Pindar Olympian I: Olympic fame

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.
(lines 1-7)

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.

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Pindar Pythian 8: Man is the dream of a shadow

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 life. 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 sad image is then followed by a description of the glorious victor, flying on the wings of his success:

He who is allotted some new fine thing,
buoyed by hopes at his great splendour,
takes flight
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.

Even the image of the glorious victor is underlined by the reminder that it is transient and vulnerable.

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.

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