Sunday, June 8, 2014

TFBT: Pindar’s Victory Songs

I didn’t expect to like the Ancient Greek poet Pindar, but I do!  I am reading Pindar’s Victory Songs by Frank J. Nisetich. That fact that Nisetich prefaces each translation with an explanation of equal length to the ode might help those uninitiated into the mysteries of Greek mythology enjoy Pindar.  But what I really found surprising is that I enjoyed reading Nisetich.   

The book begins with a thorough and detailed discussion of the rules that pertain to victory odes (epinician).  For example, any self-reference by the poet changes the course of the ode and topic of the moment.  Nisetich ends the discussion with, “All these tendencies – to see the general behind the particular to grasp one thing by contrast with its opposites, to trace human vicissitudes to the will of the gods…or find the right response to a present situation through reference to myth or proverb – remain a dominant form of thought and style in archaic poetry.” 

Pindar was hired to write the poems in this book; to honor various victors at various of the PanHellenic games.  I’ve read half way through the book so far, which covers the victors at the Olympic Games and the Pythian Games at Delphi.  Pindar goes way out of his way not to bluntly brag about the victor.  Often studiously avoiding his name.  Nisetich explains, “For happiness, finally is the god’s prerogative.  In a world where the gods may take offense at human exultation, it is dangerous to exult.” 

For Pindar’s part he is quick to remind those he celebrates in song that;

  • “Malignant pain perishes in noble Joy.”  (Olympian 2)
  • A man forgets the strain of contending when he triumphs “ (Olympian 2)
  • “Care born of forethought puts success and joy within men’s reach.”  (Olympian 7)
  • “The contenders, struggling for glory, breathless until they hold it.”  (Olympian   8)
  • Few have won joy without effort (Olympian 10)
  • Bring your life to completion in good cheer, with your sons standing beside you.  If the wealth a man tends and cares for be sound, his house ample and his name renowned as well, let him not envy the gods.  (Olympian 5)
  • And finally to remind them to avoid hubris he says “And the arrows of Artemis…hunted down Titys, so that men might learn to yearn for things that are within their grasp” (Pythian 4).  Titys yearned for the embrace of the goddess Leto, mother of Artemis and died for his vanity.  

The book is full of historical figures and ancient myths, but throughout Pindar’s songs in praise of heroes, gods and Olympic athletes he is quick to remind them all that “I say (the poet) you have achieved unending glory.” (Pythian 2) 

Some interesting asides include;

  • The suggestion that once her son slipped Semele into Heaven under the name of Thyone she became “beloved of Pallas” (Olympian 2) What myths would account for this friendship among the two unrelated female deities? 
  • Admittedly, Thyone’s son (Dionysius) and his sister Athena both experienced unique births.  Both were brought to full term inside the body of their common father Zeus.  Athena from his head and Dionysius from his “thigh”.  But, nowhere is there a myth mentioning that this was a bond that united Athena and Dionysius, much less Athena and Thyone.
  • The only myth I recall that remotely links Semele and Athena is the story of Dionysius in a previous form, then named Zagreus.  Zagreus, the epithet of the chthonic Dionysius was born of Zeus and Persephone.  The young man was torn apart and eaten by dogs, er I mean the Titans.  Athena rescued his heart and gave it to Zeus.  The shredded godlings essence and immortality presumably passed on to the son of Semele.  ( Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology).
  • The Titan of the sun Helios missed the division of honors at Mecone after the defeat of the elder titans.  Sailing across the sky that day the saw the island Rhodes about to surface from beneath the sea.  In recompense, Zeus promised the island as part of his time.  In Olympian 7 Pindar says Helios asked the Fate Lachesis to guarantee Zeus’ promise.  Sort of an odd request by Helios, but maybe typical of Pindar who asks the Fates to turn their backs on feuding family members (Pythian 4) and recalls Clotho lifting the butchered Pelops out of the stew pot, complete with renewed life and a gleaming ivory shoulder (Olympian 1)
  • Nisetich  says “We may suppose that a man who makes a promise and then does not keep it lied, when he made it.  But in Greek the connection is more immediate; if truth is memory, forgetfulness is a kind of lying.”  This rather makes sense because we’ve all dealt with people who were clearly not paying attention to us and would forget the commitments they made that day and even the conversation.
  • Nisetich  also explains that the wheel on which Ixion was bound is an iunx, a love charm which he tried on Hera.  Of course Zeus substituted a cloud for his wife, forming it to look like Hera.  Ixion’s son by the cloud goddess Nephele is named “Centaurus”  from the verb kentein meaning to stab and aura meaning air, in remembrance of his conception. 
Let me end with some typical beautiful writing by Pindar on a Sicilian oread; “white-capped Aetna, nursing all year long her brood of stinging snow, within her secret depths pure springs of unapproachable fire erupt -  her rivers in daytime pour forth billows of glaring smoke, while at night the blood-red , rolling blaze whirls boulders crashing onto the flat plain of the sea Pythian 1


  1. I also mentioned (and was surprised by) the Semele - Athena connection by Pindar, in the Semele-Thyone page at There was also a quote from Nonnus that, after her apotheosis, Semele "had converse with Athena". I asked myself, what on Earth could they converse about, what subjects could they have in common? On one side, the virgin warrior and geek goddess Athena. On the other side, the lady with the dubious distinction to be the only ever woman, mortal or immortal, for whom we know for sure that she voluntarily made sex with Zeus. (Because a rape victim would hardly ask her rapist to appear before her in full glory.)
    I think goddesses, particularly virgin goddesses, despised Semele, as her mortal relations did. It is funny to me that some scholars, commenting Euripides' Bacchae, write that the Thebans should have done this or that to avoid the hostility of Dionysus. However had they behaved, they would have been ruined. Because the true reason for Dionysus' anger was not something the Thebans did or didn't do, but the fact that they knew his mother had been a slut, and he knew they knew.

  2. Maya,

    I love the phrase "the virgin warrior and geek goddess Athena." Your analysis of Dionysius' anger "they knew his mother had been a slut, and he knew they knew." is right on.

    But do you really think that Semele was Zeus' only willing lover? I'll bet there were all sorts of nymph-groupies trying to get his attention, bed and throne. Aphrodite might be mighty, but Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.


  3. Following the same logic, I had made Thetis rant about why doesn't Zeus satisfy himself with all those females who make a queue in front of him and are a disgrace to womanhood.
    However, when I sought evidence of such females, I found next to none, so I omitted the lines.
    Of course, authors claim that maidens wanted very much to lay with such an excellent alpha male but were afraid of Hera. The anger of Hera seems to be a convenient excuse for women to avoid Zeus whenever possible. Otherwise, they could be charged with rebellion (if immortal) or impiety (if mortal). Most myths including Hera are equally (or more) logical without her. She is a sort of red herring in Greek mythology. Besides, Zeus committed his worst atrocities to women (Metis and Asteria) before marrying Hera.

  4. Let's examine the most important "loves" of Zeus. First, the goddesses:
    Metis - rape followed by "murder";
    Themis - likely consensual, because she remained his supporter afterwards. (My Zeus brings Themis to the Council of the Twelve Olympians whenever he has to enforce a difficult decision; being more loyal to him than any Olympian, and more intelligent and eloquent than most of them, Themis "sells" his decisions to the Council. So a superstition originated that the number 13 brings misfortune.)
    Dione (if we accept her as Aphrodite's mother) - likely rape; it is difficult to imagine that any sister of Metis would willingly lay with Zeus; remember the prayer of the Chorus to the Moirae in the Prometheus Bound.
    Eurynome - same as above; besides, she leaves Olympus.
    Demeter - likely consensual (she seems too mighty to be raped), but she was deeply hurt and disappointed (wishes Persephone never to make sex).
    Mnemosyne - no data;
    Asteria - Zeus first imprisons her husband, then attempts to rape her; she flees and commits "suicide"; Zeus gives honors to her daughter in a probable "out of court settlement";
    Leto - strong indirect evidence of rape (sister of Asteria, flees Olympus in an apparent attempt to save her babies from their father);
    Hera - consensual accordint to the Iliad, but other sources say deceit and rape (the cuckoo story);
    Maia - strong indirect evidence of rape (her father is punished by Zeus, she lives hidden in a cave);
    Electra sister of Maia - same as above; her son Iasion was killed by his father;
    Persephone (if we accept her as mother of Zagreus) - rape: she was his daughter and, as you wrote earlier, she had no choice and "no" was not an option.

    Some of the mortal "lovers":
    Aegina - kidnapped and raped;
    Europa - same as above;
    Io - perpetually tortured for months or years until she submits "voluntarily";
    Sinope - outwits Zeus and so avoids rape;
    Pyrrha and the daughters of Deukalion - do you think any of them would wish sex with Zeus? Apparently rape, maybe for revenge;
    Dia - no data;
    Alcmene, Antiope, Danae, Leda - deceived, none of them ever consented to lay with Zeus;
    Semele - consensual sex, then killed while pregnant;
    The Danaids - wished to lay with Zeus, but he stayed far from them. One of them finally accepted Poseidon as a surrogate. Why didn't he come to them when they prayed to be "rescued" the way Io was? One starts to think that Zeus does not enjoy consensual sex!
    Thaleia - rape followed by suicide.

  5. Maya,

    What is your take on the "Predatory" Goddesses” as Mary R. Lefkowitz calls them? (If you don't have institutional access to JSTOR they will give you access as an independent researcher.) Lefkowitz talks about the Eos, Calypso and Aphrodite's treatment of young male lovers.

  6. This registration is too much a headache for me :(.
    From the abstract, it seems that Lefkowitz tries to portray the predatory feature of these goddesses as entirely divine, rather than female.
    However, from what I know about the ancient Greek society and culture, the Greek males were quite afraid of females. They locked women inside homes, forced them to tie their hair and to cover from neck to feet, married them off as soon as they grew out of childhood. Quite like today's Muslims. Middle-aged men often preferred as sexual partners younger males to females. It seems to me that the Greeks also thought that women, if left free, would destroy the society.
    The male gods, though immortal, ageless and powerful, also feared their females. The two predecessors of Zeus were toppled by their consorts. Zeus kept his throne by controlling (swallowing) the mother rather than the child. Still, he didn't dare to tell Demeter that he had decided to marry their daughter off to Hades.
    It seems to me that (male) Greeks projected on goddesses their ideas of female dangers.

  7. Maya,
    Isn't it amazing how insistently Gaia opposed the ruling regime (that she helped install)? I think zeus and gaea cut a deal, called a truce after the Typhonomacy to get Prometheus and the Titans released. Thats my new proverb, even "immortal Zeus released the Titans" Pythia 4.294


  8. Maybe this is Pindar's explanation. Unfortunately, all information we can directly squeeze from his Odes is that he doesn't want to warship a jerk :-).
    My Gaia cannot have this role. She is powerless and, besides, hates Prometheus ever since he, in the line of his duty, finds out that her habit to add corn lily to her salad has caused the malformation of the Cyclopes.

    1. Maya, You are funny corn lily caused the "good looks" of the Cyclops. haha

    2. Actually, it is somewhat inaccurate. Because the corn lily having this effect is a New World species. See the photo of the cyclopic lamb here:
      Old World corn lilies, as far as I know, contain little cyclopamine. So, while not the best spices for your salad, they could hardly cause cyclopia. But too pedantic adherence to the facts harms science fiction.