Pindar is generally considered both Greek lyric’s best poet, and its most difficult. He is most famous for his epinicians, poems celebrating victors at Greek games such as the Olympics. The beauty of these poems has caused a lot of argument among scholars, chiefly due to the fact that we know Pindar was paid to write them. Scholars struggle with the concept that such beauty is the product of a poet who has been hired by a wealthy, aristocratic victor, and whereas some see an elegance and wisdom in his verses that transcends this motive, others argue that everything within his odes is geared towards praising his employers.
Pythian 8 is concerned with, among other things, the brevity and insecurity of mortal happiness. His description of the victor’s success is overshadowed by a vision of those he has defeated:
Returning to their mothers, sweet laughter does not
rouse delight around them: hidden down alleys and avoiding their enemies
they cower, bitten by misfortune.
This is then followed by a description of the glorious victor, flying on the wings of his success. But even the image of the glorious victor is underlined by the reminder that his happiness is transient:
He who is allotted some new fine thing,
buoyed by hopes at his great splendour,
on the wings of his manly strength,
thinking of that which is greater than wealth. In a short time
the delight of mortals grows: but it falls the ground
shaken by hostile will.
Then follows perhaps Pindar’s most celebrated lines. They are extremely difficult to translate, and unfortunately any attempt comes across a bit clumsy and fails to do justice to the Greek:
Creatures of a day! What is someone? What is no-one?
Man is the dream of a shadow. But whenever the radiance of Zeus comes,
a bright light and gentle life rests upon him.
Creatures of a day is talking about the instability of man’s fortunes. One day we are bitten by failure, the next borne on the wings of success. Scholars are undecided about whether or not we should read this positively. Some see the poet’s depiction of life’s success undermined by his constant reminders of its instability. This is probably the last ode Pindar wrote, he would have been an old man by now, and it is possible here to read the pessimism of a man who has lived too long in an unstable world. Nevertheless, other scholars see in the portrayal of the radiance of Zeus something greater and more lasting. The victor is bathed in a light that is associated with the eternity and brilliance of the gods, and Pindar’s depiction of fortune’s vicissitudes ends with the shadow-life of our mortal existence illuminated by Zeus.
Another way to read this passage is as a calm acceptance of human experience. There is both light and darkness in this world, and whilst bathed in light our life is radiant and good, but this does not last forever. Both our successes and misfortunes are fleeting and ephemeral; we are but creatures of a day, the dream of a shadow.
Charles Segal, “Pindar, Mimnermus and the ‘Zeus-given Gleam’: The End of Pythian 8″ in Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, vol. 22 (1976).