The victory odes of Pindar
week I attended a lecture on classical Greek literature, and one of the
poets the speaker focused on was Pindar. I had read some of Sir Maurice
Bowra's translation of the victory odes of Pindar some years ago and
found tem to be intriguing.
After the lecture I decided to read diverse translations of Pindar's
poems available in English. What follows is my response to them and my
reflections on them. ( I am, of course, not a professional Pindarist and
I do not read these texts in their original Greek).
The victory odes of Pindar paint for us a cultural world that is very
different from the one that we are accustomed to. These poems are
distant in terms of time, space and sensibility.
Hence, is there a purpose in seeking to enter into a cultural world
that is so different and remote from us? The answer to this question is
a categorical yes. To my mind, one of the benefits of literature is
precisely this Ė to open the gates to new worlds of imagination. The
eminent literary theorist Harold Bloom made this point lucidly and
cogently when he made the following observation.
ĎReading well is one of the great pleasures of solitude can afford
you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of
pleasures. It returns you to the otherness,,,,Ö.imaginative literature
is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness.í Pindarís odes in my
judgment, offer us Sri Lankan readers the opportunity to explore this
otherness that Bloom is foregrounding.
Pindar (518-438 B,C,) is arguably the finest ancient Greek lyric
poet. His Victories contained in four book are available to us in their
complete form, while fragments are available of the other thirteen works
credited to him. Pindar was a professional poet; he was paid for what he
did in that sense he was a hired celebrant.
As was the ruling custom at the time, he wrote poems to celebrate
various historical moments, mostly triumphs at athletic games.
What is interesting about Pindar's poetry is that he was able to rise
above the specificities of the historical moment that was the original
impulse for a given poem and reach towards more universal modes of
feeling and understanding using the power of language and various
literary strategies at his command. This makes him a great poet whom we
should reflect on.
Lyric poetry in classical Greece attained its highest powers between
the periods of the epic and tragedy Ė 650 Ė 450 B,C. the poetry composed
during this period is broadly divided into two categories by literary
historians. The first is the personal lyric; the poetry of Sappho,
Anacreon, Alcaeus represent the nature and dynamism of the first
category; the second is the choral lyrics.
These comprised poems sung and performed by a choir in order to
commemorate various civic and religious events. The names of poets such
as Alcamen, Stesichorous, Simonides are associated with this genre. The
poet who brought this form to a pitch of perfection was Pindar, the
subject of our current discussion.
The victory odes of Pindar were written to memorialize important
triumphs in athletic contests. The ancient Greeks were deeply enthralled
by these competitions, and Pindarís odes celebrate these occasions.
What is interesting to note about these victory odes of Pindar is
that he is far more interested in the lineage, family connections, and
deep mythological framings of the games than the actual events
Pindarís poetry reminds us of the Ďprashasti (panegyric) poetry and
Hatan Kavi (war poems) in the Sinhala tradition and the heroic poetry in
the Tamil traditions as concretized in works such as The Purananuru.
Prof. K. Kailasapathy has uncovered some important textual elements in
ancient Tamil heroic poetry.
There are, to be sure, a number of significant differences between
the classical Greek victory odes and the Sinhala and Tamil poetical
works that I alluded to. The different cultural locations and historical
conjunctures from which they arise have much to do with these
Who, then, was Pindar? Such facts as we have of his biography are
scanty, and most descriptions of his life are tentative and provisional
at best, although there are many anecdotes in circulation. He was born
in 518 B.C. and he had connections to the aristocratic class at the
His first dated work was published when he was twenty years old. And
his last dated work was published at the age of seventy two. In between,
he published a number of poetical works many of which are lost.
Pindar lived during a period in which much change was witnessed in
Greece. The Persian invasion and the impact it had on Thebes, which as a
consequence, splintered into rival factions was a part of his social
experience. This was also a period in which the Greece saw the fading of
the aristocracy and rise of democratic sentiments.
Clearly, Pindarís sympathies were with the aristocratic class and
hence he did not favour change. In that sense Pindar cannot be described
as a progressive poet. Pindar was a professional poet and he travelled
widely in the country. He made important connections with diverse
influential people at the time. He wrote a number of poems in honour of
such consequential people as Hieron and Aigin.
Pinadar, as I stated earlier, composed many works, but only the
victory odes have survived intact; the available fragments of his
writings clearly indicate that he wrote many other works. The victory
odes celebrate the winner of athletic contexts that were periodically
held in ancient Greece.
According to existing records, four such games were held in the
highest esteem. They are the Olympian at Pisa, the Pythian at Python,
the Isthmian at Isthmus and Neamean at Nemea. Various deities were
associated with these athletic events; Zeus, Apollo, of these games, the
Olympian was generally regarded as the most important and oldest.
These athletic contests consisted of a number of different races such
as four-horse chariot, mule chariot, single horse, foot race as well as
wrestling, boxing, matches. The pentathalon was another important
contest that included racing, jumping throwing the discus, and javelin
A modern reader might wonder why these contests were held in such
high esteem and what made poets devote so much of their time and energy
to celebrating the victors of these contests. Here we need to keep in
mind a number of important facts. First, there was a religious aura
surrounding these events.
They were held in sacred places, they were associated with various
deities; the blessings of gods were invoked to obtain free and fair
competition. Secondly, the triumphs at these contests were also a
demonstration of power, wealth and noble connections. Not all were
enamoured of these contests; writers like Euripedes viewed them with
less than enthusiasm.
However, Pindar thought otherwise. For him victory was an act of
nobility that signified the purposeful expenditure of time, expense,
labour on an achievement which appeared to be trivial, but was in point
of fact as significant.
There was a sequence of events, according to cultural historians that
marked the composition and performance of these victory odes.
These victory odes need to be perceived as highly structured literary
texts and events that adhered to certain codes and conventions readily
accepted by the community. They were deeply occasional in the sense that
they grew out of, and gave definition to, certain specific historical
events. The originality of a poet like Pindar lies in the way he is
able, through his creative imagination and skillful use of language, to
invest them with deeper currents of meaning.
The victors who beat out their competitors at the four great games of
Olympian, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian were celebrated in verse. These
odes were commissioned works; the winner or his family requested a poet
to compose a celebratory ode to mark the occasion; they were then
performed, deploying music and dance, at a subsequent occasion.
The entire township would turn out for the performance because the
victor had brought fame not only to his family but to the entire
community of which he was a part. The general expectation was that
certain facts would be included in the victory ode such as the name of
the winner, the type of context in which he excelled, the family, the
clan and the city he is associated with. For example, this is how
Pindarís victory ode Pythian 9 begins. (The translations are by
I wish to proclaim aloud
The bonze-shielded Pythian victor;
And the deep-zoned graces shall help me cry his name
Telesikrates 1 fortunate man, crowning the brows
Of Kyrene, the horse -taming maiden
In this proclamation are stated the name of contest, the festival,
the winner and the city. In addition, the credentials of the poet and
why he deserved to be trusted; clearly, he was inspired by the goddess
As custom dictated, these snippets of information had to be included
in the victory ode. The poets had to seek out interesting ways in which
they could be presented without falling back on repetition. Included in
the victory odes, then, were descriptions of highly conventionalized and
representative public events.
There was a certain sequence of events in their composition and
enactment. After the winner was announced at a contest the victor or his
family would commission a poet to compose an ode celebrating the
After the ode was completed, a chorus consisting of adults and young
boys was formed and they had to undergo strenuous training to sing it.
Once the rehearsals were over a suitable day was chosen for the
performance; it was performed before a large group consisting of the
The victory ode needs to be understood as a public text and public
spectacle. The fact that some of Pindarís odes contain tedious details
about the victorís siblings, and uncles and cousins and other relatives
has to be understood in terms of the compact that the victory odes came
Let us consider some of Pindarís victory odes in full to get an idea
of the structure of victory odes. The following ode titled Pythian vii,
which was composed to celebrate the triumph of Megakles of Athens, the
winner of the chariot-race.
Athens the mighty city
For the strong house of the Alkmainodidai
This is the finest prelude
To lay as foundation stone
Of my chariot-song
For in what country, what clan, would you dwell.
And has the most magnificent renown
For Hellas to hear.
For in every city the story runs
Of the citizens of Erechtheus,
Who built in shining Python
Thy porch, Apollo, marvelous to behold,
There call to me also
Five victories at the isthmus
And one paramount at godís Olympia
And two by Krisa..
Megakles, you and your fathers
Thus always, they say
Happiness, flowering and constant
Brings after it
One thing with another.
This ode was composed in 486 B,C, and was performed at Delphi. The
subject of the ode, Megakles was a leading Athenian statesman who became
unpopular among Athenians and was later recalled prior to the Persian
This ode, I submit, displays a number of features that characterize
Greek victory odes. The encapsulation of vital information, the
importance attached to divinities and myths, the weight of symbolism and
the distinctive curve of creative expression.
Let s consider some passages from a longer victory ode by Pindar.
Thus titled Pythian I, and has as its chosen subject Hieron of Aitna,
the winner of a chariot-ace. This is one of my favorite among Pindarís
odes on account of its powers of orchestration of diverse registers and
the depth of symbolic meaning
O lyre of gold, Apolloís
Trasure, shared with the violet-wreathed muses,
The light foot hears you, and the brightness begins;
Your notes compel the singer
When to lead out the dance
The prelude is sounded on your trembling strings
You quench the warrior thunderboltís everlasting flame
On the eagle of Zeus the eagle sleeps,
Drooping his swift wing on either side
This is the opening stanza of this ode. And this is how it concludes.
Proclaim menís way of life, when they die,
In history and in song.
The excellent kind heart of Kroisos does not perish,
But the pitiless soul
That roasted men in his bull of brass,
Phalaris, in every land
His evil fame overwhelms him
No harps call him into the hall,
Blending softly his name
With the voices of boys,
Good fortune is the best and first of prizes,
Good name the second possession;
The man who has found both and keeps them
Has won the highest crown.
This ode was composed by Pindar in 470 B.C. and was performed in
Sicily at the celebrations for Hieronís new city of Aitna. It seems to
me that there are a number of features in this ode that deserve our
First, the careful way in which he combines associations of music
with celestial order is important. It bears testimony to his skill as a
poet gifted with piercing imagination. He begins with the lyre, which
stirs notions of the beauty of music, which also has the effect of
stilling anger and generates harmonious music on Olympus.
The poetic text is meticulously orchestrated. Given the nature of the
experience, images of violence inevitably arise, but they are contained
and counter-balanced by the overwhelming music.
The juxtaposition of the lyre and the eagle are significant and merit
focused study. The lyre, at the beginning is merely the music of the
choral dance; as the poem progresses it gathers momentum and assumes a
universal force and indicator of divine order.
As John H. Finley, who has studied Pindar;s odes very carefully says
the following about this ode Ď civilization is capacity to hear the
intelligible order in the world and the music of the lyre reflects a
harmony in Zeus himself.í
Another important point about this victory ode is that the
chariot-race itself is not treated as the main topic. It is only a
precursor of the good things that would follow. What is far more
important to the pet is the importance of Aetna and the manifold hopes
placed on it by Hieron.
The diverse constituent elements of the ode, the divinities, maxims,
myths, personal pointers- fortify that feeling. Hence the structure of
this ode is intricate and purposive. And the maxims contained in the
poem pan out of its immediate context to cover and expound Pindarís idea
of ideal kingship that should be honored by his subject.
It is also worth pointing out that this victory ode is dedicated to
Zeus; the poet speaks to him directly and entreats him to maintain the
safety and peace in the city and ensure its prosperity.
Given how pivotal role gods played in the ancient Greek imagination,
and how the relationships between humans and divinities were central to
Pindarís understanding of the world, this move needs to be regarded as
one of sincere expression.
For a Sri Lankan reader, the odes of Pindar can appear to be strange
and difficult. There are a number of reasons that contribute to this
First, the historical and cultural context within which these odes
operate is unfamiliar to us. Secondly, Pindar invests his poems with
mythological frames and tropes. He takes for granted a ready knowledge
of these myths, which certainly cannot be expected from Sri Lankan
readers, or for that matter, modern Western readers.
Third his poetic utterances carry a significant weight of symbolic
meaning. The de-coding of these symbolic meanings entail some effort.
Fourth the historical personages referred to in the odes are, for the
most part, unfamiliar to us. For these and related reasons Pindar;s
victory odes can prove to be difficult texts.
However, if we are keen to enter a different cultural world and
explore its topography and psychology, these odes allow us a wonderful
opportunity for undertaking that task.
For example, Pindarís use of myth in his odes deserves careful
unpacking. In all his odes, the myths that were generally known to
ancient Greek audiences were deployed to elucidate the meaning of the
event recounted and provide the sustaining architecture for the odes.
A modern reader could be left with the uneasy feeling that the
historical and social meanings attached to the events he is depicting
are quickly absorbed by the timeless myths and flattened out. Indeed
there is some substance to this charge.
However, it also needs to be recognized that recourse to myth should
not be understood as neglecting the social and historical dimensions. In
most cases the mythological perspective can deepen that historical and
For example Pythian I that we discussed earlier shows clearly that
the poet had a profound understanding of what was taking place around
him and that he recognized the significant triumphs of Sicilian princes
over Carthage and Etruria.
The creative use of myth in literary textual production is something
quite common in classical Sinhala literature.
If one were to examine poetical works like Kavsilumina, Sasadava,
Muvadevdava, Kavyashekaraya, Guttilaya and the Sandesha kavyas, one
would realize the important role that classical Indian myths have played
in giving them direction and density.
The way Pindar has sought to make use of Greek myths is different
from the intentions and efforts of classical Sinhala poets.
Pindarís odes possess a complex unity; that unity does not arise from
a single image and concept but represents the coalescence of a number of
different elements Ė themes, narrative discourses, tropes, parallelisms,
Hence a study of the verbal organization of these odes is central to
an informed understanding of their deeper meanings. The clever use of
mythologies that I alluded to earlier serves to enforce this complex
(To be continued) .