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Victory odes

A song of victory is as old as victory itself, and only younger than strife, “the father of all things.” The unrenowned ἐνδομάχας ἀλέκτωρ,
spoken of by Pindar, chanted his
The Epinikion.
own epinikion before the flood. Old songs of victory are familiar to us from the Bible — Miriam's song, Deborah's song, the chorals of virgins that sang “Saul hath slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands.” Pindar himself mentions the old μέλος of Archilochos, a hymn on the heroes of the games, Herakles and Iolaos, the τήνελλα καλλίνικος, the “See the conquering hero comes,” which was chanted by the victor's friends in default of any special epinikion. No one who has read the close of the Acharnians of Aristophanes is likely to forget it (Ach. 1227-end).

There were singers of epinikia before Simonides and Pindar, but we shall pass over the obscure predecessors of these two princes of Hellenic song, to whom the full artistic development of the lyric chorus was peculiarly due, pausing only to point out to the beginner in Pindar, who is ordinarily more familiar with the tragic chorus than with any other, the fundamental difference between tragic and lyric. The tragic chorus has been called the ideal spectator, the spectator who represents the people. It is the conscience, the heart of the people. In the best days of the drama the chorus follows every turn

Lyric chorus.
of the action, heightens every effect of joy or sorrow by its sympathy, rebukes every violation of the sacred law by indignant protest or earnest appeal to the powers above. If the coryphaeus or head man speaks, he speaks as the representative of the whole.

But in Pindar the chorus is the mouthpiece of the poet, and does not represent the people except so far as Pindar,

Mouthpiece of the poet.
through the chorus, expresses the thought of the Greeks and reflects their nationality. In the tragic chorus old men and young maidens, hardy mariners and captive women are introduced; but under all the dramatic proprieties of expression, we see the beating of the Greek heart, we hear the sound of the Greek voice. In Pindar's epinikion we never forget Pindar.

The victories in honor of which these epinikia were composed gave rise to general rejoicing in the cantons of the victors, and a numerous chorus was trained to celebrate duly the solemn festivity. This public character brought with it

Scope of the Epinikion.
a grander scale, a more ample sweep, and the epinikion took a wider scope. It is not limited to one narrow line of thought, one narrow channel of feeling. There is festal joy in the epinikion, wise and thoughtful counsel, the uplifting of the heart in prayer, the inspiration of a fervent patriotism; all these, but none of them constitutes its character. That character is to be sought in the name itself. The epinikion lifts the temporary victory to the high level of the eternal prevalence of the beautiful and the good over the foul and the base, the victor is transfigured into a glorious personification of his race, and the present is reflected, magnified, illuminated in the mirror of the mythic past. Pindar rises to the height of his great argument. A Theban of the Thebans, an Aigeid, a Kadmeian he is, and continues to be, but the games were a pledge and a prophecy of unity, and in the epinikia Pindar is national, is Panhellenic. From the summit of Parnassos he sweeps with impartial eye the horizon that bounds Greek habitation. Far in the west lies Sicily, “the
Panhellenism of the Epinikion.
rich,” with Syracuse, “the renowned, the mighty city,” “sacred pale of warrior Ares,” “of heroes and of horses clad in iron, foster-mother divine,” and “the fair-built citadel of Akragas, abode of splendor, most beautiful among the cities of men, abiding-place of Persephone,” and Kamarina, watered by the Hipparis, with its “storied forest of stedfast dwellings,” and Himera with its hot springs, haunted by the nymphs, and Aitna, “all the year long the nurse of biting snow.” He looks across the firth to Italy, to the land of the Epizephyrian Lokrians, and from his height “bedews the city of brave men with honey.” Then, turning southward, he descries Libya, “the lovely third stock of the mainland,” where “Queen Kyrene” “unfolds her bloom.” Eastward then to Rhodes, “child of Aphrodite and bride of the sun,” to Tenedos, “resonant with lute and song.” Now home to Greece and Argos, “city of Danaos and the fifty maidens with resplendent thrones,” “the dwelling of Hera,” “meet residence for gods, all lighted up with valorous deeds.” Long does his gaze linger on Aigina, no eyesore to him, however it may be to the Peiraieus. One fourth of the epinikia have for their heroes residents of that famous island which Pindar loved with all the love of kindred. “Nor far from the Charites fell her lot,” “this city of justice,” “this island that had reached unto the valorous deeds of the Aiakidai,” “her fame perfect from the beginning,” “the hospitable Doric island of Aigina.” Yet he is not blind to the merits of Aigina's foe. Every one knows by heart the words that earned him the great reward. In the dithyramb Athens is Ἑλλάδος ἔρεισμα, κλειναὶ Ἀθᾶναι: in the epinikia she is “the fairest prelude for founding songs.” His glance takes in with rapid sweep Lakedaimon and Thessaly. “If Lakedaimon is prosperous, Thessaly is happy; the race of one, even Herakles, ruleth both.” Nearer he comes, now to “famed” Opus, now to Orchomenos by the waters of Kephissos, land of steeds, dwelling-place of the Charites, and then his eye rests in brooding love on Thebes, the theme of his earliest song, “Thebes of the seven gates, mother mine, Thebes of the golden shield.”

It is evident, then, that the theme was no narrow one, that all that was best, highest, most consecrated, all the essential Hellenism in Pindar had ample scope. And now, even to those who know nothing of Pindar, except by the hearing of the ear, the great games of Greece have been brought nearer by the recent excavations at Olympia, and the brilliant scene

The games.
of the Olympian festival is more vivid than ever to the imagination. We see the troops of pilgrims and the hosts of traffickers wending their way to the banks of the Alpheios, the rhetorician conning his speech, the poet hugging his roll of verse, the painter nursing his picture, all seeking gold or glory at the festival. Few landscapes so familiar now as the plain of Pisa, with its sacred river and his mischievous brother, Kladeos. The fancy can clothe the Altis again with the olive, and raise sunny Kronion to its pristine height, and crown it with the shrine to which it owes its name. We see again temples and treasure-houses, the flashing feet of the runners, the whirlwind rush of the chariots, the darting of the race-horses, the resolute faces of the men who ran in armor, the gleaming flight of the javelins, the tough persistence of the wrestlers, each striving to put off on his antagonist the foulness of defeat. The scene is lighted up by the midmonth moon, and the revolving Horai seem to have brought back the music of the past to which they danced more than two thousand years ago. Everything that has been brought to light in Olympia has brought with it new light for the scene, for the games. The Hermes of Praxiteles is henceforth for
us the impersonation of the youthful athlete, whose physical prowess has not made him forget tenderness and reverence. The Nike of Paionios revives for us the resistless rush of victory; the breeze that fills her robe quickens the blood in our veins. Stadion, the oldest of all the games, most characteristic of all, as it symbolized Greek nimbleness of wit, Greek simplicity of taste, pentathlon, pancration, the chariot race, the race with horses, all these become more real to us for statue and vase, disk and tablet. We mingle in the eager crowds, we feel the tremulous excitement, we too become passionate partisans, and swell the volume of cheers. Many masters of style have pictured to us the Olympic games, but these things belong to masters of style, and no futile rivalry will be attempted here with what has helped so many to a clearer image of the great scene. Yet, after all that has been said by word-painter and by archaeologist, the poet must give the poet's meaning to the whole. Reconstruct Greek life and we shall better understand Pindar. With all my heart; but after the reconstruction we shall need the poet's light as much as ever, if not more.

It is only in accordance with the principle of the organic unity of Hellenism that the acme of Greek lyric art should have embodied the acme of Greek festal life. The great games of Greece are as thoroughly characteristic of her nationality as the choral poetry which was the expression of them and the crown of them. Choruses we find everywhere, games we find everywhere, but despite all recent advance in athleticism, the Greek games were superior in plastic beauty to their modern analogues, as superior as were the Greek choruses to the rude dance and the ruder song of May-pole and vintage. The point of departure may have been the same, but the Greeks alone arrived.

The origin of the great games of Greece is to be sought in

Origin of games.
the religion of Greece,1 and the influence of Delphi, — centre of the religious life of the people, — was felt in
Delphic influences.
every regulation that controlled these famous contests. The times of the performance were in the hands of the priests, the cycle was a religious as well as an astronomical cycle. Eight years, the great year of expiation, the great λυκάβας, the hecatomb of months, the period of the great πομπή from Tempe to Delphi, was subdivided into shorter periods for the performance of the games.

The contests themselves may have come over from Asia, as Thukydides says, but a marked point of difference was the

absence of intrinsically valuable prizes, which so astonished the attendants of Xerxes. At other games prizes of value were bestowed, and lists are given in Pindar, but at the great games the prize was a simple wreath. It is true that abundant honor awaited the victor at home, special seats at festivals, free table in the prytaneion, and other immunities and privileges, but the honor was the main thing, and though it was not dearly bought, — for the two great historians, Herodotos and Thukydides, unlike in so many things, never forget to mention the agonistic achievements of the characters that cross their pages, — though the honor was not dearly bought, it was bought not only with toil, but with money, whether in training for the contest, or in outlay for horse and chariot, or in the celebration of the victory.

Early noted, early emphasized, was another difference between Greek games and Oriental. The human form, as some

Greek games and Oriental.
thing sacred in its perfection, was displayed in all its beauty and strength to the eye of day, as to the eye of the god. The Oriental games bore the mark of their bloody origin in self-mutilation. Under Dorian influence, even the Ionian dropped his trailing robes and brought a living sacrifice to his deity, the fresh bloom of young manhood, the rich efflorescence of the gifts of fortune.

Of these festivals the greatest was the Olympian, “the sun in the void ether,” that makes the lesser lights pale into noth

Olympian games.
ingness, the fire that shines in the blackness of night, and makes night look blacker by its brilliancy. The establishment of it, or the re-establishment of it, marks the union of the Doric island of Pelops, and it speedily rose to national importance. The first recorded victory is that of Koroibos (σταδίῳ νικήσας), 776 B.C. The Olympian games were celebrated at the end of every four years, beginning, according to the older view, with the first full moon following the first new moon after the summer solstice, according to the recent investigations of Unger, with the second full moon
Pythian, Nemean, Isthmian.
after the same. The Pythian festival, celebrated in the third year of each Olympiad, was revived and put on a firmer footing in 586 B.C., and the establishment or revival of the Nemean is assigned to 573 B.C., of the Isthmian to 582 B.C., and it is no mere coincidence that the rise of this new life belongs to the same century that witnessed the downfall of the ambitious houses that had acquired despotic power in Corinth and Sikyon.

There were games all over Greece — one sometimes wearies of such lists as are unrolled in O. 13 — but these four were of

National significance of these games.
national significance, all of them Amphiktyonic, all more or less under Delphic, under Apollinic influence. A sacred truce was proclaimed to guarantee the safety of pilgrims to the games, and a heavy fine was imposed on any armed body that should cross the border of Elis in the sacred month. In this peace of God the opposing elements of Greek nationality met and were reconciled. The impulsive Ionian was attuned to the steadier rhythm of the Dorian, and as Greek birth was required of all competitors, the games prepared the way for a Panhellenism which was no sooner found than lost. And yet, despite this Panhellenic character, the games did not entirely lose the local stamp. The Pythian games, for instance, were especially famous for their musical contests, the Isthmian gave the most ample opportunity for commercial exchange.

Two moral elements, already indicated, enter into the games.

πόνος δαπάνα τε
They are called by homely names, toil and expense, πόνος δαπάνα τε.2 They are moral elements because they involve self-sacrifice, submission to authority, devotion to the public weal. “So run that ye may obtain” is not merely an illustration, it is a lesson. Whether it be fleetness of foot or swiftness of horse, it demands the renunciation of self-will, and the glory is, after all, not the winner's, but the god's, for the beauty that shone forth on the stadion, the wealth that glittered in the festal display,
Honor paid the gods.
came alike from God. The games themselves are held in honor of the gods, the Olympian and Nemean of Zeus, the Pythian of Apollo, the Isthmian of Poseidon. Their praise is often the burden of the song, and the poems in which they are not magnified may be counted on one hand.

The great national heroes of Greece share in the honor.

Herakles is hardly less vividly present to our mind at the Olympian games than Zeus himself. Indeed the Herakles of Pindar might well claim a separate chapter.3 And as the games are a part of the worship of the gods, so victory is a token of their favor, and the epinikion becomes a hymn of thanksgiving to the god, an exaltation of the deity or of some favorite hero. The god, the hero, is often the centre of some myth that occupies the bulk of the poem, and it may seem at the first glance, perhaps after repeated reading, that mere caprice had dictated the choice of this or that myth rather than another, but closer study seldom fails to reveal a deeper meaning in the selection. The myth is often a parallel, often a prototype. Then the scene of the victory is sacred. Its beauties and its fortunes are unfailing sources
Scene of the victory.
of song. We learn how Pelops of yore won the chariot-race against Oinomaos, we learn how Herakles planted the Altis with trees, and brought the olive from the distant land that lies behind the blast of shrill Boreas. Not less favored is the land of the victor. Country and city are often blended with goddess or heroine whose history of
City of the victor.
trial and triumph prefigures the trial and triumph of the victor. Then the history of the house often
History of his house.
carried the poet up to the higher levels of poetry, for the house was not unfrequently an old heroic line going back into the mythic past. The epinikion is thus lifted up above the mere occasional poem, and we can well understand how such a crown of glory as a Pindaric ode would be carefully preserved and brought forth on each recurrence of the festal day. Such a poem has often for its theme a grand tradition, traditional hospitality, traditional freedom from ὕβρις, that arch-crime against the life of a Greek state, traditional victories. Even when the fortunes of a house have been chequered, what is lost in brilliancy is gained in human interest. The line disowned of Fortune comes to its rights again. The glory of the grandsire is revived in the third generation. Then there is the victory itself with all the splendor that attends it — the sacrifices, the processions, the banquets, the songs; and, not least, the songs, for Pindar magnifies his calling, and large space is given to the praise of poetry.

From this rapid enumeration of the elements of the epinikion, it will appear that the range is not narrow. There is scope enough for the highest work, as high as the brazen heaven not to be climbed of men, deep as the hell in which “you people” bear toil and anguish not to be looked at with mortal eye, broad as the family, the house, the race, mankind. And yet the poetry of Pindar does not lose itself in generalities. He compares his song to a bee that hastes from flower to flower, but the bee has a hive. He compares his song to a ship, but the ship has a freight and a port. His song does not fly on and on like a bird of passage. Its flight is the flight of an eagle, to which it has so often been likened, circling the heavens, it is true, stirring the ether, but there is a point on which the eye is bent, a mark, as he says, at which the arrow is aimed. The victory is not forgotten. The epinikion is what its name implies. Not a set piece of poetic fire-works, nor yet, as many would make it out to be, a sermon in rhythm. It is a song of praise. But all extravagance of eulogy is repressed by the dread of Nemesis, by that law of

The Epinikion a song of praise.
balance which kept the Greek in awe of presumption. The victor may see his image transfigured
into the form of hero, or even god; only he is reminded that he is of the earth. Μὴ μάτευε Ζεὺς γενέσθαι. Sometimes the praise is veiled with the myth, but when it is direct, it is delicate. The victor's garland, he says, demands the song, but the song is not such a trumpet-blast as would blow the garland off the victor's head, if not the victor's head as well. That is modern eulogy. Of course it will be said that Pindar's eulogy was eulogy to order, but it was not falsehood with a cunning makeweight of good advice. The eulogy spends itself where eulogy is earned. To whiten Hieron is easier than to blacken Pindar. The excellence of the victors in the athletic contest, of men like Diagoras, of boys like Agesidamos, the liberality of Theron, of Hieron, of Arkesilas in the chariot-race, are assuredly fit themes for praise. The prosperity of the victor and his house, as a sign of God's favor, might well deserve the commendation of the poet. But Pindar was too high a character to make deliberate merchandise of falsehood, and while it runs counter to commonsense to suppose that he availed himself of his commission to read the high and mighty tyrants of Greece lectures on their moral defects, he is too much a reflection of the Apollo, who is his master, to meddle with lies. With all his faults, Hieron was a Doric prince of whom Dorians needed not to be ashamed, but there is reserve enough in Pindar's praise of a man like Hieron to make us feel the contrast when he comes to Theron. Unfortunately, Pindar is not expected to have humor, and the jest of “the hireling Muse” and “the silvered countenance” — be it “of Terpsichore” or “of songs” (I. 2, 7) — has done him harm with critics of narrow vision.

In all estimates of Pindar's poetry, it is important to re

Pindar's relations to the victors.
member that he belonged to the aristocracy of Greece, that his poems were composed for the aristocracy, and that he spoke of them and to them as their peer. No man of the people is praised in his poems. It is the purest fancy that Thrasydaios (P. 11) was other than a man of the highest birth. Now men of aristocratic habits are scrupulously polite to persons of inferior position with whom they may be brought into social contact. Among their own set their manners are less reserved. And Pindar was in his own set when he was among these Olympian and Pythian victors, and there was a strain of familiar banter in his poems that would not have been tolerated or tolerable in any ordinary man. It is not likely that he made an allusion to Psaumis's gray hair (O. 4). If he did, it would pass. It is undeniable that he made a harmless jest at the insignificant appearance of his townsman Melissos (I. 3). When he hints at envy and feud, he has the tone of one who knows all the secrets of a coterie, and when he sorrows, he sorrows as one who has carried the body of a friend to the tomb. If we had mémoires pour servir, Pindar's reserves, his enigmas, his aristocratic intimacies might be forgiven. As it is, those who cannot amuse themselves by reconstructing the scandalous chronicle of the fifth century, often end by hating a poet whose personality for love or hate is stamped deep on all his works.

1 This section follows CURTIUS closely.

2 O. 5.15. If, however, that is not accepted as Pindaric, we have I. 1, 42,ἀμφότερον δαπάναις τε καὶ πόνοις” : I. 5 (6), 10,δαπάνᾳ τε χαρεὶς καὶ πόνῳ” .

3 V. MENGHINI, Ercole nei canti di Pindaro. Milano, 1879.

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hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Pindar, Isthmean, 2
    • Aristophanes, Acharnians, 1227
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (2):
    • Pindar, Isthmean, 1
    • Pindar, Isthmean, 5
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