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.
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