The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Frederick Armour
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
When did you first come across this text?
I’d always been aware of Pindar as a kind of majestic background to Classical Greek lit but had not read anything by him, since he seems never to be included in any anthologies. I began reading his Odes a couple of years ago having read through Thucydides and Aeschylus – I must be a sucker for the Austere Style!
Can you tell me a bit about the Odes and their context?
Pindar, a Boeotian poet born in Thebes in the late 6th century, composed a number of different choral lyric works during the first half of the 5th century BC, and some seventeen books existed in Hellenistic times of which only four books are extant, more or less in entirety, the rest existing in fragments. It is in these four books that we have Pindar’s Epinician Odes, forty-four of them, each book entitled by one of the four Pan- Hellenic games: the Olympic, Pythian, Nemean and Isthmian Odes.
These were composed, on commission by the victor or member of his family, to be sung and danced by a chorus to pipe and lyre in celebration of a victorious athlete in one of these Games (not necessarily the actual athlete – the owner of a horse/chariot team being the commissioner/honorand, eg Hieron the Tyrant of Syracuse), the performance to take place in the victor’s home city (there’s some discussion as to whether the shorter odes might have taken place at the Games).
In the epinician ode genre, and others, Pindar had an elder contemporary, Simonides, and a younger, Bacchylides (Simonides’ nephew), thus these three were in competition. In the late 19th century some fifteen epinician odes by Bacchylides were discovered but of Simonides only fragments remain and the epinician genre seems to have flourished and died with these three (though Euripides is said to have composed an epinician for Alcibiades and the antecedents of epinican are lost in the mists of time like those of the tragic genre).
To satisfy the commissioner, the ode would have to mention the victor’s name (as mentioned above, this not necessarily being the actual athlete), his competition, city, family name (some belonging or purporting to belong to famous families), sometimes past family members’ victories in Games, and a myth linked to the victor’s family or city, embedding them in an Hellenic whole as an egg yolk binding pastry together (possibly this felt more important for one in the Greek colonies in Crete or Cyrene in North Africa or elsewhere).
What is it about Pindar that appeals to you most?
I enjoy reading poetry and I enjoy reading Greek lit and Pindar seems to fit perfectly in a Venn diagram of these. The necessarily celebratory nature of the Odes lends itself to cheeriness but there’s a deeper pleasure to be had in enjoying the verbal versatility of Pindar in ringing the changes to the formulae he necessarily has to use to satisfy the commission. There are regular transitions from one theme to another – there are no longeurs in Pindar – with a swift glide by means of a simple relative pronoun. Indeed there’s an almost liminal nature to the Odes when one finds oneself entering a mythic episode, in medias res, where there is a colourful vividness. For instance Heracles, in chase of a golden-horned doe (mythic does have mythic horns as Gildersleeve says!), in the land of the Hyperboreans, stands in amazed wonder at the shady foliage over the river Ister; Klotho withdraws young Pelops ,with his gleaming ivory shoulder, from a cauldron; Bellerophon, astride Pegasus, from the cold recesses of the empty air shoots missiles at the Amazon hordes – and so on in picturesque marvelousness.
Just to give a single example of Pindar’s poetic gift: in the phrase haptetai oikothen Herakleos stalan, (Olympian 3, 43-44) without that small ordinary word oikothen (this is the root of the word for home, oikos, plus termination –then meaning place from, so = “from home”) haptetai stalan Herakleos, “touches the pillars of Hercules” would be a worn metaphor, but adding oikothen Pindar produces a dizzying oxymoron – it emphasises the enormous distance (the pillars of Hercules were as sort of Hellenic Ultima Thule) but also presents a kind of optical illusion of the honorand, Theron, both at home and in physical contact with those far flung Pillars, rather like that illusion of the revolving mask, concave one side, convex the other, which when seen revolving shows convex both sides. (Those Pillars by the way, as well as being associated with the straits of Gibraltar, seem to have originated in early Greek travellers’ sightings of two huge pillars in the Phoenician temple of Melqart at Cadiz (Gadeira in Greek), according to Robin Lane Fox in “Travelling Heroes” following Strabo.)
And finally…what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Reading mainly…. Kate Atkinson is a current favourite, Mick Herron too and the old classics like Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, Agatha Christie, and in particular Dorothy Sayers. I like watching the David Suchet Poirot films too. I wish I could say drinking beer in the pub but we’ll not go there….
“I left school as soon as I could and I’ve worked on the railways in various jobs at various places for 36 years, during which time I taught myself to read Classical Greek and subsequently started doing OU courses studying Classical Greek and Latin and Classical culture out of curiosity, one course leading to another and so found myself with a degree (though I ran out of Classical culture courses and got my honours with a Shakespeare course – which was nice!). I now work part time so I have lots of time to study Greek lit.”