Olympian 1
A Choral Ode by Pindar (518?-438? BC)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Subject: Athletic Victory
Pindar's Epinicia
Origin of Title
Olympian Games
Significance of Victory
Stanza Formats
Musical Accompaniment
Summary of the Poem
Text: Three Translations
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography of Pindar
Pindar's Complete Odes
Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
Type of Work and Critical Assessment

......."Olympian 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.
.......The 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.

Subject: Athletic Victory

......."Olympian 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 BC. 

Odes for Athletes: Epinicia

.......An 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. 
.......There 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.”) 
.......The number of odes in each category is as follows:

Olympian: 14
Pythian: 12
Nemean: 11
Isthmian: 8
Title of the Ode

......."Olympian 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.)

The Olympian Games

.......Of 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 reward. 

Significance of Victory

.......A 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 life. 

Stanza Formats

.......Pindar's "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. 

Musical Accompaniment and Dancing 

.......Stringed 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. 

Glossary of Characters, Places, and Terms in the Poem

Alpheus (or Alpheos): God of the river near the plain of Olympia
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, Zeus.
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 him. 
Hellenes: Greeks.
Hieron (or Hiero): King of Syracuse, Sicily. "Olympian 1" celebrates his victory in the horse race at the Olympian games of 476 BC. 
Hippodameia: Daughter 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. 
Lydia: 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 peninsula. 
Olympia: 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 Greece.
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 Olympia 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.
Syracuse: Kingdom 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. 
Zeus: King of the gods on Mount Olympus.

Summary of the Poem

Strophe 1

.......In 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). 

Antistrophe 1

.......This 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. 
Epode 1

.......The 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. 


.......Pelops 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: 
.......Because 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. 
Strophe  2

.......Pindar 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.
.......After 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 Pelops—abducted him. 

Antistrophe 2

.......Poseidon 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.

Epode 2

.......Pindar 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?

Strophe 3

.......Tantalus 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 to marry. 

Antistrophe 3

.......His 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. 

Epode 3

.......Pelops 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.

Strophe 4

.......And 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.

Antistrophe 4

.......Yea, 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.

Epode 4

.......As 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. 

Work Cited

Knox, Bernard, ed. The Norton Book of Classical Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Mythological Tale Reveals Themes

.......In "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. 
.......Pindar 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. 
.......Pindar 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. 

Other Themes

......."Olympian 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

.......Translating 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.


Olympian 1
By Pindar
Translation by Richmond Lattimore (1906-1984)
Translation by William H. Race
Translation Provided by Project Perseus
Translation by William Mullen

Olympian 1
By Pindar
Translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)

Best is Water of all, and Gold as a flaming fire in the night shineth
eminent amid lordly wealth; but if of prizes in the games thou art
fain, O my soul, to tell, then, as for no bright star more quickening
than the sun must thou search in the void firmament by day, so neither
shall we find any games greater than the Olympic whereof to utter our
voice: for hence cometh the glorious hymn and entereth into the minds
of the skilled in song, so that they celebrate the son of Kronos,
when to the rich and happy hearth of Hieron they are come; for he
wieldeth the sceptre of justice in Sicily of many flocks, culling the
choice fruits of all kinds of excellence: and with the flower of music
is he made splendid, even such strains as we sing blithely at the
table of a friend.

Take from the peg the Dorian lute, if in any wise the glory of
Pherenikos at Pisa hath swayed thy soul unto glad thoughts, when by
the banks of Alpheos he ran, and gave his body ungoaded in the
course, and brought victory to his master, the Syracusans' king, who
delighteth in horses.

Bright is his fame in Lydian Pelops' colony, inhabited of a goodly
race, whose founder mighty earth-enfolding Poseidon loved, what time
from the vessel of purifying Klotho took him with the bright ivory
furnishment of his shoulder.

Verily many things are wondrous, and haply tales decked out with
cunning fables beyond the truth make false men's speech concerning
them. For Charis, who maketh all sweet things for mortal men, by
lending honour unto such maketh oft the unbelievable thing to be
believed; but the days that follow after are the wisest witnesses.

Meet is it for a man that concerning gods he speak honourably; for the
reproach is less. Of thee, son of Tantalos, I will speak contrariwise
to them who have gone before me, and I will tell how when thy father
had bidden thee to that most seemly feast at his beloved Sipylos,
repaying to the gods their banquet, then did he of the Bright
Trident, his heart vanquished by love, snatch thee and bear thee
behind his golden steeds to the house of august Zeus in the highest,
whither again on a like errand came Ganymede in the after time.

But when thou hadst vanished, and the men who sought thee long brought
thee not to thy mother, some one of the envious neighbours said
secretly that over water heated to boiling they had hewn asunder with
a knife thy limbs, and at the tables had shared among them and eaten
sodden fragments of thy flesh. But to me it is impossible to call one
of the blessed gods cannibal; I keep aloof; in telling ill tales is
often little gain.

Now if any man ever had honour of the guardians of Olympus, Tantalos
was that man; but his high fortune he could not digest, and by excess
thereof won him an overwhelming woe, in that the Father hath hung
above him a mighty stone that he would fain ward from his head, and
therewithal he is fallen from joy.

This hopeless life of endless misery he endureth with other three,
for that he stole from the immortals and gave to his fellows at
a feast the nectar and ambrosia, whereby the gods had made him
incorruptible. But if a man thinketh that in doing aught he shall be
hidden from God, he erreth.

Therefore also the immortals sent back again his son to be once more
counted with the short-lived race of men. And he when toward the bloom
of his sweet youth the down began to shade his darkening cheek, took
counsel with himself speedily to take to him for his wife the noble
Hippodameia from her Pisan father's hand.

And he came and stood upon the margin of the hoary sea, alone in the
darkness of the night, and called aloud on the deep-voiced Wielder of
the Trident; and he appeared unto him nigh at his foot.

Then he said unto him: 'Lo now, O Poseidon, if the kind gifts of the
Cyprian goddess are anywise pleasant in thine eyes, restrain Oinomaos'
bronze spear, and send me unto Elis upon a chariot exceeding swift,
and give the victory to my hands. Thirteen lovers already hath
Oinomaos slain, and still delayeth to give his daughter in marriage.
Now a great peril alloweth not of a coward: and forasmuch as men must
die, wherefore should one sit vainly in the dark through a dull and
nameless age, and without lot in noble deeds? Not so, but I will dare
this strife: do thou give the issue I desire.'

Thus spake he, nor were his words in vain: for the god made him a
glorious gift of a golden car and winged untiring steeds: so he
overcame Oinomaos and won the maiden for his bride.

And he begat six sons, chieftains, whose thoughts were ever of brave
deeds: and now hath he part in honour of blood-offerings in his grave
beside Alpheos' stream, and hath a frequented tomb, whereto many
strangers resort: and from afar off he beholdeth the glory of the
Olympian games in the courses called of Pelops, where is striving
of swift feet and of strong bodies brave to labour; but he that
overcometh hath for the sake of those games a sweet tranquillity
throughout his life for evermore.

Now the good that cometh of to-day is ever sovereign unto every man.
My part it is to crown Hieron with an equestrian strain in Aeolian
mood: and sure am I that no host among men that now are shall I ever
glorify in sounding labyrinths of song more learned in the learning of
honour and withal with more might to work thereto. A god hath guard
over thy hopes, O Hieron, and taketh care for them with a peculiar
care: and if he fail thee not, I trust that I shall again proclaim in
song a sweeter glory yet, and find thereto in words a ready way, when
to the fair-shining hill of Kronos I am come. Her strongest-winged
dart my Muse hath yet in store.

Of many kinds is the greatness of men; but the highest is to be
achieved by kings. Look not thou for more than this. May it be thine
to walk loftily all thy life, and mine to be the friend of winners in
the games, winning honour for my art among Hellenes everywhere.


Study 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. 
3. Explain how ancient Greek manuscripts were preserved until the age of the printing press. 
4. Choose an English translation of "Olympian 1" from above. Then write an essay focusing on the figures of speech in the poem. 
5. 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?