Home » criticism, history, Poetry

Beyond the Pillars of Hercules

By (September 1, 2010) 3 Comments

Odes for Victorious Athletes

By Pindar, translated by Anne Pippin Burnett
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010

The ancient Greek poet Pindar, probably around the time of his 50th birthday, found himself in serious legal trouble. He was Theban by birth, most likely from the nobility of the outlying region of that city near Boeotia but for the previous twenty years he’d traveled all over Greece, gaining renown for his tremendous repertoire of poetical works, from dance tunes to processional anthems to sacred hymns to formal acclamations. Around the year 474 BC the rulers of Thebes publicly reprimanded – and heavily fined – him for including in one of his poems some warm praise of Athens as the very bulwark and citadel of the gods. When Pindar wrote those words Athens had become an aggressive, colonizing super-power, and the grandees of Thebes certainly didn’t want their most illustrious native son praising their most ominous political rival. The fact that Pindar would do exactly that tells us a great deal about him, from the way poetic transport could blind him to pragmatism, to how sentimental he could be when hymning glowingly about the past of a present-day city-gobbling empire, to the fact that he was famous enough for his fine to be considered newsworthy.

Even as a very young man, Pindar was gaining renown for his copious output and willingness to please patrons (playwrights and other wags in Athens tweaked him for being such a thorough pen-for-hire), and that renown only grew, creating its own demand. He numbered tyrants such as Arkesilaus of Kyrene, Hieron of Syracuse, and Theron of Akragas among his patrons, and he was welcome at dozens of smaller local courts (more, indeed, than he could visit – several of his surviving poems contain what amounts to stage-directions of a type an anxious poet would send with his work if he couldn’t send himself).

We’re hampered in properly estimating that renown, because only a tiny fraction of his body of work comes down to us intact. In the centuries after his death, that collection was structured and sub-divided by busy librarians at Alexandria and elsewhere, and so the wastage of time has been cruelly categorical: out of all those full-scale hymns, all those ditties and stage-hall numbers, all those priestess chants, all those encomiums, only one type survives: his victory odes.

The victories alluded to were in athletic contests and games, which were vital to ancient Greece in a way that’s all but inconceivable to the modern West. Imagine a pre-Reformation Europe in which the various cathedral cities sent their most athletic altar boys to grand competitions for the greater glory of God and Holy Mother Church, and you might come close – but such a thing is unimaginable, because the same Church that built those cathedrals taught an entire millennium to feel shame, and shame is incompatible with the emotion that lay at the heart of the Greek game-culture: exaltation.


The games themselves were frequent. The biggest meets were the Isthmian and Nemean games (held every two years) and the more prestigious Pythian and Olympian (held every four years), but local contests were held everywhere in Greece where there were young men and track facilities. And the outcomes were often brutal enough to satisfy even the most bloodthirsty spectator: maimings and deaths were common. There were boy’s and men’s foot-races (including a sprint of nearly a mile in broiling heat), boxing, wrestling, the breathtakingly savage pankration (a mixture of no-holds-barred wrestling and boxing done with spiked leather gloves, usually conducted without quarter), a pentathlon that consisted of discus, javelin, running, jumping, and wrestling, and there were chariot races, some with single horse-drawn chariots, some with single mule-drawn chariots, and some (the real crowd-pleasers) with four-horse chariots, in all of which striking other drivers with your whip was legal. And since there was no track-order, violent multi-chariot pile-ups happened frequently, with dozens of drivers crushed underneath overturning carriages and panicked horses. Small wonder that the games were sacred to the Greeks: they virtually constituted blood-sacrifices to the gods.


Because victory brought renown, men spent lavishly on everything connected with these games. Proven champions had the best equipment, the best trainers and coaches, and the most elaborate victory celebrations (two, if the victory happened far from home: one at, say, Olympia, and then one week or even months later in whatever town the victor hailed from). And central to those celebrations were victory odes, where poets would clothe the results of evanescent physical contests with the vestments of eternity. It wasn’t an easy thing to do: it was tricky to avoid looking ridiculous paralleling a mule-cart driver or a 14-year-old track victor with Apollo or Hercules, and the form itself was as regimented as one of those medieval cathedrals.

A victory ode was usually composed of a series of triads – strophe, antistrophe, and epode. The strophe and the antistrophe share the exact same meter, and although the epode differs from them, all the epodes in one poem share a meter of their own. The degree of variation and dialog between these sections is nearly infinite (no two of Pindar’s meters are exactly the same), and Pindar was a master at that interplay. He was also a deeply allusive writer, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Greek myth. Since he could be relatively certain his audiences would have similar knowledge, many of his references are offered without background.

In other words, he can be a terrifying poet to translate. Two major popular attempts were made in the 20th century: Richard Lattimore’s in 1947 and Maurice Bowra’s in 1969. And now appears a new translation by Anne Pippin Burnett, intrepidly attempting to give a new Pindar to a new century.

This attempt everywhere succeeds: this is the best English-language Pindar that’s ever been done. Burnett has managed (without sign of effort, although the effort must have been herculean) to combine a light, airy touch with an extremely solicitous critical apparatus, and the result is exactly what a reader of Pindar wants: the equal choice between studying the work and simply reading the poems. The points of her Introduction are short and free of jargon:

The Hellenic contender in an athletic competition offered his inherited strength, his acquired training, and his own concentrated courage, as well has his blood, his bones, and possibly his life, for the delight of supernatural spectators who might in return bestow favor upon the athlete, his family, and his community.

And her Odes capture far more of the beauty of the original than Lattimore’s clanking verisimilitude and far more of its strangeness than Bowra’s charming efforts to turn Pindar into Dylan Thomas. She’s far better than either of them at evoking the oddly endearing theatricality of Pindar, a theatricality that was built into the culture of victory odes in general.

The idea was to simulate spontaneity: a group of spirited young men, ostensibly the roistering friends of the victor, would at a certain prearranged point in the evening’s celebration tumble haphazardly into the room as though coming straight from the games with first news of the win. Their faces would be flushed as though with wine; their dress would be disheveled, and they would seem to collect themselves gradually into a full-throated ode in praise of their friend. All of this was staged; in the bigger games, the disheveled young men would be professional actors and complete strangers to the victor, but it didn’t matter: the point of the performance was to highlight the immediacy of it all, to make fathers and uncles nostalgic for their own long-ago victories, to make those in attendance feel completely included in the rush of emotions, to provide a breathless act in the theater the ancient Greeks saw all of life to be.

In Burnett’s Odes, we can almost hear the laughter. Here’s the Sixth Pythian:

Listen! We plough a field that belongs to the
goddess with sparkling
eyes, Aphrodite, or else to the Graces! We
move toward the navel of rumbling earth
where – for the river-washed town of Akragas, the
prosperous Emmenids, and for Xenokrates –
a treasure-house stands in the gold-filled
gorge of Apollo, ready with hymns for a Pythian victor.

And we can likewise draw a breath as the lamps are trimmed and the morals are drawn:

Each deed has its
separate thirst and triumph in contest craves song, best
comrades of courage and crowns, so

send an abundance, drawn from my skill! You are his
daughter – open a laud for the ruler of heaven and
I will set parts for these echoing
voices and for the lyre! Sweet
work will be theirs as pride of a land where
Myrmidons dwelt, for Aristokleidas
(aided by you) brought no stain of dishonor to
their meeting ground when tested in

ep. stubborn pankratic company. Sung in the deep
meadows at Nemea, the victory strain puts
poultice to injuries suffered there.
Fair in himself, Aristophanes’ boy matched his
beauty with deeds and climbed to the summit of
courage – none can readily
enter the untried sea beyond Herakles’ pillars …

That’s from the Third Nemean Ode, sung in praise of Aristokleidas of Aigina, who was victor in the boys’ pankration – a strapping fifteen year old, perhaps, unlikely to be beautiful but certain to be imposing, and the Ode tells the story of the childhood of Achilles by way of illustration (the signaling of her epodes with that jarring abbreviation ‘ep.’ is Burnett’s only aesthetic failing – it interrupts the reading eye every single time it appears).

Pindar’s poetical skill is such that his illustrations need not be scrupulously on-target. Some examples are too easy for him to ignore – a victor in boy’s wrestling naturally gets a story about Peleus wrestling the shape-shifting Thetis, for example – but there are many instances where the mythological centerpiece of the ode is almost tangential. The famous Fourth Pythian, for instance, composed for Arkesilaus IV of Cyrene, features an elaborate mini-epic about Jason and the Golden Fleece, with the flimsiest possible connection to the founding of Cyrene as its appearance. Virtuosity was the real justification.

A working poet must take commissions as they come, and even in the fraction of Pindar’s work that comes down to us, we can see gradations in the sunlight and glory. The Fourth Olympian Ode celebrates a victory in the mule-cart race – a victory won by a native of Kamarina, a professional non-royal athlete whose own youth ended years ago:

For the sake of the Graces
welcome this revel that celebrates
victory won at Olympia – a long-lasting

light that rests upon deeds of broad strength! It
touches the mule-cart of Psaumis who,
crowned with the olive of Pisa, hastens to
spur Kamarina’s renown.

There’s a bit of strain showing there despite Pindar’s best efforts (all praise to Burnett for allowing us to see it), and there’s no denying that the forced nature of the proceedings was softened in direct proportion to the grandeur of the victor. Mule-carts don’t have much grandeur, and on the same scale the pentathlon was shining with it, especially for returning favorites, as in the 13th Olympian, celebrating Xenophon of Corinth, a previous victor at Isthmia and Nemea:

Welcome this rite of crown-bearing revelry,
dancers he leads back from Pisa
where he was pentathlon victor and
first in the stadium race.
No one has ever surpassed him!

Two wreaths of celery covered his
brow at the Isthmian games, nor did
Nemea differ. His own sire, Thessalos,
offered the fame of his feet to Alpheos’
banks, and while the sun rose and set he
captured two prizes at Delphi, diaulos and
stadium; in the same month,
at crag-bound Athens, one swift-footed
day placed three superb
crowns in his curls …


Pindar could also mute his brass notes and be touching, as in the 14th Olympian, sung for Asopichos of Orchomenos. He’d won the boy’s stadium race, but there was no proud father overseeing the feast – his had died before his son’s victory. Informed of this (perhaps knowing the family – perhaps having written for that father, in the bulk of the work we don’t possess), Pindar tenderly imagines that word of the victory will spread even to Hades:

Go, Echo, now, down to the dark-walled
house of Persephone. Take the true word of his
fame to his father,
find Kleodamos and tell of the son who in
Pisa’s famed valley has fixed in his hair
wings that were won in a crown contest.

In all of these moods and modes, Burnett is a shrewd guide, an unabashed celebrant of this difficult poet.

Pindar died in 438 BC as the clouds of war were darkening over the Peloponnese. Soon, darker and deadlier happenings would dominate the literature of the day, and perhaps the happy luster of the games would never again shine as easily. Certainly the last few decades have taught all but the most credulous sports fan to despise the merest hint of exaltation. Instead, an unending procession of grim, robotic athletes parades to their shame, grimly breaking records, grimly taking performance-enhancing drugs, grimly apologizing and cashing in multi-million dollar endorsement deals. Crowds sneer at their own home-town boys, exuberant fans are tasered into unconsciousness, and the gods are entirely absent. We would have no use for a Pindar today, but the sunlit strivings of long ago still live in him – indeed, thanks to this new translation, they all but sing:

Joy is the best healer, once toil is judged! Songs
artfully made, daughters of Muses,
charm as they touch, nor can warm water
bring to tired limbs comfort as praise does,
mixed with the voice of the lyre. Cast into
speech, fame lives longer than deeds when –
touched by the Graces – the tongue
draws from the depths of the heart.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.