THE POOR TALE OF THE VICTOR. Pindar’s Eighth Nemean Victory Ode
Bogdan Bogdanov

Pindar’s Victory Odes are for us today a literary text which can be read and interpreted by everybody. During the poet’s times, however, they had a double status. On the one hand they are oral works of art, intended for single use – they are performed by a chorus, singing and dancing before an audience on the occasion of welcoming a victor at Panhellenic games to his native city. The written texts, on the other hand, are kept in archives; certain people read them, as well as philologists in the Hellenic period. This double status engenders the difficulty in answering the question which is the work of art in Pindar’s Victory Odes? Are we to look for it in the written text, or in its oral version, accompanied by music and dance? Another more difficult question is raised, whether the oral text of the victory odes is connected to the larger "text" of the festive religious act and formed with it a larger oral "work of art" of the celebration itself.

Certainly reading is always a choice. If we choose to read in view of the context that led to the Pindaric victory odes in which the text irradiated to the big oral work of art of different celebrations, we have to tackle the meaning of the two pairs of terms religion and celebration and art and work of art.

Asking about their meaning can be done globally theoretically or pragmatically. The first approach presupposes the belief that religion, art, celebration and work of art are phenomena with characteristics that are outside of time, definable by a guaranteed, separate from changes manner. The second approach represents them as changing phenomena, among other things as aspects of understanding, belonging also to everyday language. I intend to follow the latter approach, to place the ideas of religion, celebration, art and work of art in relation to more concrete ideas of the ancient perception of the world and turn them into temporary paradigms, applicable to the understanding of the victory ode. The main consequence of such an approach is that to a certain extent they turn out to be synonyms.

If art can be triadically defined as an activity in creating a work of art, as a work of art and as a perception of the work of art, the reductionist pragmatic way of thinking allows for this triple manifestation to be reduced to a row of synonyms, which hover over the ideas of happening, connecting and wholeness. Because the creation of the work, the work itself and the act of its perception represent a kind of happening, where connecting ensues in the name of wholeness. This understanding is supported by the historical fact that existing mainly as an oral text to be performed at a celebration, works of art from Pindar’s times constitute actual happenings, where internal connection of elements and ideas is realized, but also through them, an external connection among celebrating people ensues in the wholeness of a real and ideal celebration world. According to this temporary viewpoint the work of art and the celebration coincide as rows of happening, connecting and relating to the whole.

The programme of the celebration, a model for the programme of the work of art, and also of art in the sense of a festive collective perception of works of art, on its part is a programme of religion too. Broadly speaking, religion is a system of religious practices, religious belief and doctrine. Perceived as activities, these manifestations are different forms of connecting with a view to effectuating a complete world. Classical Hellenic religion does not dispose of a religious doctrine and utilizes virtual concepts of the wholeness of the world. It is constantly produced by the religious rituals. But the rituals are not separate; they are always connected to the complex of religious celebrations. A religious celebration as a whole but also everything separate in it – the making of a blood sacrifice, the processes, the competitions, the performances, the works of art and the myths used by them is concerned with the big task of the symbolic making the world a whole. The monuments and texts of ancient culture that have survived to the present day disclose precisely this festive side with its concern of relating the small mundane reality to the better reality of the hereafter, the past and the exemplary.  

The poetics of the victory ode follows the programme of this model of high reality. Created from the hymn eulogy to a deity perhaps by Simonides, who lived in the generation before Pindar, the victory ode does not differ greatly from the multitude of hymns about deities. Just like the encomia and the treny it is concerned only in passing with real people and events, which are the occasion of its writing, and more extensively with gods and heroes, interwoven in the high festive plot. The tripartite structure - invocation to a god, a narrated myth followed by praise of the victor is a manifestation of the same programme. The praise of the victor is the smallest part. It is a pretext to talk about something else or put more precisely, the praise is indirect, placed in relation to an extensive mythological story or is framed by moral ratiocination.  

The transcendental staging of the celebration is enhanced by the literary word used in the victory odes, formed on the basis of the epic dialect. It also serves to amplify the suggestion of the overcome mundane and the present. Its high variability, the amassing of strange words, synonyms and strange forms stimulates the creation of strange images and ideas, also a suitable material for the high subject matter, which is needed by the festive procedure of supplying high meaning of the ideas and aspects of existence rendered meaningless in the course of everyday mundane routine. Hence the harmony between the ideological and the literary tension in Pindar’s victory odes.  

Here we are interested not in Pindar’s personal touch, nor in the narrower programme of the genre of the victory ode. Because both are somehow deprived of their own message. Even the programme of the more voluminous genre of the hymn, whose subcategories are the victory ode, the encomia and the treny, is an outline for construction rather than a special meaning procedure. The paradox of this orally consumed literature is that its genres are predominantly formal. They do not have their own meaning programme but follow the broad staging of the celebration itself. Therefore, even in the personally formed as a whole victory odes by Pindar the main mechanism for making sense does not rely on the poet. Опората is twofold - external, the meaning of the celebration itself irradiates on the text in the course of its festive perception, and internal – in its creation the text receives as a type of outline the obligatory external transcendental aspect of perception.

On the other hand, written and able to be read, understood not only by the festive multitude as one entity, but also by individual people, the text of the victory ode is rendered meaningful also as a verbal work of art in the modern sense of the word, it can be "unstuck" from the defining outside frame, whereby the same frame inside it turns from obligatory meaning into a chance to perceive other possibilities, engendered by different viewpoints. In this sense, the life of the victory ode is complex. It is determined by the outer contextual and identical inner programme, which render it meaningful in a transcendental way and thus equate the religious celebration with the work of art – both are acts of transcending construction of higher reality. On the other hand, the possible literary perception makes the programmes of art and the work of art to be different from the programmes of the religion and the religious celebration. 

Hence the more precisely formulated task of the present analysis is to demonstrate how in the perception of the text of Pindar’s Eighth Nemean Victory Ode how the two viewpoints of the work of art identical to the religious celebration and the work of art different from it coexist and how these two viewpoints develop two connected, but at the same time different programmes of constructing reality.

The Eighth Nemean Victory Ode is part of the series of praise odes, written for aristocratic and rich families from Aegina. Pindar was a frequent guest to the island and was well acquainted with the Aeginian mythological legends. The victory ode is dedicated to Deinias, son of Megas from the Chariads, victor probably in the so-called double foot race in the Pan-Hellenic celebration in Nemea. The events of the sports victory and the ensuing festivities probably occurred in 459 AD. Evidence points to the fact that the celebration took place in front of the temple of Aeacus, the eponymic hero of Aegina. We do not know if Pindar was present. Otherwise we know that in a number of cases, clothed in an official white dress he personally conducted the performance of the choir.   

The Eighth Nemean Victory Ode is among the short works of the poet – consisting of 51 verses, in three parts of strophe, antistrophe and epode. As is typical for Pindar’s victory odes, this song and dance triad is not coordinated with the three content parts – invocation to a god, narrated myth and praise of the victor. They are freely placed, interrupted and do not conform to the boundaries of the sings. So, in the broad plane of construction, the victory ode is built dynamically with placing on a regular song triad of another irregular content triad.

Represented as a story, this second level of the text is the following:
The Goddess of Youth, herald of amorous pleasures, who rests on the eyelashes of young girls and boys, is affectionate to some and not to others. It is desirable for a man not to miss the good occasion (kairos) and to command the better eroses, which attended once the nuptial bed of Zeus and the nymph Aegina, whose son (Aeacus) became king of Aegina. He was the best in hands and mind (aristos) and many men often prayed that they might see him and be protected by him – Athenians and Spartans. And the poet is a suppliant before Aeacus about the dear city (Aegina) and its citizens, bearing a Lydian song, a Nemean "statue" in honor of the double foot race of Deinias and his father Megas. Most lasting is human prosperity (olbos), planted with a god's blessing, prosperity as once loaded Cinyras with wealth in Cyprus. But the poet has to take heed for many stories have been told in many ways. But to find something new and submit it to the touchstone for testing is danger itself. Words are a dainty morsel for the envious; and envy always clings to the noble, and has no quarrel with worse men. Envy devoured the son of Telamon Son of Aeacus) Ajax, throwing him onto his own sword. A man who was not gifted in speech, but brave in his heart, is held down by oblivion under deadly strife; and the greatest prize of honor has been offered to the shifty lie. The Greeks gave their secret votes to Odysseus, and Ajax, robbed of Achilles’ golden armor, wrestled with death. They did not tear equal wounds in the warm flesh of the enemy when they were driven back under the man-protecting spear, at one time around the newly-slain corpse of Achilles, and on destructive days spent on other toils. It seems that hateful misrepresentation existed even long ago. She does violence to the illustrious, and upholds the rotten glory of the obscure. The poet implores Zeus that he may never have such a nature. He wishes to stick to the simple paths of life, so that when he dies he will not leave a bad name to his children. Some men pray for gold, others for boundless land; the poet prays to find favor with his fellow-citizens by praising what is praiseworthy and casting blame on wrongdoers. Excellence (arete) grows among skillful and just men up to the liquid air, as a tree shoots up fed by fresh dew. The uses of friends are of all kinds. Those in times of toil are the highest. Delight also seeks to set a trustworthy pledge before the eyes. The poet will not bring Megas back to life again. Empty hopes end in vain. But it is easy to set up, for your fatherland and for the Chariads, a monument of the Muses in honor of the twice illustrious feet of two men (на Megas и сина му Deinias). The poet rejoices in expressing praise suitable to such a deed. The incantations makes hardship painless. The song of victory existed long ago, even before the quarrel arose between Adrastus (the founder of the Nemean games) and the Thebans.

The story can be recounted in more details and the rendering of the heroes and events can be more precise. But however detailed it is, it will not be exhaustive in regard to the many levels of the text, nor can it represent them simultaneously as is the case with the victory ode itself. What I have in mind are the singing and dancing parts, the complex rhythm, the special poetic expression with frequent metonymies and metaphors, as well as the construction of the text in a long sentence with numerous appositions and subordinate sentences. Which raises the question whether these levels of the text are neutral and decorative or if they are also bearers of meaning. Because if, just as the religious celebration, Pindar’s victory ode is an art of connecting, the text constructed as a long single sentence obviously contributes towards the idea that everything in the world is connected and the poet’s job is to establish connections where it is not typical.  

Therefore, the recounted story which represents one of the levels of the original victory ode by Pindar is not its correspondence, but a choice and in this sense, an analysis. The meaning of the original work can be constructed to a certain extent, if several stories in a different style and length are combined with different reasoning on various aspects of the content of the victory ode. Certainly, being an act of understanding, this more complex analysis will not present the original text correspondingly, either. Because every act of understanding is also a transformation of understanding with a view to its appropriation by the understanding person. Such an understanding appropriation has occurred in the transition between the oral victory ode and the written text that has come down to us.  

The moveable picture of the oral work, which is evident in Pindar’s written text, was determined by two concrete events – the sports victory of Deinias in Nemea and the subsequent celebration in Aegina. The poet does not recount these events directly and is not interested in them as specific instances. He does something else – he relates them to precedents and general notions. The course of the victory ode is a kind of an act where high meaning is attached to something concrete and, on the other hand, of change in the subject of the event with a view to this transformation. The victory ode is an act of effective renaming. The sport victory of Deinias is something insignificant for the festive tone of the genre. It is just a reason for entering an order of higher and lasting otherness, which is the actual subject of the work. Expressed in the language of the lasting otherness, the sports victory is a victory per se, an achievement accomplishing glory, prominence and eminence.  

Pindar can talk about Deinias only in one or other transcendental direction. The first leads to the father and the family. The poet intermingles the sport achievement by Deinias with a past achievement by his late father Megas in such a way that it is not clear whether Deinias won in the so-called "double foot race", or if he and his father raced in a single foot race. This procedure of enlargement and promotion continues to the family of Megas and Deinias. The praise is for the Chariads. The claim seems to be that the concrete sport achievement is a consequence of the long lasting qualities of a family carried on from generation to generation. We do not know if the poet is speaking about an aristocratic family. Running is not for aristocrats as is the case with chariot races. Perhaps that is the reason why Pindar does not develop, as in other victory odes, a genealogical story of the ancestors of Megas and Deinias. Parts of the genealogical myth of the city are presented. Megas and Deinias are raised to the level of Aegina and it is suggested that she is the real victor. This is something frequent in Pindar’s victory odes, and also in contemporary world games, which in similar ways produce large identifications of countries and states by means of the sports achievements of the competitors they have nominated. 

The significant difference between Pindar’s and the contemporary attitude to the sports victory is that the sports victory of Deinias, represented as a victory in general and a victory of the city itself, is not in the present. What happened in the present is only a pale copy of something that happened long ago in the genealogical history of the city. This religious and mythological programme is the reason to talk more about events in the history of the city than about the victory itself of Aegina at the Nemean games in 459 AD. More attention is paid to the mythical amorous union of Zeus with the local nymph Aegina, from which the hero Aeacus is born. The fruit of this first achievement of the city, perfect physically and mentally and thus a model for all achievements, he turns Aegina, founded by him, into a centre of the world then.  

Everything in the story is explained by relating it to a mythological precedent. This relation has also a religious meaning; it is some kind of transcending of this world here and now. But the victory ode is not only a hymn, through which it is claimed that everything achieved by man has already accomplished by God. It is also a "new song", a part that is separate from the religious celebration, in which the discussed event can be named in many ways. The victory ode is an oral form of art. Deinias’s victory, transcended to mythological precedents is related non-mythologically to a series of concepts. Undoubtedly, it is above all a lasting prosperity (olbos), bestowed by God. Human achievements ensue from the nature of God’s protection. Which does not отменя the question to what extent this protection is performed mechanically for the aristocrats and the chosen people and to what extent it can be actively sought. 

One way or the other, the search for God’s protection is typical for religious rituals and celebrations. Pindar seems to follow that practice. Telling the story of the protection, performed by Aeacus, he also pleads the hero for the success of his victory ode. This religious elevation of the discussed victory to the concept of prosperity is diffused by the introductory address to the Goddess of youth and the seasons Hora, the one who brings charm to youths. She directed the love of Zeus once, but also happy coincidence (kairos), led to Deinias’s victory. Victory is success and luck. The religious thinking is weakened by literarily used mythological belief. The victory ode unfolds as a complex explanation of what is the victory success. It is a given prosperity, high God’s fate, but also coincidence, not without God’s, although not so high, intervention. 

In a third connection, the victory success falls into the measurement system of the concept of virtue (arete). Success is conditioned also internally; it can be a consequence of a quality. At least according to the Eighth Nemean Victory Ode it does not become clear to what extent this virtue is something external for the achieving man and is dependent on the affiliation to an aristocratic family.  Pindar underscores another connection – the sports “virtue” of the young man is rooted in the glorious past of Aegina.  Virtue is not the traditional unity of internal and external qualities, guaranteed by family belonging. Perhaps the motif about belonging to the city is the internal reason for the claim that virtue is a human quality to appear in the foreground of the victory ode. It is power and bravery, but also intellect, connected to speech. 

At this point in the victory ode Pindar presents a discussion on the ingredients of virtue. In a genealogical projection, starting from Zeus and Aeacus, a mythological example is found in the grandson of Aeacus Аjax, who lost the weapon to Achilles. The example engenders a paradoxical relation – in the otherwise prospering family of Aeacus something was not achieved. The event is not connected to Aegina. It is only an argument for the assertion that real virtue has three ingredients. Ajax, who lost the weapon and committed suicide lacked intelligence expressed in speech, but the winner Odysseus lacked real bravery and morality. It is suggested that virtue and success may not coincide. Odysseus acquired Achilles’s weapon, but did not possess real virtue. What is significant is not the achievement itself, but the inner human quality which lends endurance to success.

Thus in the unfolding of the victory ode the concrete event in Nemea is first a victory of Aegina. Then, this victory, commented in a series of concepts, is related on a higher level to the general idea of achievement, prominence and success. In the course of the comment another connection is effectuated – the sublimated sports event in Nemea meets with the concrete event of the oral presentation of the victory ode in front of the temple of Aeacus in Aegina. The competing in Nemea Deinias, the skillfully arguing before the gathering of the Achaeans Odysseus and the creator of the victory ode Pindar turn out to be in a similar position – they strive for recognition and glory. This allows Pindar, following the rules of art, which allow him to digress and take roundabout paths, and turn to the problems of poetic work.

Certainly poetic work is not totally different from the strict religiousness of the celebration; it is expressed in similar transcendent elevations, typical for festive processions and rituals. The poet is a master in relating and ascribing values, keeper of the common values of the festive multitude, listening and perceiving as one. But the ancient Greek fest is not so compact. There are secular aspects in it. Such an aspect is the possibility within the fest to show the "new" song of the victory ode, which progresses along the road of the by the hymn-inspired transcendence, but in an unusual and even dangerous way. Hence the necessity for the public praise in the victory ode to be subjected to a virtue. If virtue is a correspondence between deeds, words and ethics, the virtue of the poet of the victory ode is in the accomplishing correspondence between the praise and the event. The poet has to sing accordingly, he should not resemble the charlatan Odysseus, should praise only what should be praised (aineon aineta).

Thus the poetic ethics defined by Pindar is an attempt not to allow the oral work to exist as something within itself. The real guarantee of this is not the formulated rule, but the way in which the victory ode is used. Presented at the celebration itself before the festive multitude of citizens, it keeps its higher meaning insofar as the subject of this of this multitude is monolithic and the understanding of the text is determined by the serious task of the celebration to relate the here and now to lasting models. This “religious" aspect of the understanding of the victory ode obliges the poet to create his work along religious models. Internally and externally, the victory ode is a step upwards.

And yet, this is true only as concerns form. Because the oral material which the poet utilizes is redundant. The elevation in level is repetitive, effectuated in different ways and leads to a surplus of meaning. This is how one side of art is engendered, the connection which violates the hierarchical transcending making of religious reality. And this second side is not only typical of the text but also an external condition for understanding, given in the principle of independent use, in the possibility for the text to be read independently of the context of religious celebration. Following the specifics of ancient Greek culture, the celebration allows for secular behaviour. Even with the oral presentation of the victory ode, besides the monolithic, “religious” construction of reality for everybody, the understanding of this or that listener can be presented, which interweaves in the general understanding its own emotional frame of mind evoking a special set of associations.

The Eighth Nemean Victory Ode contributes towards this with its special associative organization. Its meaning is constructed also in a row of plane connections, from interwoven paths of linking and understanding. By engendering associations, leaving his thoughts incomplete and piling up possibilities for digression in strange directions, the poet fulfills the function of art. Pindar insists that the word corresponds to what is being talked about. Apparently, that is why he does not develop a story about Deinias’s victory – it is significant only indirectly, insofar as the victor is from Aegina. But notwithstanding this gesture along the lines of the religious feast the poet does not  act as a mythologist, does not develop a detailed story about Aeacus, but only comments on the Aeginian myths, looking for places to open parentheses in the text. His speech walks along the path of incongruence and redundancy, alluring to independent understanding. In the Eighth Nemean Victory Ode Pindar is more a poet than a mythologist. And he was going to be a poet of his time, if the context of the oral performance did not bind him to the obligations of the transcending perception. 

Nowadays, however, already texts to be read, the victory odes are subject to the "mercy" of independent perception, which "unleashes" the associative character of the literary oral expression projected in the original text. And on its part it hides from us the transcending gestures of the religious feast, despite the fact that they are well pronounced in the original text of Pindar’s victory odes. That is why, the question which is the work of art in this text can be answered with the formula – it is what the understanding person creates, relying on one or another aspect from what is already created in the text.  

Relevant comments
Enter a comment:
Antispam code:


Comments: 0 Reads: 45591




© Copyright - NBU & Bogdan Bogdanov - Created and Powered by Studio IDA