged with spinning the thread of human destinywho presided at his birth and brought him forth from the washing basin. Unlike other humans, Pelops had an ivory shoulder, which reflected light from the hearth fire. His appearance pleased earth-shaking Poseidon, who became enchanted with him. Over the years, a false story about the background of Pelopsabout how he came to have an ivory shouldergained sway among the people.
Comment.......Pelops was the son of Tantalus (also spelled Tantalos), ruler of Sipylus (also spelled Sipylos), a kingdom in Lydia in western Anatolia (part of present-day Turkey). Tantalus enjoyed the favor of the gods. In fact, they held him in such high regard that they even allowed him to dine with them. The false story to which Pindar refers in Epode 1 concerns one of these dinners. This story, with which Greeks of Pindar's time were familiar and which many of them accepted as true, is as follows:
.......Because Tantalus could sit at the same dining table as the gods, he began to believe that he was as great as they were. Perhaps he could even get away with playing a trick on them. Here is what he did. He murdered Pelops, cooked him to a turn, and served him to the gods, believing that they would not notice what they were consuming. But all the deities except Demeterthe goddess of agriculturesaw through the scheme and refused to eat. However, before the gods could act, Demeter had already eaten a shoulder of Pelops. The gods then brought Pelops back to life, and Demeter gave him an ivory shoulder to replace the one she had eaten. Tantalus was sentenced to eternal damnation in Hades. Strophe 2
.......Pindar says he rejects the story that Tantalus cooked and served his son to the gods. He believes it is blasphemous to associate the gods with so grotesque an account, especially one in which a goddess is tricked into eating human flesh. He then begins to tell what he believes really happened.
.......Poseidon bore Pelops off in a golden chariot to the palace of Zeus. After a time, the mother of Pelops sent men to look for him, but they could not find him. It was at that time that a hateful neighbor began circulating a story that said the gods had boiled and eaten Pelops.
.......Pindar refuses to believe that the gods could stoop to such barbarity. To spread a lie that accuses them of doing so is to invite their wrath. Keep in mind, too, Pindar says, that the gods had held Tantalus in high esteem. Surely they would never have killed his son. As for Pelops's ivory shoulder? He had had it since birth. But what of Tantalus? The gods turned against him for committing an unforgivable offense and condemned him to hell. What could he have done to offend them?
.......Tantalus had stolen the food and drink of the gods, ambrosia and nectar, and shared them with his drinking friends. These are the staples of immortality, and they gave Tantalus eternal life. But the gods discovered the theft, for it is impossible to hide such a deed from them. They then returned Pelops to earth and condemned Tantalus to eternal suffering in Hades. Beneath him was a pool of water. Above him were tree branches bearing various fruits, such as figs and pears. When he stooped to drink water, it would recede. When he reached for a fruit on a branch, the wind would blow the branch out of reach. Meanwhile, after Pelops grew to young manhood, he was ready to marry.
.......His thoughts turned to a famous beauty, Hippodameia, daughter of Oenomaus, king of Pisatis (or Pisa). Pisatis is on a river bank in southern Greece in a region known as Elis. (It is the same locale where Hieron was later to win his horse race.) Because Oenomaus lusted after his own daughter, he wanted no one else to have her. So it was that he slew with his spear every suitor who tried to win her handthirteen in all. Pelops went to the sea and stood on the shore in the darkness. There, in the name of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, he called upon mighty Poseidon to assist him.
.......Pelops acknowledged that wooing Hippodameia would invite her father to make Pelops his fourteenth victim. But Pelops told Poseidon that he did not wish to spend his life shrinking from danger. Rather, he wished to face itto risk his lifeto get what he wanted. His prayer did not go unanswered, for Poseidon provided him all that he needed for victory, including a golden chariot drawn by winged horses.
.......And so Pelops defeated Oenomaus and married Hippodameia. Over the years, she gave him six sons, all of whom became powerful military leaders. After he died, he was entombed near the river of Alpheus, where many travelers stopped to pay him homage. But his glory lived on in the athletic games at Olympia, near the same river and in the same place where Pelops drove to victory. Today, as the winner of an Olympic horse, Hieron may look forward to unending joy and contentment.
.......Yea, sweet is the fruit of victory in the hour of challenge. And now the time has come to crown the victor. Let it be known that on all the earth there is no man more deserving of this honor than Hieron. May the god who watches over him never have reason to abandon him, Pindar says.
.......As long as that god remains with you, an even sweeter victory will come your way. Even now the Muse is fashioning for me an arrow that will sing through the air another song of praise for your deeds. Be aware, though, that presiding as a king is the highest honor you can attain on earth. Desire nothing beyond this achievement but do continue to walk a monarch's path. As for me, may I be the one who will walk with you to serve you with the power of my poetry.
Knox, Bernard, ed. The Norton Book of Classical Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
.......In "Olympian 1," Pindar briefly retells the story of Pelops, a legendary Greek hero who won a horse race that inspired the establishment of the Olympian games. Recounting this tale enables Pindar to compare Hieron to Pelops and thereby present the central theme: the greatness of Hieron. Pindar first points
out that Hieron is a worthy and honorable ruler, as Pelops was, then notes that Hieron won a competition in the same place that Pelops won his, on the plain of Olympia near the river of Alpheus.
......."Olympian 1" also presents these themes: the importance of traditions such as the athletic games and the happiness that an honest, hard-won victory can bring.
Texts of the Poem
.......Translating any of Pindar's odes into a worthy version in English or any other language is extremely difficult. On the one hand, the translator must work with an ancient language and ethos and with Pindar's complex versification system. On the other, the translator must be able to present his rendering in the form of outstanding poetry that captures the essence of Pindar's spirit. Nevertheless, many translations of Pindar's odes are available. Following are links to four translations and the complete text of another translation.
Translation by Richmond Lattimore (1906-1984)
Translation by William H. Race
Translation Provided by Project Perseus
Translation by William Mullen
Translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)
Best is Water of all, and Gold as a flaming fire in the night shineth
Take from the peg the Dorian lute, if in any wise the glory of
Bright is his fame in Lydian Pelops' colony, inhabited of a goodly
Verily many things are wondrous, and haply tales decked out with
Meet is it for a man that concerning gods he speak honourably; for the
But when thou hadst vanished, and the men who sought thee long brought
Now if any man ever had honour of the guardians of Olympus, Tantalos
This hopeless life of endless misery he endureth with other three,
Therefore also the immortals sent back again his son to be once more
And he came and stood upon the margin of the hoary sea, alone in the
Then he said unto him: 'Lo now, O Poseidon, if the kind gifts of the
Thus spake he, nor were his words in vain: for the god made him a
And he begat six sons, chieftains, whose thoughts were ever of brave
Now the good that cometh of to-day is ever sovereign unto every man.
Of many kinds is the greatness of men; but the highest is to be
1. If you are studying a foreign languagesuch as French, Spanish, German, or Greektranslate a poem of your choice and express it in a way that attempts to capture the essence of the original version.
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