Pindar (ca. 522–ca. 438 B.C.) lyric poet. Encyclopedia of World Writers, Beginnings To 20th Century

The man considered the greatest of the Greek lyric
poets was a native of Cynoscephalae, a town just
outside of Thebes in the region of Boeotia. Pindar
was born into an aristocratic family at a time when
the noble class in Greece was waning; his parents
were Daïphantus and Cleodicê. He considered
himself Theban and took pride in the land of his
birth and the aristocratic ideal. His uncle
Scopelînus taught Pindar how to play the flute, an
instrument that was a vital element in the worship
of Apollo, the god of poetry,music, and the sun.
Pindar studied lyrical composition in Athens,
where he may have met the tragedian AESCHYLUS.
When he returned to Thebes, he embarked upon
his career, counting among his patrons a number
of prominent Greek families and political leaders
who commissioned him to write odes. His earliest
works flouted literary tradition by failing to make
use of myths. The noted Boeotian poetess Corinna
reportedly called attention to this deficiency. Pindar’s
next offering teemed with mythological references,
whereupon Corinna is said to have
admonished him, “One must sow with the hand
and not with the whole sack.”
Of Pindar’s 17 existing works, only the odes
composed to celebrate a victory at one of the Panhellenic
festivals (the precursor to the modern-day
Olympic Games) survive in substantially complete
form. These are the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean,
and Isthmian Odes, and collectively they are known
as the Epinician (or Victory) Odes. These choral
poems solemnly compare the victor of the athletic
contest to the legendary and mythic figures from
the glorious days of yore. The competition itself becomes
a device for providing metaphors and similes
for achievement and valor. The odes laud the
champion’s family, ancestors, and homeland, and
recount legends originating in his place of birth.
The longest of all of Pindar’s odes is Pythian IV,
which was commissioned by an aristocrat by the
name of Dâmophilus, who had been banished to
Thebes from the kingdom of Battus IV of Cyrene,
in modern Libya. The king’s son, Arcesilas, prevailed
in the chariot races in the Pythian games of
462 B.C., and Dâmophilus sought to appease Battus
with an extravagant lyric tribute penned by Pindar
and performed in the palace at Cyrene:
Thou must stand, my Muse! to-day in the
presence of . . .
the king of Cyrene with its noble steeds, that
beside Arcesilas, while he celebrateth his
thou mayest swell the gale of song. . . .
To suggest the idea of reconciliation between
Dâmophilus and the king of Cyrene, Pindar quotes
HOMER: “A good messenger bringeth highest honor
to every business.” The song praises Dâmophilus’s
“righteous heart” and his exemplary life; the exile
wants nothing more than to play his harp once
again by Apollo’s fountain at Cyrene. An attempt
to flatter the king is made when the poet compares
him with the sovereign among gods: Even Zeus
forgave the Titans.
Characteristic features and themes of Pindar’s
works include the use of myth, heroic legends, reverence
for deities, the repetition of important
words, and a recurring format: prelude, beginning,
transition, midpoint (during which the ancient
myth is narrated), transition, and conclusion. His
framework, now called a Pindaric ode, includes
three parts: a strophe (the part of an ancient Greek
choral ode sung by the chorus when moving from
right to left); an antistrophe (the part of the choral
ode in which the chorus sings its answer to the
strophe while moving from left to right); and the
epode (the part of the choral ode that follows, as a
rule, the strophe and antistrophe). This framework
was admired by the Roman HORACE and the English
John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Thomas
The architectural perfection of Pindar’s odes
and his bold use of metaphors led PAUSANIAS, a
Greek traveler and geographer of the second century,
to comment:
. . . [B]ees flew to him, and placed honey on his
lips. Such was the beginning of his career of
song.When his fame was spread abroad from
one end of Greece to the other, the Pythian
priestess . . . bade the Delphians give to Pindar
an equal share of all the first-fruits they offered
to Apollo.
English Versions of Works by Pindar
The Odes of Pindar. Translated by Sir John Sandys.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
Pindar: Olympian Odes, Pythian Odes. Edited and
translated by William H. Race. Cambridge,Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1997.
Pindar’s Victory Songs. Translated by Frank J.
Nisetich. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1980.
Works about Pindar
Hamilton, John T. Soliciting Darkness: Pindar, Obscurity,
and the Classical Tradition. Cambridge,Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 2004.
MacKie,Hillary Susan.Graceful Errors: Pindar and the
Performance of Praise. Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press, 2003.
Segal, Charles. Pindar’s Mythmaking: The Fourth
Pythian Ode. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1986.