A sampling of comments on Pindar Isthmian 8

2017.10.05 | By Gregory Nagy

Pindar’s Isthmian 8 highlights the hero Achilles, who is for us defined primarily by the Homeric Iliad—though he had been a prominent figure also in other epic traditions, as we see for example in the surviving plot-outline of the Aithiopis, ‘the song of the Ethiopians’, which was an epic belonging to a body of poetry commonly known as the epic Cycle. Also highlighted in Isthmian 8 are two epic opponents of Achilles: they are (1) Hector, the hero who is for us defined primarily by the Iliad, and (2) Memnon, a prominent hero in the Aithiopis, whose ‘Ethiopian’ identity is conventionally signaled in ancient Greek vase-paintings by portraying him or his attendants as “African” or “black” in appearance. The use of these two descriptive words is problematic, however, since they may suggest a racial reading in contexts where no racism had been intended.

Memnon, son of Eos and Tithonos. Engraving by Bernard Picart (1673–1733), after Michel de Marolles, Tableaux du temple des muses (Amsterdam,1676). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Memnon, son of Eos and Tithonos. Engraving by Bernard Picart (1673–1733), after Michel de Marolles, Tableaux du temple des muses (Amsterdam,1676). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

I.8.1–70
subject headings: Aegina; Thebes; lutron ‘compensation’; kamatos ‘pain’

Pindar’s Isthmian 8, praising an athletic victory—in the pankration—at the festival of the Isthmia in 478 BCE, also praises the military victories of European Greeks who fought against the armed forces of the Persian Empire in the sea battle of Salamis in 480 BCE and in the land battle of Plataea in 479 BCE. These military victories are relevant here to the athletic victory, since the victor in the pankration was a young man who hailed from the island state of Aegina. This state was at the time credited with a major contribution to the victory of the European Greeks allied against the Persian Empire in the sea battle of Salamis, as we see from the relevant narrative at Scroll 8 in the History of Herodotus as also in an ostentatious reference that we find in Pindar, I.5.48. These victorious European Greeks, including the Aeginetans, styled themselves as Hellēnes or ‘Hellenes’, which was a politicized name that stood in contrast to the self-description of the Asiatic Greeks who fought in the sea battle of Salamis on the side of the Persian Empire: those defeated Greeks, in accordance with the politics of the empire, were known simply as Ionians (details and relevant bibliography in Nagy 2017.06.25, especially at §§43–50). In terms of Hellenic ideology, it would have been politically inappropriate to celebrate in victory odes the military victory of any single Hellenic state over another: only athletic victories would have been fair game, as it were, for celebration by way of Panhellenic consensus. But the victory of the Hellenes against the forces of the Persian Empire was another matter: in this case, it was in fact appropriate to celebrate by way of Panhellenic consensus. But even here we see a political problem, since not all the European Greek states had fought on the side of the Hellenes. Some of these states sided with the Persian Empire—or, to say it in more overtly political terms, they sided with the Mēdoi ‘Medes’, that is, they ‘medized’ (Greek mēdizein). Embarrassingly for Pindar, his native city of Thebes was the most prominent of the European Greek states that ‘medized’, as we see most clearly in the narration presented by Herodotus in Scroll 8 of his History. To offset this embarrassment, Pindar’s wording in Isthmian 8 highlights the reciprocity between the Aeginetan victor and the Theban poet—a reciprocity that is built into the victory ode— by elaborating on a mythological link between Aegina and Thebes. See the comment at I.8.15–23. By way of this reciprocity, the victory ode created by the poet of Thebes can become a lutron ‘compensation’ not only for the kamatoi ‘pains’ taken by the athlete in achieving victory, I.8.1, but also for the pains taken in the Panhellenic effort to achieve military victory over the invaders—pains that include the personal pain experienced by the poet in admitting the compromised situation of his native city. [[GN 2017.10.05 via PH 13 = 0§31, 142 = 5§12, 193 = 6§86.]]

 

I.8.1–4
subject headings: kōmos ‘revel, reveling, band of revelers, occasion for reveling’[; khoros ‘group of singers/dancers’]

The victory ode is a song that is chorally performed. Choral performance is a combination of singing and dancing by a group that is ordinarily called a khoros, which means ‘group of singers/dancers’. But this ordinary nomenclature is not used in the victory odes of Pindar: in the poetics of his songmaking, the group is called kōmos ‘revel, reveling, band of revelers, occasion for reveling’, as here at I.8.3. [[GN 2017.10.05 via PH 370 = 12§61.]]

 

I.8.1
subject headings: laudator; laudandus; Kleandros ‘he who has the glories-of-men [klea andrōn]’; klea andrōn ‘glories of men’; Nīkoklēs ‘he who has the glory [kleos] of victory [nīkē]’

The name of Kleandros, I.8.1, who is the primary laudandus in this victory ode, means ‘he who has the glories-of-men [klea andrōn]’. On the technical terms laudandus and laudator, see the Inventory of terms and names. The role of Kleandros as laudandus is matched by the role of Pindar as laudator.  In Homeric diction, the wording klea andrōn ‘glories of men’ refers to songs sung by a laudator about laudandi who are men of the past—about men who were heroes, as at I.09.524. A comparable reference to the glories of heroes is built into the naming of Kleandros as the laudandus, since even his name links him to the epic past. It is as if this person’s family, as a continuation of his ancestors, programmed him to live up to the heroic past. The inherent meaning of the name Kleandros, ‘he who has the glories-of-men [klea andrōn]’, is highlighted by the placement of this name at the very beginning of the song here, I.8.1. In all the attested victory odes of Pindar, Kleandros stands out as the only victor whose name actually begins the ode. The never-ending glory of Achilles as hero is pictured as extending all the way to the glory of the athlete as victor—through the intermediacy of the victor’s ancestors. For another example of a name that links the bearer of the name to ancestral expectations of living up to the heroic past, see the comment at I.8.56–62 on the name Nīkoklēs ‘he who has the glory [kleos] of victory [nīkē]’. [[GN 2017.10.05 via PH 205–206 = 7§§6–7. 214 = 7§19.]]

 

Achilles and Memnon in combat, with the body of Antilochus sprawled beneath their feet. Painted plaster reconstruction of the east frieze of the Siphnian Treasury, Delphi. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Achilles and Memnon in combat, with the body of Antilokhos sprawled beneath their feet. Painted plaster reconstruction of the east frieze of the Siphnian Treasury, Delphi. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

 

I.8.16–31
subject headings: Aegina and Thebes linked as states; Aegina the nymph; Thebe the nymph; Aegina and Thebe linked as nymphs; river god Asopos

As already noted in the overall comment at I.8.1–70, Pindar’s wording in Isthmian 8 highlights the reciprocity between the Aeginetan victor and the Theban poet—a reciprocity that is built into the victory ode—by elaborating on a mythological link between Aegina and Thebes. This link, as highlighted in the victory song of Isthmian 8, is the genealogical relationship of the nymphs Aegina and Thebe as daughters of the river god Asopos. According to this myth as retold here at I.8.16–31, the nymph Aegina (Αἴγινα) was the twin sister of a nymph named Thebe (Θήβη / Θήβα), local goddess of Thebes (Θῆβαι), and these nymphs were daughters of Asopos, who was the god of the river Asopos that waters the land of Thebes. The myth tells how Zeus abducted the Asopid nymph Aegina from this land and relocated her in the island of Aegina, where she was impregnated by the god and gave birth to Aiakos. The detail about the impregnation of the Asopid nymph Aegina by Zeus in the island of Aegina is already attested in the Hesiodic Catalogue (F 205). [[GN 2017.10.05 via PH 205–206 = 7§6, 380–381 = 12§§79–80; also via Nagy 2011d:61.]]

 

Ι.8.16
subject headings: kharis ‘gratification; pleasurable beauty, grace’; Kharites ‘Graces’; laudator; laudandus; aōton ‘blossom’; myrtle blossoms

The gesture of offering to the victorious athlete the blossoming of the Kharites ‘Graces’, who are the divine personifications of kharis ‘gratification; pleasurable beauty, grace’, is a symbol of reciprocity between the laudator and the laudandus. In the song here, the kharites are imagined as myrtle blossoms that garland the hair of the victor: see the comment further ahead at I.8.66. On the specialized meaning of kharites as ‘myrtle blossoms’ see also the documentation in MoM 4§144*3 and following, especially the reference in Scholia D (via Scholia A) for I.17.051: Μακεδόνες δὲ καὶ Κύπριοι χάριτας λέγουσι τὰς συνεστραμμένας καὶ οὔλας μυρσίνας, ἃς φαμὲν στεφανίτιδας ‘Macedonians and Cypriotes use the word kharites [= plural of kharis] with reference to myrtle blossoms that are compacted and curled [around a garland]. We call them garland-blossoms [stephanitides]’. [[GN 2017.10.05 via PH 206 = 7§6.]]

 

Ι.8.25–48
subject headings: conception of Achilles by Thetis

Here at I.8.25–48, the myth about the conception of Achilles by Thetis shows that this hero is the son that Zeus never had: it is foretold that if either Zeus or Poseidon mates with Thetis, the son to be born would be greater than his father. That is why it is ordained by the gods that Thetis must be married off to Peleus. And the bitter fact is, Peleus is a mortal. So, since Peleus as one of the two parents of Achilles is mortal, Achilles must be mortal as well, even though his other parent is Thetis, who is not only immortal but even endowed with limitless cosmic powers. Mortality is the dominant gene, as it were. So Achilles, despite the limitless potential he inherits from Thetis, is subject to death. [[GN 2017.10.05 via BA 346–347 = 20§§28–29; see also Slatkin 1991, 2011.]]

 

Archer with “African” features (possibly Memnon), flanked by a pair of Amazons. Black-figure neck amphora by the Swing Painter, ca. 550–500 BCE.  Brussels, Musees Royaux, A130. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Archer with “African” features (possibly Memnon), flanked by a pair of Amazons. Black-figure neck amphora by the Swing Painter, ca. 550–500 BCE. Brussels, Musées Royaux, A130. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

 

I.8.54–55
subject headings: Memnon; Hector

Achilles is shown here in the act of defeating and killing the heroes Memnon and Hector. These two heroic opponents of Achilles, as attested in the epics that we know as the Aithiopis and the Iliad respectively, are treated here as if they belonged to a single epic tradition. [[GN 2017.10.05 via PH 415 = 14§2; also via Nagy 2015.12.24.]]

 

Achilles in combat with Memnon, flanked by Thetis and Eos (all named). Red-figure volute krater by the Berlin Painter, ca. 490–460 BCE. London, British Museum, Vase E468. Image via the British Museum.
Achilles in combat with Memnon, flanked by Thetis and Eos (all named). Red-figure volute krater by the Berlin Painter, ca. 490–460 BCE. London, British Museum, Vase E468. Image via the British Museum.

 

I.8.56–62
Q&T via H24H 4§3
subject headings: Achilles; Muses; thrēnos ‘lament’; phthinesthai ‘perish’; Nikokles; Kleandros; pherein ‘win as a prize’

|56 τὸν μὲν οὐδὲ θανόντ’ ἀοιδαὶ <ἐπ>έλιπον, |57 ἀλλά οἱ παρά τε πυρὰν τάφον θ’ Ἑλικώνιαι παρθένοι |58 στάν, ἐπὶ θρῆνόν τε πολύφαμον ἔχεαν. |59 ἔδοξ’ ἦρα καὶ ἀθανάτοις, |60 ἐσλόν γε φῶτα καὶ φθίμενον ὕμνοις θεᾶν διδόμεν. |61 τὸ καὶ νῦν φέρει λόγον, ἔσσυταί τε Μοισαῖον ἅρμα Νικοκλέος |62 μνᾶμα πυγμάχου κελαδῆσαι.

|56 Even when he [= Achilles] died, the songs did not leave him, |57 but the Maidens of Helicon [= the Muses] stood by his pyre and his funeral mound, |58 and, as they stood there, they poured forth a song of lamentation [thrēnos] that is famed far and wide. |59 And so it was that the immortal gods decided |60 to hand over the man, genuine [esthlos] as he was even after he had perished [phthi-n-esthai] in death, to the songs of the goddesses [= the Muses]. |61 And this, even now, wins as a prize the words of song, as the chariot-team of the Muses starts moving on its way |62 to glorify the memory of Nikokles the boxer.

(What follows is epitomized from H24H 4§§4–5, where I add relevant bibliography.)

§4. The song is saying here that Achilles will die in war and will thus stop flourishing, that is, he will ‘perish’, as expressed by the verb phthinesthai, but the medium that conveys the message of death will never perish. This medium is pictured as a choral lyric song eternally sung by the Muses as they lament Achilles after he is cut down. The lyric song is pictured as a lament that will be transformed by the Muses into a song of glory. Although Achilles will personally ‘perish’, phthi-n-esthai, the song about him is destined to have a poetic glory that will never perish. The wording here corresponds to what we read in Homeric poetry, I.09.413, where it is foretold that the poetic kleos, ‘glory’, of Achilles will be a-phthi-ton, ‘imperishable’, forever. The Homeric use of kleos in such contexts is parallel to the use of this same word in the songmaking of Pindar, whose words proudly proclaim his mastery of the prestige conferred by kleos or poetic ‘glory’, as at N 7.61–63.

§5a. According to Pindar’s song, the death of the athlete Nikokles will not impede the glory that he merited as a victorious boxer: rather, the death of this athlete is said to be the key to the continuation of his own glory, just as the death of Achilles was the key to the extension of heroic glory into the historical present.

§5b. Pindar’s song says that the death of Nikokles, by virtue of his deeds in the historical present, will be honored by the same tradition of song that honored the death of Achilles by virtue of that hero’s deeds in the heroic past. Thus the name of Nikokles, Nīkoklēs or ‘he who has the glory [kleos] of victory [nīkē]’, has a meaning that is relevant to the poetics of Pindar’s victory ode.

§5c. But there is another name in this song that is even more relevant. The cousin of Nikokles, whose victory in an athletic event of boxing is highlighted in the song, was a young man named Kleandros, who as I noted at the beginning was the winner in the athletic event of the pankration at the festival of the Isthmia and who was the primary recipient of honor in this victory ode. The name of Kleandros, Kleandros or ‘he who has the glories-of-men [klea andrōn]’, is proclaimed as the first word of this whole song of Pindar’s (Isthmian 8.1). As I noted in the comment at I.8.1, the placement of his name at the very beginning of the song composed in his honor is exceptional. And the meaning of this name fits perfectly the meaning of the expression klea andrōn, ‘the glories of men’, as we see it used in epic. The past deeds of heroes, worthy as they are of kleos ‘glory’, may be said to extend all the way to the present. Whenever the contemporary deed is worthy of kleos, as in the case of an athletic victory, the prize that is won by the athletic victor is the kleos itself. To win such a kleos is ‘to win-as-a-prize [= verb pherein] the words [logos]’, I.8.61. [[GN 2017.10.05 via BA 176–177 = 10§§3–4; also via PH 147 = 6§3, 204–206 = 7§§6–7.]]

 

Achilles in combat with Hector, flanked by Athena and Apollo (all named). Red-figure volute krater by the Berlin Painter, ca. 490–460 BCE. London, British Museum, Vase E468. Image via the British Museum.
Achilles in combat with Hector, flanked by Athena and Apollo (all named). Red-figure volute krater by the Berlin Painter, ca. 490–460 BCE. London, British Museum, Vase E468. Image via the British Museum.

 

I.8.66
subject headings: habros ‘luxuriant’; stephanos ‘garland’; mursinē ‘myrtle’

The stephanos ‘garland’ of mursinē ‘myrtle’ that adorns the hair of the victorious athlete Kleandros is described as habros ‘luxuriant’. The pleasurable material security of victory, once it is attained, becomes transcendent here by way of song. [[GN 2017.10.05 via PH 283–285 = 10§§16–17.]]

 


Bibliographical Abbreviations

BA       = Best of the Achaeans, Nagy 1979/1999.

DGE     = Schwyzer 1923.

GMP    = Greek Mythology and Poetics, Nagy 1990b.

H24H   = The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, Nagy 2013

HC       = Homer the Classic, Nagy 2009|2008

HPC     = Homer the Preclassic, Nagy 2010|2009

HQ       = Homeric Questions, Nagy 1996b

HR       = Homeric Responses, Nagy 2003

LSJ       = Liddell, H. G., R. Scott, and H. S. Jones. 1940. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. Oxford.

MoM   = Masterpieces of Metonymy, Nagy 2016|2015

PasP    = Poetry as Performance, Nagy 1996a

PH      = Pindar’s Homer, Nagy 1990a

 


Bibliography

See the dynamic Bibliography for APCIP.

 


Inventory of terms and names

See the dynamic Inventory of terms and names for APCIP.

 

 



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