Pindar’s Olympian I celebrates the victory of the tyrant Hieron in horse racing at the Olympic games in 476 BC. Like Pythian 8, which I discuss here, Pindar contrasts the themes of human mortality and immortal fame. He uses light imagery to describe the great glory of the victor, but also warns Hieron not to rely too much on his present happiness.
Best is water, while gold, blazing like fire
in the night, shines eminent above lordly wealth.
But if you wish to sing,
about the games, my heart,
look no further than the sun
for another star shining more warmly by day through the empty sky,
and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia.
The ode opens with a list of the things that are best in this world. First comes water, which would probably not be surprising to a Greek audience. In the Iliad water is named as the source of all things, it is also a necessity of life, and would be especially appreciated in Greece’s hot climate. Then comes gold, which is the greatest among all material objects. For a poet with an aristocratic world-view like Pindar, an aristocrat writing for aristocrats, it is perhaps not surprising that he values gold so highly. Finally he praises the Olympic games, which shine as brightly as the sun. The universal power of light connects great things: gold blazes like the fire of the sun, which is like the Olympic games. Just as the light of gold endows wealth and fame, so does the light of the games.
Great risk does not seize a cowardly man.
But since men must die, why would anyone sit
in darkness and cherish a nameless old age for nothing
deprived of all noble deeds? No! That contest shall be mine
to undertake; you grant my precious success.
All men must die, so it is better to do young with glory than to live into an inglorious and uncelebrated old age. This attitude is central to Greek literature, it is the great choice that Achilles must make in the Iliad: he can either die famous in Troy, or return home to live as a nobody.
And for the rest of his life the victor
enjoys a honey-sweet calm,
as far as the games can provide it. But the good that
comes each day is greatest for every mortal.
Pindar reminds us that the happiness that the games provide is not absolute. Mortal blessings are fragile to the vicissitudes of fortune. It is important to enjoy the present while life is good, but the wise man is he who is always aware of the transitoriness of his happiness, the man who takes each day as it comes.
Others are great in other ways but the greatest
is crowned by kings. Look no further.
May you walk on high for the time that is yours, and may I always join the victors
and be foremost in wisdom among Hellenes everywhere.
For mortals the greatest thing a man can achieve is to become king. The ending then reads a bit oddly to a modern audience. Pindar’s ends his victory ode by celebrating his own wisdom and expresses a hope for future commissions from the tyrant; a little self-advertisement. It is details like this that forcibly remind our audiences that Pindar is a professional poet, who rolls out the praise for those who pay him well.
The Greeks were acutely aware of the ephemerality of life and happiness. In the Odyssey, Odysseus travels down to the Underworld and finds it a grey and bleak place, where the great heroes of the Iliad are reduced to shades, barely indistinguishable from the other countless dead. The only protection from this bleak namelessness was immortal fame. This is why victory odes like those of Pindar were so important to Greek society: the brightness of fame and song challenges the darkness of silence.
Gerber, Douglas (1982) Pindar’s Olympian One: A Commentary.
Kantzios, Ippokratis (2004) “Victory, Fame and Song in PIndar’s Odes” in The International Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 21.