Pindar (522-438 B.C.), the greatest Greek lyric poet, brought choral poetry to perfection. Unlike the personal lyrics of his predecessors, his works were meant to be recited by choruses of young men and women and accompanied by music.
Pindar was born at Cynoscephalae, near Thebes, in Boeotia of a very prominent aristocratic family, the Aegeidae, who traced their genealogy back to Aegeus and even to Cadmus of Thebes with connections in Sparta, Thera, and Cyrene. He was the son of Daiphantus and Cleodice. His family seems to have had considerable interest in music, especially in flute-playing, which became important at Delphi in the worship of Apollo and was perfected and highly regarded at Thebes. Having received his elementary education under Scopelinus in Thebes, he was sent to Athens, where he was educated under Apollodorus, Agathocles, and Lasus of Hermione, a competitor of Simonides. It was Lasus who is reputed to have written the first treatise on music, brought to the voice a harmonized flute accompaniment, and perfected the dithyramb.
Returning to Thebes, Pindar competed in poetry contests with Myrtis and Corinna, the latter winning over him and advising him, because of his penchant for including an overwhelming amount of mythological allusions, "to sow with the hand, not with the whole sack." At 20, he composed his first ode, Pythian Ode X. His earliest preserved Olympian Ode was composed in 484. Pindar traveled extensively throughout the Greek world and achieved a Panhellenic reputation and numerous commissions. For Hiero I, the tyrant of Syracuse, he wrote encomia, as well as for Alexander I of Macedon, Archelaus of Cyrene, Theron of Agrigentum, the Thessalian Aleuadae, and the Alcmeonid Megacles. In Hiero, Pindar thought he saw a champion of civilized Hellenism against the forces of barbarism. He visited Sicily and was familiar with other Sicilians, notably the tyrant of Acragas, Theron, and his nephew, Thrasyboulus.
Mention should also be made of Pindar's relation with the island of Aegina. Eleven of his odes were written for Aeginetan victors. This is remarkable since it constitutes nearly one-fourth of his total output. Aegina (whose founding nymph, Aegina, was reputed to be a sister of Thebe) was subjected to Athenian imperial aggression during the Peloponnesian War, and Pindar in Pythian Ode VIII may be cloaking a criticism of this policy. He did not tire of praising the Aeacidae, Peleus and Telamon, and their offspring, Achilles and Ajax.
Thebes's unfortunate capitulation to the Persians during the Persian Wars (480-479 B.C.) and cooperation with the invading enemy left Pindar a distressed member of a disgraced and defeated state. Though apparently sympathetic to Athens, he was in no position to sing Athens's praises too loudly, even after Thebes became a subject ally of Athens about 457.
Pindar may have visited the games. At Delphi, he was particularly honored. Even his descendants are reported to have been given special recognition because of their progenitor. He was married to Timoxena and had one son, Daiphantus, and two daughters, Protomache and Eumetis.
Works and Thought
Not all of Pindar's works have been preserved. He composed hymns, paeans, prosodia (processionals), dithyrambs, parthenia (maiden songs), hyporchemata (dance songs), encomia, dirges, and epinikia (victory odes in honor of athletic heroes). Forty-four of the victory odes celebrate winners of Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games, which were religious as well as athletic occasions. These odes are brilliant in form but difficult and complex. Richmond Lattimore (1947) observes, "Competition [in the games] symbolized an idea of nobility which meant much to Pindar; and in the exaltation of victory he seems sometimes to see a kind of transfiguration, briefly making radiant a world which most of the time seemed, to him as to his contemporaries, dark and brutal."
An epinikion was sung by a chorus of men or boys at a private occasion for the winner, his family, and friends—any of these people having commissioned it. Apparently, contracts were made specifying fees, details about the winner and his family to be included, and mythical allusions to be interwoven in the commemorative ode. The victor, the event, and the festival had to be indicated, and the poet had to laud the winner for his excellence, as well as offer felicitations to his family and state. Pindar does all this skillfully. He weaves the facts into the ode gradually and highlights not the victor but the festival, the aristocratic descent of the victor, a mythological event suggested by the life of the victor, or a myth connected with the holy occasion, the victor, or the victor's native place. This "myth" constitutes the heart of the ode. The technical structure is prooimion (prelude), arche (beginning), katatrope (first transition), omphalos (center), metakatatrope (second transition), exodion (conclusion), and sphragis (seal). The transitions are important and often quite abrupt. There are three stanzas: strophe, antistrophe, and epode.
Pindar was aristocratic in temper, Panhellenic in spirit, and proud of his noble background. Profoundly religious and moral, he "corrected" myths to ensure religious orthodoxy. He saw properly used wealth as an honor to this world, but he also spoke of the next world. He believed in the righteousness of the gods, in the supremacy of Zeus, and in the majesty and justice of Apollo, and it is of Apollo that he saw himself the servant.
Pindar reflects an oligarchic society that was threatened by the rise of democratic Athens. John H. Finley, Jr. (1947), states: "Victory to Pindar is itself only a figure for this state of being, which is a mark of the divine in the world. Hence victory and poetry, different as they are, are equally dependent upon the gods, whose hand is increasingly seen in the late poems in friendship and inner harmony also." Pindar is a poet of light, which he sees most closely associated with the gods. Finely points out that Pindar tries "to grasp the bright chain that binds men to gods or, better, the radiance that descends from gods to men, touching events with the divine completeness."
So great a reputation did Pindar achieve that it is reported that when Alexander the Great devastated Thebes, only Pindar's house was left untouched.
Further Reading on Pindar
An excellent collection of Pindar's work is Selected Odes, translated with interpretative essays by Carl A.P. Ruck and William H. Matheson (1968); each ode is introduced with an essay setting forth the occasion, structure, and theme of the poem. Other collections include Thomas D. Seymour, Selected Odes of Pindar (1882), and Richmond Lattimore, The Odes of Pindar (1947). Among the critical studies are John H. Finley, Jr., Pindar and Aeschylus (1947), a sensitive exposition of Pindar's use of myth and image; C. M. Bowra, Pindar (1965), intended as a critical introduction but filled with undiscussed and often unfamiliar allusions; and Mary A. Grant, Folktale and Hero-tale Motifs in the Odes of Pindar (1967).