Who Is Pindar? What Is An Ode?

The earliest odes were songs of praise, accompanied by music, and the greatest creator of ancient odes is Pindar (Pindaros). The word ‘ode’ comes down to us from the Greek word oide, meaning “song” or even “singing.” The form of the ode originates with the Greeks and the earliest form of an ode today is called the ‘Pindaric ode.’ In addition, there are also ‘Horatian odes’ which pay homage to Horace, the great Roman poet and contemporary of Virgil. The ode made a graceful return to poetic fashion, appropriately among the Romantics in the modern era.

We imagine the early Pindaric odes sung throughout the great halls of ancient Greece, amidst music composed for the lyre and the aulos (“flute”).

Who is Pindar? Much of his life is clouded in myth and mere opinion. Some of the earliest surviving accounts of his life date to some 1,600 years after his death. Pindar was one of the so-called nine canonical lyric poets of antiquity. He was born and resided near Thebes in Boeotia, where he lived during the Persian Wars of the 6th Century BC. During his lifetime he traveled widely throughout Hellas and had many patrons, making him a cosmopolitan man like Simonides, traveling with ease from city to city. His poems celebrate both the aristocracy as well as the tyrants, such as Hieron of Syracuse (of whom Xenophon writes). Pindar’s poetry was for rent to the victors at the celebrated games. However, Pindar is known as a Theban patriot. His world concerned old aristocratic families, a world which rapidly began to disappear as democratic Athens ushered in a new imperial era and Boeotia joined the new Delian League. There is an old adage about Alexander the Great in which he conquered Thebes. Alexander ordered the whole city leveled except for the home of Pindar, for his beautiful poems to adorn the halls of the Macedonian ancestry. In antiquity, and held at the Library of Alexandria, were over seventeen volumes of Pindar’s poems, in each form of choral poetry, however very little of Pindar has come down to us.

His odes take the classical triadic approach – the first stanza or strophe is chanted while the Chorus stands to the left, the second is the antistrophe while the Chorus stands to the right, and finally the Chorus stands in the middle of the stage for the concluding epode

We know of Pindar’s writings only from allusions contained within other writer’s works, as Pindar was frequently cited (as is the case, for example, in Plato’s dialogues) and turned to for ontological questions, such as his axiom: “be who you are,” and from papyrus fragments unearthed throughout the Mediterranean and in Egypt. Forty-five of his epinicion survive, his poems of praise for Greek athletes -the visitors at Olympian, Pythian, Ismenian, and Nemean games.

Here is a notable example of one of Pindar’s famous odes:
Olympic Ode 1 (to Hieron of Syracuse for the Single Horse Race in 476 BC, lines 1-5)

ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ, ὁ δὲ χρυσὸς αἰθόμενον πῦρ
ἅτε διαπρέπει νυκτὶ μεγάνορος ἔξοχα πλούτου:
εἰ δ᾽ ἄεθλα γαρύεν
ἔλδεαι, φίλον ἦτορ,
5μηκέθ᾽ ἁλίου σκόπει
ἄλλο θαλπνότερον ἐν ἁμέρᾳ φαεννὸν ἄστρον ἐρήμας δι᾽ αἰθέρος

The first few lines of Olympic 1 was translated into English by Diane Arnson Svarlien in 1990:

Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. But if, my heart, you wish to sing of contests, [5] look no further for any star warmer than the sun, shining by day through the lonely sky, and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia.

Pindar’s first Olympic ode was widely quotes throughout antiquity and it was included as the first ode in Aristophanes of Byzantium’s (a hellenistic scholar and head of the Library of Alexandria) collection of Pindar’s works because it was the best. The latter part of the ode contemplates the need for poetry, perhaps even a justification for poetry, among the victor’s of the games.

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