Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Critical Assessment
1" by Pindar (pronounced PIN der) is a choral ode, a poem sung by a chorus
to musical accompaniment. Because the primary purpose of "Olympian 1" and
other odes of Pindar was to express in elevated language his feelings about
a person, a place, an event, or an idea, the odes are classified as lyric
rather than narrative poems. However, his odes contain narrative episodes
based on myths.
consensus among scholars is that Pindar was the greatest lyric poet of
ancient Greece (as opposed to the greatest narrative poet, Homer) and that
"Olympian 1" is among the greatest of his surviving odes. In 1513, Venetian
publisher Aldo Manutio il Vecchio (Aldus Manutius the Elder) printed the
first book containing the collected odes of Pindar. British poet and essayist
Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) introduced Pindar's odes to England in 1656
in a translated collection entitled Pindarique Odes.
1" honors Hieron (alternate spelling, Hiero), ruler of the Sicilian
kingdom of Syracuse, for his triumph in a horse race in the athletic games
at Olympia, in southwestern Greece on the Peloponnesian peninsula, in 476
for Athletes: Epinicia
ode celebrating an athletic victory had a special name: epinicion
(plural, epinicia). All of Pindar's epinicia survive; the rest of
his choral odes—including hymns extolling the gods, drinking and dancing
songs, funeral songs, and dithyrambs (impassioned poems addressed to the
god of wine and revelry, Dionysus) are lost except for fragments of them.
are forty-five epinicia in all. They honor the victors of contests at the
Olympian games, held every four years at Olympia, a plain on the Peloponnesian
peninsula of southern Greece; the Nemean games, held every two years at
Nemea, a valley in the Peloponnesian peninsula; the Isthmian games, held
every two years on the Isthmus of Corinth, between the peninsula and mainland
Greece; and the Pythian games, held every four years near the famous Temple
of Apollo at Delphi, in mainland Greece northwest of Athens. (Pythian
is an adjective meaning “of Apollo.”)
number of odes in each category is as follows:
of the Ode
1" received its title from Aristophanes of Byzantium (257-180 BC), a Greek
editor, literary critic, and grammarian. His placement of the ode as number
one in the list of Pindar's forty-five odes was based on the importance
of its content, not on the year in which it was written. Its importance
lay in the fact that it glorified the founder of the Olympian games, Pelops.
(He won a horse race that inspired the Greeks to establish the games.)
all the athletic competitions in ancient Greece, the Olympian games were
the most prestigious. Athletes vied in horse races, chariot races, footraces,
wrestling and boxing matches, and other events. Each winner of an Olympian
contest received a wreath woven from branches of the olive tree as his
victory in the Olympian games was one of the highest achievements a Greek
citizen could attain. It demonstrated that the winner possessed the character,
self-discipline, skill, perseverance, and resourcefulness to succeed. On
his return home, he was hailed as a hero in a glorious celebration that
included the presentation of a choral ode. But his victory burdened him
with the task of living up to the promise of his Olympian feat in his everyday
"Olympian 1" and other choral odes each contained three stanza formats:
strophe, antistrophe, and epode. The strophe and antistrophe were similar
in structure; the epode was different. The chorus sang the strophe (derived
from a Greek word meaning to turn) while dancing across the stage and the
antistrophe (derived from Greek words meaning to turn in an opposite direction)
while dancing back across the stage. The chorus then sang the epode (derived
from Greek words meaning to sing after—that is, to sing after the strophe
and antistrophe) while standing still. Afterward, the chorus presented
additional sets of strophes, antistrophes, and epodes with new wording.
When a poet decided that an ode had sufficient development, he ended it
with a concluding epode.
Accompaniment and Dancing
and piping instruments, such as a kithara (a type of lyre) and an aulos
(instrument resembling an oboe), were available to accompany the singers
of Pindar's choral odes. The music itself was most likely monophonic rather
than polyphonic. Pindar is believed to have composed the music and choreographed
the dance steps in harmony with the meter of the poem.
of Characters, Places, and Terms in the Poem
Alpheus (or Alpheos):
God of the river near the plain of Olympia.
of the Poem
Ambrosia: Food of
the gods. It conferred immortality on them.
Charis: Generic term
for any of three goddesses of fertility, charm, and beauty: Aglaia, Euphrosyne,
and Thalia. The plural is Charites (or, in English, the Graces).
Clotho (or Klotho):
One of the three Fates, goddesses who determined the fate of each human.
The other two were Lachesis and Atropos. Clotho was said to have been the
weaver of the thread of life. She was present at the birth of a human.
Cronus (also Cronos,
Kronos): Former ruler of the universe. He was overthrown by his son,
Cyprian (or Kyprian)
Goddess: Allusion to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
Demeter: One of the
chief goddesses residing on Mount Olympus. She was the sister of Zeus and
goddess of agriculture.
Elis: See Olympia.
Ganymede (or Ganymedes):
Mortal youth whose beauty inflamed Zeus to lust after him. Zeus abducted
Hieron (or Hiero):
King of Syracuse, Sicily. "Olympian 1" celebrates his victory in the horse
race at the Olympian games of 476 BC.
of Oenomaus, king of Pisatis (Pisa) in southern Greece, on the Peloponnesian
peninsula.. Pelops won her as his wife after defeating Oenomaus in the
horse race that inspired establishment of the Olympian athletic games.
Kingdom in western Anatolia (part of present-day Turkey).
Lyre: Stringed instrument.
Nectar: Drink of
the gods. Like ambrosia, it rendered the gods immortal.
Oenomaus (also Oenomaos,
Oinomaos): King of Pisatis (Pisa) in southern Greece, on the Peloponnesian
Greek plain on which were held the ancient Olympic games. Olympia is about
ten miles inland from the Ionian Sea on the western coast of the Pelopponesian
peninsula in southern Greece. Olympia is in a region known as Elis. Olympia
is not to be confused with Mount Olympus, near the Aegean Sea in northern
Olympus, Mount: Mountaintop
home of the gods in northern Greece. They lived in
palaces constructed by Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalwork, on the
summit of Olympus, the highest peak (9,570 feet) in a mountain range between
Macedonia and Thessaly near the Aegean Sea.
Pelops: Son of Tantalus,
ruler of Sipylus, Lydia. Pelops won a horse race at
that inspired establishment of the Olympic games. Greece's Pelopponesian
peninsula was named after him.
Pherenikus (or Pherenikos):
Horse that won an Olympic race for Hieron in 476 BC.
Poseidon: God of
the sea. He was a brother of Zeus.
and city on the island of Sicily.
Tantalus (or Tantalos):
King of Sipylus, Lydia. He was a favorite of the gods
until he attempted to deceive them. For his offense, they condemned him
to eternal punishment in Hades.
King of the gods on Mount Olympus.
all the good things of nature, nothing is better than water; it brings
and sustains life. In all the treasures of princes, nothing is better than
gold; it shines with a fiery light. And in all the athletic contests, nothing
is better than Olympic sport; it confers on the winner a crown as bright
as the sun. Then the poets acclaim the victor, singing of his glory. Today,
the name that rings out far and wide is Hieron (pronounced HY run).
is a man who rules with a righteous scepter as king of Syracuse, a land
of many shepherds and flocks. And this is a man whose horse, Pherenikus,
ran to victory on Olympian fields in southern Greece near the river sacred
to Alpheus (also spelled Alpheos). Now at his victory banquet, Hieron
will listen to the music of my words sung by a chorus to the accompaniment
of a lyre.
Bernard Knox says
a jockey in the service of Hieron rode Pherenikos, not Hieron himself (252).
Apparently, Hieron reaped glory for sponsoring the horse and its rider,
just as the owner of a modern professional football or baseball team reaps
glory if his or her team finishes first.
glory of Hieron's name crosses the sea, even to the land of Pelops in Greece.
In bygone days, Pelops was the first Olympic hero, winning glory in a chariot
race that marked the beginning of the famed athletic games. When Pelops
was born, it was Clotho (also spelled Klotho)—one of the three Fates
charged with spinning the thread of human destiny—who presided at his birth
and brought him forth from the washing basin. Unlike other humans, Pelops
had an ivory shoulder, which reflected light from the hearth fire. His
appearance pleased earth-shaking Poseidon, who became enchanted with him.
Over the years, a false story about the background of Pelops—about how
he came to have an ivory shoulder—gained sway among the people.
was the son of Tantalus (also spelled Tantalos), ruler of Sipylus
(also spelled Sipylos), a kingdom in Lydia in western Anatolia (part of
present-day Turkey). Tantalus enjoyed the favor of the gods. In fact, they
held him in such high regard that they even allowed him to dine with them.
The “false story” to which Pindar refers in Epode 1 concerns one of these
dinners. This story, with which Greeks of Pindar's time were familiar and
which many of them accepted as true, is as follows:
Tantalus could sit at the same dining table as the gods, he began to believe
that he was as great as they were. Perhaps he could even get away with
playing a trick on them. Here is what he did. He murdered Pelops, cooked
him to a turn, and served him to the gods, believing that they would not
notice what they were consuming. But all the deities except Demeter—the
goddess of agriculture—saw through the scheme and refused to eat. However,
before the gods could act, Demeter had already eaten a shoulder of Pelops.
The gods then brought Pelops back to life, and Demeter gave him an ivory
shoulder to replace the one she had eaten. Tantalus was sentenced to eternal
damnation in Hades.
says he rejects the story that Tantalus cooked and served his son to the
gods. He believes it is blasphemous to associate the gods with so grotesque
an account, especially one in which a goddess is tricked into eating human
flesh. He then begins to tell what he believes really happened.
dining with the gods at their invitation, Tantalus decided to repay them
with a feast at his own table in his Anatolian kingdom, Sipylus. Pelops
was there. On that occasion, the sea god Poseidon—overcome with lust for
bore Pelops off in a golden chariot to the palace of Zeus. After a time,
the mother of Pelops sent men to look for him, but they could not find
him. It was at that time that a hateful neighbor began circulating a story
that said the gods had boiled and eaten Pelops.
refuses to believe that the gods could stoop to such barbarity. To spread
a lie that accuses them of doing so is to invite their wrath. Keep in mind,
too, Pindar says, that the gods had held Tantalus in high esteem. Surely
they would never have killed his son. As for Pelops's ivory shoulder? He
had had it since birth. But what of Tantalus? The gods turned against him
for committing an unforgivable offense and condemned him to hell. What
could he have done to offend them?
had stolen the food and drink of the gods, ambrosia and nectar, and shared
them with his drinking friends. These are the staples of immortality, and
they gave Tantalus eternal life. But the gods discovered the theft, for
it is impossible to hide such a deed from them. They then returned Pelops
to earth and condemned Tantalus to eternal suffering in Hades. Beneath
him was a pool of water. Above him were tree branches bearing various fruits,
such as figs and pears. When he stooped to drink water, it would recede.
When he reached for a fruit on a branch, the wind would blow the branch
out of reach. Meanwhile, after Pelops grew to young manhood, he was ready
thoughts turned to a famous beauty, Hippodameia, daughter of Oenomaus,
king of Pisatis (or Pisa). Pisatis is on a river bank in southern Greece
in a region known as Elis. (It is the same locale where Hieron was later
to win his horse race.) Because Oenomaus lusted after his own daughter,
he wanted no one else to have her. So it was that he slew with his spear
every suitor who tried to win her hand—thirteen in all. Pelops went to
the sea and stood on the shore in the darkness. There, in the name of Aphrodite,
the goddess of love, he called upon mighty Poseidon to assist him.
acknowledged that wooing Hippodameia would invite her father to make Pelops
his fourteenth victim. But Pelops told Poseidon that he did not wish to
spend his life shrinking from danger. Rather, he wished to face it—to risk
his life—to get what he wanted. His prayer did not go unanswered, for Poseidon
provided him all that he needed for victory, including a golden chariot
drawn by winged horses.
so Pelops defeated Oenomaus and married Hippodameia. Over the years, she
gave him six sons, all of whom became powerful military leaders. After
he died, he was entombed near the river of Alpheus, where many travelers
stopped to pay him homage. But his glory lived on in the athletic games
at Olympia, near the same river and in the same place where Pelops drove
to victory. Today, as the winner of an Olympic horse, Hieron may look forward
to unending joy and contentment.
sweet is the fruit of victory in the hour of challenge. And now the time
has come to crown the victor. Let it be known that on all the earth there
is no man more deserving of this honor than Hieron. May the god who watches
over him never have reason to abandon him, Pindar says.
long as that god remains with you, an even sweeter victory will come your
way. Even now the Muse is fashioning for me an arrow that will sing through
the air another song of praise for your deeds. Be aware, though, that presiding
as a king is the highest honor you can attain on earth. Desire nothing
beyond this achievement but do continue to walk a monarch's path. As for
me, may I be the one who will walk with you to serve you with the power
of my poetry.
Knox, Bernard, ed. The
Norton Book of Classical Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.
Tale Reveals Themes
"Olympian 1," Pindar briefly retells the story of Pelops, a legendary Greek
hero who won a horse race that inspired the establishment of the Olympian
games. Recounting this tale enables Pindar to compare Hieron to Pelops
and thereby present the central theme: the greatness of Hieron. Pindar
first points out that Hieron is a worthy and honorable ruler, as Pelops
was, then notes that Hieron won a competition in the same place that Pelops
won his, on the plain of Olympia near the river of Alpheus.
then recounts the story of Pelops. However, he says one version handed
down over the centuries contains an untruth: that one of the gods unwittingly
ate human flesh. A malicious rumormonger concocted the lie, he says, which
was an insult to the gods. Pindar's purpose in reporting this version is
to present two other themes: first, that one must always tell the truth
and, second, that one must always respect the gods.
next recounts what he believes is the correct version of the Pelops story,
one in which the father of Pelops, Tantalus, steals from the gods. When
the gods discover his wrongdoing, they confine him to Hades, there to suffer
never-ending thirst and hunger. This version of the story again emphasizes
the importance of respecting the gods. It also introduces another theme:
inability to escape divine retribution for wrongdoing.
1" also presents these themes: the importance of traditions such as the
athletic games and the happiness that an honest, hard-won victory can bring.
Texts of the Poem
any of Pindar's odes into a worthy version in English or any other language
is extremely difficult. On the one hand, the translator must work with
an ancient language and ethos and with Pindar's complex versification system.
On the other, the translator must be able to present his rendering in the
form of outstanding poetry that captures the essence of Pindar's spirit.
Nevertheless, many translations of Pindar's odes are available. Following
are links to four translations and the complete text of another translation.
by Richmond Lattimore (1906-1984)
by William H. Race
Provided by Project Perseus
by William Mullen
by Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)
is Water of all, and Gold as a flaming fire in the night shineth
amid lordly wealth; but if of prizes in the games thou art
O my soul, to tell, then, as for no bright star more quickening
the sun must thou search in the void firmament by day, so neither
we find any games greater than the Olympic whereof to utter our
for hence cometh the glorious hymn and entereth into the minds
the skilled in song, so that they celebrate the son of Kronos,
to the rich and happy hearth of Hieron they are come; for he
the sceptre of justice in Sicily of many flocks, culling the
fruits of all kinds of excellence: and with the flower of music
he made splendid, even such strains as we sing blithely at the
of a friend.
from the peg the Dorian lute, if in any wise the glory of
at Pisa hath swayed thy soul unto glad thoughts, when by
banks of Alpheos he ran, and gave his body ungoaded in the
and brought victory to his master, the Syracusans' king, who
is his fame in Lydian Pelops' colony, inhabited of a goodly
whose founder mighty earth-enfolding Poseidon loved, what time
the vessel of purifying Klotho took him with the bright ivory
of his shoulder.
many things are wondrous, and haply tales decked out with
fables beyond the truth make false men's speech concerning
For Charis, who maketh all sweet things for mortal men, by
honour unto such maketh oft the unbelievable thing to be
but the days that follow after are the wisest witnesses.
is it for a man that concerning gods he speak honourably; for the
is less. Of thee, son of Tantalos, I will speak contrariwise
them who have gone before me, and I will tell how when thy father
bidden thee to that most seemly feast at his beloved Sipylos,
to the gods their banquet, then did he of the Bright
his heart vanquished by love, snatch thee and bear thee
his golden steeds to the house of august Zeus in the highest,
again on a like errand came Ganymede in the after time.
when thou hadst vanished, and the men who sought thee long brought
not to thy mother, some one of the envious neighbours said
that over water heated to boiling they had hewn asunder with
knife thy limbs, and at the tables had shared among them and eaten
fragments of thy flesh. But to me it is impossible to call one
the blessed gods cannibal; I keep aloof; in telling ill tales is
if any man ever had honour of the guardians of Olympus, Tantalos
that man; but his high fortune he could not digest, and by excess
won him an overwhelming woe, in that the Father hath hung
him a mighty stone that he would fain ward from his head, and
he is fallen from joy.
hopeless life of endless misery he endureth with other three,
that he stole from the immortals and gave to his fellows at
feast the nectar and ambrosia, whereby the gods had made him
But if a man thinketh that in doing aught he shall be
from God, he erreth.
also the immortals sent back again his son to be once more
with the short-lived race of men. And he when toward the bloom
his sweet youth the down began to shade his darkening cheek, took
with himself speedily to take to him for his wife the noble
from her Pisan father's hand.
he came and stood upon the margin of the hoary sea, alone in the
of the night, and called aloud on the deep-voiced Wielder of
Trident; and he appeared unto him nigh at his foot.
he said unto him: 'Lo now, O Poseidon, if the kind gifts of the
goddess are anywise pleasant in thine eyes, restrain Oinomaos'
spear, and send me unto Elis upon a chariot exceeding swift,
give the victory to my hands. Thirteen lovers already hath
slain, and still delayeth to give his daughter in marriage.
a great peril alloweth not of a coward: and forasmuch as men must
wherefore should one sit vainly in the dark through a dull and
age, and without lot in noble deeds? Not so, but I will dare
strife: do thou give the issue I desire.'
spake he, nor were his words in vain: for the god made him a
gift of a golden car and winged untiring steeds: so he
Oinomaos and won the maiden for his bride.
he begat six sons, chieftains, whose thoughts were ever of brave
and now hath he part in honour of blood-offerings in his grave
Alpheos' stream, and hath a frequented tomb, whereto many
resort: and from afar off he beholdeth the glory of the
games in the courses called of Pelops, where is striving
swift feet and of strong bodies brave to labour; but he that
hath for the sake of those games a sweet tranquillity
his life for evermore.
the good that cometh of to-day is ever sovereign unto every man.
part it is to crown Hieron with an equestrian strain in Aeolian
and sure am I that no host among men that now are shall I ever
in sounding labyrinths of song more learned in the learning of
and withal with more might to work thereto. A god hath guard
thy hopes, O Hieron, and taketh care for them with a peculiar
and if he fail thee not, I trust that I shall again proclaim in
a sweeter glory yet, and find thereto in words a ready way, when
the fair-shining hill of Kronos I am come. Her strongest-winged
my Muse hath yet in store.
many kinds is the greatness of men; but the highest is to be
by kings. Look not thou for more than this. May it be thine
walk loftily all thy life, and mine to be the friend of winners in
games, winning honour for my art among Hellenes everywhere.
Questions and Writing Topics
1. If you are studying a
foreign language—such as French, Spanish, German, or Greek—translate a
poem of your choice and express it in a way that attempts to capture the
essence of the original version.
2. Write an essay that analyzes
how Pindar's account of the story of Pelops and Tantalus helps him to develop
the theme of the poem.
Explain how ancient Greek manuscripts were preserved until the age of the
Choose an English translation of "Olympian 1" from above. Then write an
essay focusing on the figures of speech in the poem.
Research the life of Hieron of Syracuse. Then write an essay that answers
this question: Did Hieron live up to Pindar's description of him as noble
and upright ruler?