Pindar, Olympian 1


Olympian 1 celebrates the victory of Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse, in the single-horse race of 476 BC. He won three times at the Olympic games and three times at the Pythian games between 482 and 468. Pindar celebrates one of his Pythian victories in P. 1. Like P. 2, composed in the same year, this poem begins with a magnificent ‘priamel’ or build-up to a resounding climax. The myth of Tantalus at the centre may be intended as a veiled reminder to Hieron not to overstep the mark.

1 Water is best,1
while gold gleams like blazing fire in the night,
brightest amid a rich man’s wealth;
but, my heart, if it is of games that you wish to sing,
look no further than the sun: as there is no star
that shines with more warmth by day from a clear sky,
so we can speak of no greater contest than Olympia.2
From here come fame-giving hymns,
which wrap themselves around the minds of poets3
who have come to the rich and blessed hearth of Hieron
10 to sing aloud of the son of Cronus.4
Hieron holds the sceptre of justice in sheep-rich Sicily,
where he chooses for himself the finest fruits
of every kind of excellence.
His glory gleams in the best of poetry and music,
of the kind that we men often compose in play
at his hospitable table.
Come then, take down the Dorian5 lyre from its peg,
if the splendour of Olympian Pisa6 and of Pherenicus7
has caused the sweetest thoughts to steal into your mind,
20 as it sped along unwhipped in the race beside Alpheus,8
and brought its master into victory’s embrace–
Hieron, Syracuse’s horse-delighting king.
His fame shines out over the land
of fine men9 founded by Lydian Pelops,10
he whom Poseidon the mighty Earth-holder desired
after Clotho11 had lifted him from the purifying cauldron,12
fitted with a shoulder of gleaming ivory.
There are indeed many wonders,
and it may be that in men’s talk
stories are embroidered beyond the truth,
and so deceive us with their elaborate lies,
since the beguiling charm of words,
30 the source of all sweet pleasures for men,
adds lustre and veracity to the unbelievable.
The days to come will be the wisest judge of that,
but it is proper that a man should speak well of the gods;
thus he is less likely to incur blame.
Son of Tantalus, the tale I shall tell about you
runs counter to that told by former poets.
When your father invited the gods
to that well-ordered banquet in his beloved Sipylus,13
reciprocating the hospitality he had enjoyed,
40 then it was that the God of the Glorious Trident,14
his heart overpowered by desire,
seized you and carried you off in a golden chariot
to the lofty palace of widely honoured Zeus,
where in later time Ganymede15 also came,
to perform the same service, but for Zeus.
When you had disappeared from sight,
and, despite their frequent searches,
no one could bring you back to your mother,
immediately an ill-intentioned neighbour
secretly spread the tale abroad
that the guests had taken a knife and dismembered
you, and had thrown your limbs into water
50 as it boiled fiercely over the fire;
and then at table, during the final course,
they shared out your flesh and ate it.
As for me, I cannot call any of the blessed gods a cannibal.
I stand aside;
the slanderous seldom win themselves profit.
If ever the watchers on Olympus16 gave a mortal honour,
that man indeed was Tantalus.17
But no good came of it, for he could not digest his great prosperity,
and by his excesses brought overwhelming ruin on himself:
the Father poised a huge stone above him,
and in his constant struggle to thrust it from his head
he now wanders far from happiness.
This is the life of everlasting weariness he lives,
60 one labour following after another,
because for his feast he stole from the gods
the nectar and ambrosia they gave to make him immortal
and served it to his drinking companions.
If a man hopes his deeds will escape the gods’ notice
he is mistaken.
So the immortals sent his son back to him,
to be a mortal again in the short-lived company of men.
And about the time of his handsome youthful bloom,
when downy hair began to cover his darkening jaw,
he turned his thoughts to an offer of marriage
that was offered to all: to win at Pisa
70 the famous Hippodameia18 from her father Oenomaus.
Alone, at night, he went down to the grey sea’s shore
and called out to the deep-roaring Lord of the Trident;19
and the god was there, close by him.
Pelops said to him:
‘If the delightful gifts of Cypris20 can give rise to gratitude,
then come, shackle the bronze spear of Oenomaus,
send me on the swiftest of chariots to Elis,21
and bring me the power to be victorious.
Thirteen suitors has Oenomaus killed,
80 and in this way delays the marriage of his daughter.
Cowards do not seek out great risks;
men must die, so why should anyone crouch in darkness,
aimlessly nursing an undistinguished old age,
without a share in glorious deeds?
This contest is meant for me; now give me the success I desire.’
So he spoke, and his pleas were not in vain.
The god gave him honour,
and a golden chariot with tireless winged horses.
So he defeated Oenomaus, and won the maiden to share his bed,
and fathered six sons, leaders of the people,
all of them thirsting to do great deeds.
90 And now he luxuriates in splendid blood-offerings22
as he reclines beside the ford of Alpheus.
His tomb beside his altar is well tended,
thronged about by many a stranger.
The fame which stems from Pelops’ games at Olympia
is visible from afar–the games where
the contest is for fleetness of foot
and daring deeds of strength pushed to the limit.
For the rest of his days the victor enjoys honey-sweet tranquillity,
as far, that is, as the games can provide it;
the highest good for every mortal
100 is indeed that which comes to him day by day.
My task is to crown such a man as this
with the horseman’s song, in Aeolian melody.23
I am certain that there is no host today
more acquainted with glorious deeds
or more established in his power,
whom my craft can adorn with fame-giving intricacies of song.
Some god, Hieron, watches over your ambitions,
making this his concern. If he does not desert you
I hope to find an even more inviting path of poetry
110 to help me celebrate your victory in the swift chariot,
when I visit the sunlit hill of Cronus.24
For me, the Muse keeps a mighty defensive weapon.
Other men attain greatness in different ways;
the highest peaks are occupied by kings,
so do not look to climb further.
May you walk on high in this reign of yours,
and may I always be the victors’ companion,
pre-eminent by my poetry throughout all Hellas.

Translated by Anthony Verity with notes by Stephen Instone from Pindar: The Complete Odes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

1 perhaps because it shines most or because it is essential in a hot country. ^

2 venue for the Olympic games. ^

3 Aeschylus, Simonides, and Bacchylides also composed for Hieron. ^

4 Zeus, in whose honour the Olympic games were held, and from whom rulers derived their authority. ^

5 the Dorians were the early inhabitants of Western Greece; at P. 1.62- 6 Pindar says Hieron founded Aetna with a Dorian constitution. The point here is probably that his ode is tailored to suit Hieron; cf. O. 3.5 and P. 1.61- 5. ^

6 the district in which Olympia was situated. ^

7 ‘Victory-winner’, Hieron’s victorious horse. ^

8 river flowing through Olympia. ^

9 the Peloponnese (‘island of Pelops’). ^

10 Pelops came from Lydia, a territory in Asia Minor bordering the Aegean Sea, but he had a famous tomb at Olympia (lines 93-4 below) and his chariot race to win Hippodameia (below, 70) featured on the Temple of Zeus there. His strong connections with Olympia make him an appropriate subject of the myth in O. 1. ^

11 one of the three Fates. Pindar here alludes to the story he tells in more detail below (lines 36-51), how Pelops was served up to the gods by his wicked father Tantalus. Demeter ate one of his shoulders but it was replaced with an ivory one, and Poseidon fell in love with him. ^

12 alluding to Pindar’s rejection (line 52 below) of the traditional story about Pelops. ^

13 in Lydia, where Tantalus lived. ^

14 Poseidon. ^

15 carried off by Zeus to become his cup-bearer. ^

16 the Olympian gods. ^

17 one of three sinners, along with Ixion and Sisyphus, who had eternal punishment in the Underworld. Pindar alludes again to his punishment by an overhanging stone at I. 8.10. Homer’s version of his punishment (Odyssey 11.582- 92), that he was forever trying to get food and drink that eluded him, is the familiar one. ^

18 ‘Horse-tamer’. ^

19 Poseidon. ^

20 Aphrodite. ^

21 location of Olympia. ^

22 Pelops was worshipped as a hero at Olympia: a black ram was sacrificed to him, and its blood allowed to trickle through the earth; Pelops would imbibe the blood and be vitalized and thus continue to assert his power. ^

23 the Aeolians were early inhabitants of parts of northern Greece, including Pindar’s home-district of Boeotia (Thucydides 7.57.5). The reference here is obscure, but may either be to a particular musical mode or harmony or, more simply, mean ‘in my musical style’ (Aeoladas is the name of a man from Pindar’s home-town Thebes in Pindar, Parth. 1.12, 2.9; for translations of Partheneia or Maiden Songs, see the Loeb edition of Pindar, ed. W. H. Race, 11. 320- 31). ^

24 overlooking Olympia. ^