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Praise all Great Men: World Poetry Project

Updated on January 9, 2012
Pindar, who made his living immortalizing others and thus himself.
Pindar, who made his living immortalizing others and thus himself.
Eros with a double flute
Eros with a double flute
Ancient Greek boxing gloves.
Ancient Greek boxing gloves.
The Pankration united wrestling and boxing in a last man standing scenario of great popularity.  It was very popular in ancient Greece.
The Pankration united wrestling and boxing in a last man standing scenario of great popularity. It was very popular in ancient Greece.
The Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi.
The Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi.

What makes men worthy of praise? It is not the mere fact that they are spoken of, even shine in the overbright lights of the media for a few hours. And although we bewail the attraction to scandal, to the superficial by modern newscasters, reporters, and 'commentators', in all honesty the media, broadly defined, has consisted of little except this for a very long time. We go to the media for two purposes: to be entertained, and to be confirmed. We want our villains to be condemned, preferably in a humiliating fashion, and our heroes to be elevated. Perhaps our challenge with the media today is not so much to return it to the days of yore, when Edward R. Murrow was warning of us of where it would go, but to create a new media guided by new principles, more fitting to this age of rapid information dissemination, more ethical and more knowledgeable within itself.

What made an ancient Greek worthy of praise? Pindar knew, for he was the arch-poet of praise, the grand artist of the ode, and to Pindar a man was worthy of praise if he won, and if he paid. A Pindaric ode to the loser would have violated the art of the ode, which had no room for failures, such people not being fit to elevate into the realm of the Muses and the Gods. An unpaid for Pindaric ode would have violated the poet's rule of profit, of receiving recognition of his own efforts and virtues.

Pindar was born in Boeotia ca. 518 BCE. It was free when he was born, but by his middle years it was a member of the Delian League, under the de facto control of 'democratic' Athens. (From its very beginnings, democracy has been a form of government liable to numerous hypocrisies and abuses, in which perils it does not differ from other forms of government, only it somehow seems more unethical, more terrible, to oppress while chanting 'freedom'.) A conservative aristocrat, Pindar adjusted, earning a living and praising Athens. He made it his business and his art to praise great men, and his great men were the victors of the games--Olympic, Nemean, Pythian, and Isthmos.

Athletics can be political, and the games of ancient Greece certainly were. Ancient Greece is a convenience, a way of separating a particular cultural area from others, but this convenience masks an internal disunity that was periodically disruptive and often tense. Each polis was independent in name, and often in reality, connected to other polei by alliance, by treaty, by friendship, by kinship, by more or less stable forms of interaction and deference. Within these networks, and between separate networks, existed hostilities, temporary and permanent, rivalries, displays of primacy and subordination. Victory belonged not only to the victor, but to his public and his patrons, and they paid to advertise their success.

The Pythian ode was an advertisement of success, or arete (virtue, or excellence, a term with a complex history and ramifications). In celebrating the victor, a particular arete , the mortal was elevated into an eternal moment, standing within the ode in relationship to other eternals--muses, gods, and heroes. The art of the ode conquered the transience to which man was condemned in time, but it was a permanence available only to particular men, a permanence that had to be won. In structure, the ode exercised the talents of the poet by confining him to a rigid structure, much as the sonnet can strain the talents of modern poets, resulting in bad efforts in which the effort is ruined by clumsy artifice, or in successful ones which are rewarded with stunning beauty.

Let us look then at the samples of Pindar's art found in World Poetry . The first celebrates Agesidamus of the Locrians, victor in the Olympic Games boys' boxing match. Robert Fagles provides the translation. Boxing was in ancient Greece, as it remains today, a brutal sport, and a popular one. It tested a warrior's ferocity, stamina, and strength.

once let a man catch fire,

wring some triumph out of the grit of combat:

then my underrun of music,

a founding-stone for annals building against the years,

will mount at the last, an unaging pledge to the works of Greatness;

The artist, thus, in building a monument to the greatness of the athlete, simultaneously constructs a monument to himself. No one--patron, athlete, artist--is ill served in this project of celebration.

From Pythian X, Padraic Fallon provides us with translation on a section on the Hyperboreans, figures of Greek myth. The Hyerboreans are well-suited to an ode celebrating a victor in the Phythian Games, held near Delphi, home of one of the widely consulted oracles of Greece and sacred to Apollo.

The Hyperboreans lived in a land of eternal spring, free of war and labor, and blessed with long life without the curse of old age and infirmity. According to one legend, when Hyperboreans felt it was time to die, they would leap into the same bitumen lake into which Phaethon's friend, Kyknos, did, transforming, as he did, into swans, losing their voices as they migrated south. On Delos another story was told: Leto, pregnant with Apollo, traveled to Delos from Hyperborea in the company of wolves, and there, in Delos, gave birth to the God with the aid of Artemis. The shrine of Apollo at Delphoi/Delphi also had its Hyperborean story: the second of the temples built for Apollo had been constructed by pilgrims from that land of beeswax and feathers. According to legend, when Gauls attempted to take the temple, phantoms of the Hyperboreans joined the battle and routed the invaders.

In Pythian X, Pindar speaks of the Hyperboreans as a people blessed by the presence of the Muses, and makes reference to yet another story of the Hyperboreans in the catalogue of Greek myth:

For everywhere

To flute and string they young girls

Are dancing,

In their hair the gold leaves of the bay;

These young girls are forever young, and then gone. They are exempt from the decay that plagues other humans in all other climes, yet even into their blessed existence comes a figure associated with horror, a reminder of the transience and peril of the outside world:

Here the hero came

With the head

That shocked a royal house, turning

King and all into stone:

It was long long ago, if

Time means anything;

Long, long ago.

Pindar is referencing Perseus and the head of Medusa, the gorgon whose gaze turned men into stone. Here again we encounter the vagaries of Greek myth, for we sometimes trick ourselves into believing that Greek myth consisted of single, agreed upon versions of old stories, and that one man's Perseus was exactly like another's. But this is false: many versions of the myths were current in divided Greece, and one man's story of Perseus could,and did differ from another's. Perseus went to the Hyperboreans, so far we are agreed, but did he go to find the guardian nymphs of a divine treasure, or to meet the crones who could reveal to him the location of Medusa?

Note the question of time that occurs in this stanza. In art we enter a separate world in which time ceases to have concrete meaning. Transience, the temporary nature of existence, disappears in the eternity of story, of repetition, of fame. Time, indeed, ceases to mean anything, until the end of the song, when the audience and the singer return to the real world of mutability and death.

The selections of Pindar end with a lengthy passage celebrating not an athlete, but a flautist: Midas of Akragos, winner of the flute match of the Pythian games in 409 BCE. The translation comes from Thomas Meyer. The recipient of the crown is not the man Midas, but the polis , Akragos: through his excellence, the whole community is blessed. Midas is a victor over Hellas in this contest of music, and the contest is tied to more martial, more dangerous, pursuits with a story of the source of music.

take this crown

from Pytho for good Midas

& Midas as well

who beat Hellas at the craft

Pallas discovered

in the insolent Gorgons'

deadly song

unravelled by Athena

maidens whorn out

sorrow shed

under snake infested heads

when Perseus slew

their third sister

The "polytonic musics" of the flute are a maidens gift to man, made to "mimic those loud groans/ growing from Euryala's quick jaws". Euryala is immortal sister to Medusa, noted for her bellowing upon Medusa's death at the hands of Perseus.

Bright success never shines

effortless on men.

A god might end it today.

What fate set occurs.

Yet time can still cast up

the unexpected, grant

this but not that.

Even in the celebration of great men, we witness a pessimism regarding the human condition that will recur throughout Greek poetry, living side by side with the love and promotion of beauty for itself, and for its connections to virtue. It may be that this darker view of life, of the power of fate, fed the Greek love of the bright moments, of an arete that could only be temporary if not preserved by human art and memory. Beauty, excellence, virtue and love are celebrated because they cannot last.

Hipponax did not praise great men. He did not give the world beauty. This is not to say that his work lacks value, for it pierces into that world the Greek did not celebrate, the reality of himself and his times that failed to meet the ideals of life and personality he did celebrate. However, it is unlikely that Alexander the Great would have spared from destruction the house of Hipponax, as he did spare the house of Pindar, when he destroyed Thebes in 336 BCE.


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    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      Hey great HUB.. very interesting..I have always been interested in Greek Mythology poetry, history.