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PINDAR . The links between poetry and religion were tight in ancient Greece, and Pindar (c. 518c. 438 bce) was no exception. Born in Cynoscephalae (near Thebes) and educated in Thebes and Athens, he had a special relationship with the Sicilian tyrants and the Aeginetan aristocratic families, but his reputation was Panhellenic. Some of Pindar's odes allude to the most relevant historical event of his lifetime: the Persian invasion, which was put to an end by Greek victories at Salamis in 480 and Plataia in 479. In odes for the Sicilian victors, Pindar emphasized the triumphs of the local rulers against the Carthaginians (Himera, 480) and the Etruscans (Kyme, 474). Ancient biographies of Pindar, in which he is described as theophilés (loved by the Gods), highlight certain "prodigious" episodes of his life. The biographies claim, for example, that a bee made a honeycomb on his mouth as he was sleeping on Mount Helikon (a symbol of his inspiration), that the goddess Demeter reproached him for having ignored her in his hymns, and that the god Pan was heard singing one of Pindar's songs in the mountains near Thebes.

The ancient editors classified the Pindaric poems into seventeen books containing hymns, paeans (a variety of hymn, mostly in honor of Apollo), dithyrambs (Dionysiac hymns), processional odes, maiden songs and others "separate from the maiden songs," dance-odes, eulogies, dirges, and victory odes.

The victory odes were grouped, according to the kind of contest they celebrated, as Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian, or Nemean (a class to which two odes of a different origin have been added). Although the essential aim of the victory odes is to praise the victor and his exploits, the religious elements that pervade them can be explained in terms of the festivals, which were dedicated to the important gods Zeus (Olympian and Nemean), Apollo (Pythian), and Poseidon (Isthmian). The poems' religious elements also reflect the belief that victory was proof of a divine predilection for the victor and his family, as well as the ritual context of the celebration that followed the triumph, and the immortalizing power of poetry. The poet contributed to this extraordinary religious atmosphere through a wide range of means: music and choreography; formal resources, such as poetical and rhetorical devices that shared traits with religious hymns or prayers; maxims; and mythical narratives or allusions.

More than half of Pindar's forty-six victory songs begin with a short prayer or an invocation to a divinity. Thirty-three of Pindar's odes describe one or more myths that give a solemn tone to the poet's praise for the victor, who appears in a remarkably heroic light. Seventeen of those myths deal with local traditions of the victor's homeland: the myths of the Aeacids in the eleven odes for Aeginetans, with many episodes from the old epic poetry; Apollo's love for the nymph Cyrene, eponym of this city (Pythian Odes 9, for Telesicrates of Cyrene); the origin of Rhodes (Olympian Odes 7, for the Rhodian Diagoras); and so on. Another ten either underline the parallel between the victors and some mythical hero, or they display an ad hoc narrative fitting the hero's personal circumstances, or they even adopt a paradigmatic tone. Thus the young hero Perseus is a perfect model for the child Hippocles of Thessaly (Pythian Odes 10); Heracles for a pancratium winner (Isthmian Odes 4, 5, and 6); and Philoctetes for a pain-suffering Hieron of Syracuse (Pythian Odes 1). Eschatological myths, which are related to Orphic beliefs, are significant in an ode for the Sicilian victor Theron of Acragas (Olympian Odes 2), where for the first time in Western literature an afterlife with prizes and punishments is described, as is the Island of the Blessed, a destiny for exceptional heroes. Finally, there are other myths that are included in the poems because of the type of victory or traditions about the origins of the festival. This is the case with the well-known myth of Pelops, the mythical paradigm of winners in the chariot race (Olympian Odes 1), or with Herakles as founder of the Olympian games (Olympian Odes 10).

The odes are full of moral advice regarding religious conceptions and other values. The poet is a sophós, an inspired wise artist. A victory is proof of the nature of the winner, a gleam of inborn excellence, but also a result of effort. Poets contribute to the winner's glory and fame among mortals but also proclaim the necessity of being prudent and of following the Delphic precept "know thyself": mortals must be aware of their limits and not fall into hybris (wanton violence). Humans must fear the justice of Zeus, be aware of Apollo's infinite wisdom, and recognize the immense powers of all divine beings. Stories about the shameful conduct of the Gods are wrong, and the poet must look for the truth in all of them. Moreover, destiny is mutable, as many mythical paradigms show, and mortals must grasp the fragility of human existence: "a dream of a shadow is man" (Pythian Odes 8, 95, tr. Race). Fortunately, the celebration of triumph spreads a particular aglaia (brilliance) upon the victors and their families. The Graces preside on those moments, and the charis (grace) of the song contributes to this hopeful joy.

Other types of songs with special significance for Greek religion are paeans, dithyrambs, and dirges. Pindar adapted his paeans to the requirements of audience and performance. In the Delian paeans either he sings the origins of Delos (7b), the birth of the God in the island (12, for the Naxians), and its colonization (5, for the Athenians), or he exemplifies, with relevant heroes, faith in the Gods and love for the homeland, as in, for instance, Euxanthios and Melampous (4, for the Keans). Among the Delphic paeans (3, 6, 8, 10), it is worth mentioning the myth of the successive temples (8), which symbolically exemplifies the evolution of prophetic activity, whereas in Paean 6 the epic past and the sanctuary are linked by the myth of Neoptolemos's death (his tomb was at Delphi). Neoptolemos was an important hero for the Aeginetans, who were attendants at this celebration. Paean 10 probably included the foundation myth of Python's killing and the purification of the god. Paeans 1 (for Apollo Ismenios), 7 (with the myth of Apollo and Melia), and 9 (motivated by an eclipse) were composed for the Apollonian cult of Thebes.

As was the case with paeans, Pindar's dithyrambs stressed the links between the current festival and the divine world using a rich variety of resources. The degree to which the words, music, and contents fit the spirit and tradition of a festival is clearly apparent in the impressive beginning of Dithyramb 2 (for the Thebans), which is rich in orgiastic and religious evocations (the heavenly festival mirrors the present rite). It is also apparent in the first stanza of Fragment 75 (for the Athenians), where the alliterative effects echo the sound of musical instruments. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the myths included in the dithyrambs were apt to enhance local trends of Dionysiac religion. Herakles' descent to the underworld and the introduction into Thebes of the Eleusynian mysteries were commemorated in Dithyramb 2. Myths having Perseus as protagonist appeared in at least two dithyrambs (1 and 4) and were probably composed for the city of Argos, where stories told that the hero fought against the god, with whom he was finally reconciled.

The dirges illustrate the importance of the consolatory function of poetry and the wide range of beliefs concerning the afterlife that were current in the fifth century bce. Along with a description of a delightful paradise reserved for the pious in Hades (Threni 7, Fragment 129), the dirges also contain one of the first literary testimonies of Orphic beliefs (Fragment 133) concerning the destiny of souls and the role of Persephone in their expiation process.


The best bibliographies on Pindar can be found in Douglas E. Gerber, A Bibliography of Pindar, 15131966 (Cleveland, Ohio, 1969); "Pindar and Bacchylides 19341987," Lustrum 31 (1989): 97269, and Lustrum 32 (1990): 767. An excellent edition (with a good translation) of Pindar's works is William H. Race's Pindar (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1997), vol. 1: Olympian Odes, Pythian Odes ; vol. 2: Nemean Odes, Isthmian Odes, Fragments. The paeans have been edited, with full commentary and introduction, by Ian Rutherford in Pindar's Paeans: A Reading of the Fragments with a Survey of the Genre (Oxford, 2001). For the dithyrambs, see Salvatore Lavecchia, Pindari dithyramborum fragmenta (Rome, 2000), and for the dirges, Maria Cannatà Fera, Pindarus threnorum fragmenta (Rome, 1990).

Some important works for the understanding of Pindar's poetical technique are Elroy L. Bundy, Studia Pindarica (III ) (Berkeley, Calif., 1962; reprint, 1986); Richard Hamilton, Epinikion: General Form in the Odes of Pindar (The Hague, Netherlands, 1974); Deborah Steiner, The Crown of Song: Metaphor in Pindar (London, 1986); Gregory Nagy, Pindar's Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore, Md., and London, 1990); and William H. Race, Style and Rhetoric in Pindar's Odes (Atlanta, 1990). Interesting analyses on the role of myth can be found in Adolf Köhnken, Die Funktion des Mythos bei Pindar (Berlin, 1974), and Paola A. Bernardini, Mito e attualità nelle odi di Pindaro (Rome, 1983). On the specific religious questions in Pindar, see Erik Thummer, Die Religiosität Pindars (Innsbruck, Austria, 1957); Luigi Lehnus, L'inno a Pan di Pindaro (Milan, 1979); Hugh Lloyd-Jones, "Pindar and the After-Life" in Pindare (Vandoeuvres-Genève, 1985), pp. 245279; Eveline Krummen, Pyrsos Hymnon: Festliche Gegenwart und mythisch-rituelle Tradition bei Pindar (Berlin, 1990); Emilio Suárez de la Torre, "Píndaro y la religión griega," Cuadernos de Filología Clásica (egi) 3 (1993): 6797; and Michael Theunissen, Pindar: Menschenlos und Wende der Zeit (Munich, 2000), an important essay on the concept of time in Pindar, with religious implications.

Emilio SuÁrez de la Torre (2005)


views updated May 23 2018


Pindar (522-438 B.C.), the greatest Greek lyric poet, brought choral poetry to perfection. Unlike the personal lyrics of his predecessors, his works were meant to be recited by choruses of young men and women and accompanied by music.

Pindar was born at Cynoscephalae, near Thebes, in Boeotia of a very prominent aristocratic family, the Aegeidae, who traced their genealogy back to Aegeus and even to Cadmus of Thebes with connections in Sparta, Thera, and Cyrene. He was the son of Daiphantus and Cleodice. His family seems to have had considerable interest in music, especially in flute-playing, which became important at Delphi in the worship of Apollo and was perfected and highly regarded at Thebes. Having received his elementary education under Scopelinus in Thebes, he was sent to Athens, where he was educated under Apollodorus, Agathocles, and Lasus of Hermione, a competitor of Simonides. It was Lasus who is reputed to have written the first treatise on music, brought to the voice a harmonized flute accompaniment, and perfected the dithyramb.

Returning to Thebes, Pindar competed in poetry contests with Myrtis and Corinna, the latter winning over him and advising him, because of his penchant for including an overwhelming amount of mythological allusions, "to sow with the hand, not with the whole sack." At 20, he composed his first ode, Pythian Ode X. His earliest preserved Olympian Ode was composed in 484. Pindar traveled extensively throughout the Greek world and achieved a Panhellenic reputation and numerous commissions. For Hiero I, the tyrant of Syracuse, he wrote encomia, as well as for Alexander I of Macedon, Archelaus of Cyrene, Theron of Agrigentum, the Thessalian Aleuadae, and the Alcmeonid Megacles. In Hiero, Pindar thought he saw a champion of civilized Hellenism against the forces of barbarism. He visited Sicily and was familiar with other Sicilians, notably the tyrant of Acragas, Theron, and his nephew, Thrasyboulus.

Mention should also be made of Pindar's relation with the island of Aegina. Eleven of his odes were written for Aeginetan victors. This is remarkable since it constitutes nearly one-fourth of his total output. Aegina (whose founding nymph, Aegina, was reputed to be a sister of Thebe) was subjected to Athenian imperial aggression during the Peloponnesian War, and Pindar in Pythian Ode VIII may be cloaking a criticism of this policy. He did not tire of praising the Aeacidae, Peleus and Telamon, and their offspring, Achilles and Ajax.

Thebes's unfortunate capitulation to the Persians during the Persian Wars (480-479 B.C.) and cooperation with the invading enemy left Pindar a distressed member of a disgraced and defeated state. Though apparently sympathetic to Athens, he was in no position to sing Athens's praises too loudly, even after Thebes became a subject ally of Athens about 457.

Pindar may have visited the games. At Delphi, he was particularly honored. Even his descendants are reported to have been given special recognition because of their progenitor. He was married to Timoxena and had one son, Daiphantus, and two daughters, Protomache and Eumetis.

Works and Thought

Not all of Pindar's works have been preserved. He composed hymns, paeans, prosodia (processionals), dithyrambs, parthenia (maiden songs), hyporchemata (dance songs), encomia, dirges, and epinikia (victory odes in honor of athletic heroes). Forty-four of the victory odes celebrate winners of Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games, which were religious as well as athletic occasions. These odes are brilliant in form but difficult and complex. Richmond Lattimore (1947) observes, "Competition [in the games] symbolized an idea of nobility which meant much to Pindar; and in the exaltation of victory he seems sometimes to see a kind of transfiguration, briefly making radiant a world which most of the time seemed, to him as to his contemporaries, dark and brutal."

An epinikion was sung by a chorus of men or boys at a private occasion for the winner, his family, and friends—any of these people having commissioned it. Apparently, contracts were made specifying fees, details about the winner and his family to be included, and mythical allusions to be interwoven in the commemorative ode. The victor, the event, and the festival had to be indicated, and the poet had to laud the winner for his excellence, as well as offer felicitations to his family and state. Pindar does all this skillfully. He weaves the facts into the ode gradually and highlights not the victor but the festival, the aristocratic descent of the victor, a mythological event suggested by the life of the victor, or a myth connected with the holy occasion, the victor, or the victor's native place. This "myth" constitutes the heart of the ode. The technical structure is prooimion (prelude), arche (beginning), katatrope (first transition), omphalos (center), metakatatrope (second transition), exodion (conclusion), and sphragis (seal). The transitions are important and often quite abrupt. There are three stanzas: strophe, antistrophe, and epode.

Pindar was aristocratic in temper, Panhellenic in spirit, and proud of his noble background. Profoundly religious and moral, he "corrected" myths to ensure religious orthodoxy. He saw properly used wealth as an honor to this world, but he also spoke of the next world. He believed in the righteousness of the gods, in the supremacy of Zeus, and in the majesty and justice of Apollo, and it is of Apollo that he saw himself the servant.

Pindar reflects an oligarchic society that was threatened by the rise of democratic Athens. John H. Finley, Jr. (1947), states: "Victory to Pindar is itself only a figure for this state of being, which is a mark of the divine in the world. Hence victory and poetry, different as they are, are equally dependent upon the gods, whose hand is increasingly seen in the late poems in friendship and inner harmony also." Pindar is a poet of light, which he sees most closely associated with the gods. Finely points out that Pindar tries "to grasp the bright chain that binds men to gods or, better, the radiance that descends from gods to men, touching events with the divine completeness."

So great a reputation did Pindar achieve that it is reported that when Alexander the Great devastated Thebes, only Pindar's house was left untouched.

Further Reading

An excellent collection of Pindar's work is Selected Odes, translated with interpretative essays by Carl A.P. Ruck and William H. Matheson (1968); each ode is introduced with an essay setting forth the occasion, structure, and theme of the poem. Other collections include Thomas D. Seymour, Selected Odes of Pindar (1882), and Richmond Lattimore, The Odes of Pindar (1947). Among the critical studies are John H. Finley, Jr., Pindar and Aeschylus (1947), a sensitive exposition of Pindar's use of myth and image; C. M. Bowra, Pindar (1965), intended as a critical introduction but filled with undiscussed and often unfamiliar allusions; and Mary A. Grant, Folktale and Hero-tale Motifs in the Odes of Pindar (1967). □


views updated May 23 2018


c. 518 b.c.e.–c. 443 b.c.e.


Composer of Victory Odes.

The poet Pindar was born in Thebes around 518 b.c.e., but traveled widely and was well-connected; he was hosted by, and wrote a number of poems for, Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse, in Sicily, whom he considered a champion of Greek civilization. He was also friendly with various aristocratic families on the island of Aigina, near Athens, and wrote eleven odes for Aiginetan athletic victors. Roughly contemporary with the tragedian Aeschylus, Pindar was a prolific poet; he composed choral odes, hymns, paeans, dithyrambs, processionals, partheneia (maiden-songs), laments, and more, all intended for public performance; only his epinikian, or victory, odes have survived almost intact. These odes commemorated the victory of competitors in the four major athletic games held regularly in Greece: the Olympian, at Pisa in Elis, sacred to Zeus; the Pythian, at Pytho (Delphi), sacred to Apollo; the Isthmian, at the Isthmus of Corinth, sacred to Poseidon; and the Nemean, at Nemea in the Peloponnese, sacred to Zeus. These festivals are also known as Funeral Games, because each celebrates the life of a mythological hero considered by the locals of the region as their ancient king.

Form of the Odes.

When a victory was won, the winner (or his family, or a wealthy friend) commissioned Pindar to write an ode to be performed for the winner by a chorus of men or boys, trained to sing and dance, some time after the event. The contract stipulated that certain details about the victor be included; thus the odes often include specific allusions to the winner, his family, and his ancestors. Certain particulars must be included: the victor's name, type of competition and place with some allusion to the divinity associated with that area, and one or more myths of heroes that elevated the victor to heroic status himself. Despite the required elements, many passages in Pindar's poems seem personal and moralizing. The poetic structure consisted of triads of two identical stanzas, called "strophe" and "antistrophe." A few odes, called "monostrophic," contain no triads, but a series of identical stanzas. The poems were not always sung by the whole chorus; solo parts could be performed by chorus leaders, accompanied by the kithara and phorminx (types of lyres) and the auloi (reed pipes). Though the melodies are lost, Pindar often referred to his own music in his poems, mentioning specific melodies and modes by name; in his only surviving ode written for a victorious musician—Pythian Twelve—Pindar credits Athena with the invention of the composition played by the victor, Midas, on the aulos. He employed a wide variety of complex meters, which give a sense of his rhythms. He praised his art frequently in his poems, referring to his hymns as "honey-voiced," his odes as "a mix of pale honey with milk, and a liquid shining is on the mixture, a draught of song blown on Aeolian auloi."


Andrew Barker, ed., Greek Musical Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984–1989).

Richmond Lattimore, The Odes of Pindar. 2nd ed. (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

Gregory Nagy, Pindar's Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

M. L. West, trans., Greek Lyric Poetry: The Poems and Fragments of the Greek Iambic, Elegiac and Melic Poets (Excluding Pindar and Bacchylides) Down to 450 B.C. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).


views updated Jun 27 2018


Circa 518-Circa 438 b.c.e.

Lyric Poet


Court Favorite. Pindar is the most famous and easily the best-preserved of the lyric poets of Greece. He was of Theban aristocratic birth, connected to important families throughout the Greek world, and wrote poetry for a wide range of royal patrons, from Macedon to Cyrene and Sicily. In 476 b.c.e. he joined the court of Hieron of Syracuse shortly after that tyrant had taken power. The dates of most of his surviving works ranging from 498 to 446 b.c.e., can be fixed exactly as they celebrate sporting victories which were well known and sometimes form the basis of ancient chronology (as in the dating by Olympiads). Nevertheless, the detailed information offered by the ancient biographical tradition is not likely to be correspondingly accurate. In particular, modern scholars have questioned whether the first-person statements in the surviving odes (where the text talks about “I” or “me”) can be taken as the genuine voice of the poet himself.

Victory Odes. Pindar left behind a large body of lyric poetry, but only the four books of Epinicians (victory songs) survive intact. The Epinician odes were gathered together on the basis of the location of the victories they celebrated; the four great games (Olympian [at Olympia], Pythian [at Delphi], Nemean [at Nemea] and Isthmian [at Corinth]) which made up the cycle of Greek athletic competitions thus form the organising principle. Pindar wrote the poems as commissions to celebrate victories in the games, and they were designed to be sung by choirs to welcome victors home. Often the victors were no more athletic than the average horse-breeder today, as equestrian events conferred the crown of victory simply on the owner of the winning horse. The poems portray an intensely religious bard, not afraid to alter traditional stories which reflected badly on the pantheon, and who believed that the moment of victory could unite humanity briefly with the eternal power and felicity of the gods. Pindar’s odes are unashamedly aristocratic in bias, explicitly so in an age that saw the birth of democracy in Athens and increasing debate about the best form of government—yet even so he was able to acknowledge the great role Athens played in defending Greece against the Persians, against whom his own city of Thebes had shown no resistance. Above all he stresses the irreplaceable reality of inherited virtue against that which was merely learned. Difficult but brilliant in language as well as thought—the logical connections between the sections of these poems often evade readers—the odes are an important source of myths.


C. M. Bowra, Pindar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).

D. C. Young, “Pindar” in Ancient Writers I, edited by J. T. Luce (New York: Scribners, 1982), pp. 157-177.


views updated Jun 27 2018

Pindar (c.522–c.438 bc) Greek poet known for his choric lyrics and triumphal odes. Of the 17 volumes of Pindar's works known to his contemporaries, only 44 odes survive, written to celebrate victories in athletic games.