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.