PINDAR. The most famous of Greek lyric poets. He was born near Thebes in Botia. A conservative in politics and religion, a singer of the athletic prowess of the old Ęolian and Dorian nobility, he seems to belong to a more ancient order than that of the great Athenians of the fifth century b.c. Apart from the magnificence of his style, the chief points of interest in Pindar for us are that: (1) he was before the recovery of parts of Bacchylides (q.v.) from an Egyptian papyrus the only Greek lyric poet who could be studied in a considerable body of work; (2) he is the representative of a provincial, colonial, and in some ways larger Greece than that in which we are wont to see only a foil to Periclean Athens; (3) he is the first extant Greek writer to proclaim the immortality of the soul and to portray a future judgment; (4) he shows us the Greek myths in transition from their treatment by Hesiod, the older epic, and the lost lyrics of Stesichorus to the forms which they assumed upon the Attic stage.
Only the outline of his life is known. His earliest extant ode, the tenth Pythķan, dates from about his twentieth year, before which time he is said to have studied under the best musical and poetic masters of Athens and Thebes and to have been the pupil or the rival of the Botian poetesses, Myrtis and Corinna. An early poem, overladen with mythic ornament, is said to have called forth from Corinna the famous admonition: "One should sow with the hand and not with the whole sack." Pindar's family belonged to the noble clan of the Ęgeids, which had widespread connections in Thera, Sparta, and Cyrene. His deep religious feeling caused him to cultivate intimate relations with the priesthood of the great shrines, especially that of Delphi, where his name was publicly honored for centuries. He seems to have traveled widely to all parts of the Greek world, from which his national reputation brought him commissions. At the court of Hiero (q.v.) in Syracuse he may have witnessed the famous eruption of Mount Etna, So magnificently described by him in his first Pythian ode and by Ęschylus in the Prometheus Bound. He composed hymns or encomia for the priests of Ammon, for Alexander of Macedon, Arcesilaus of Cyrene, Theron of Agrigentum, Hiero of Syracuse, and for the noblest families of Thessaly, Rhodes, Corinth, Ęgina, Athens, and Tenedos. No other Greek poet has so wide a geographical range. None presents so vivid a picture of the dazzling diversity of greater Hellas; none so adequately expresses the underlying spiritual unity preserved by the common language and religion and the tradition of the great Panhellenic temples and games. His Hellenic patriotism has been questioned because he says so little of Marathon and Salamis and so little in praise of Athens. As a citizen of a "Medizing" state, however, he could hardly have said more. Tradition has it that he said too much to please the Thebans, who fined him for the line cited from a lost dithyramb: "O splendid, violet-crowned, glorious Athens, famed in song, pillar of Hellas, city divine." The legend adds that the reward bestowed by the Athenians more than paid the fine.
Pindar and his contemporary Simonides (q.v) represent the culmination of the Greek choral lyric composed with music to be sung by trained choruses of youths and maidens, as distinguished from the personal lyric of a Sappho or an Alcęus, which was recited or half chanted to a slight accompaniment on the strings. Only fragments remain of Pindar's hymns to the gods, pęans, dithyrambs, processional odes, dancing songs, dirges, and encomia. Of the Pans considerable fragments were found by Grenfell and Hunt in 1906. (Consult the Oxyrhynchμs Papyri, part v.) But we possess virtually entire the four books of his Epinician or triumphal hymns composed in honor of the victors at the four great national gamesthe Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean. (See Isthmus; Nemea; Olympic Games; Pythian Games.) The victor in the Olympic games received such honors as Rome and the modern world would bestow only upon the triumphant soldier. The victory was celebrated on the spot by festivities, usually impromptu, and later at the victor's home by triumphal processions, banquets, and serenades, often repeated for many anniversaries. If the victor was rich or had wealthy patrons, a Pindar, a Simonides, or a Bacchylides would be commissioned to write a special hymn to be sung during the procession or at the banquet by a trained chorus of his comrades. A large part of such a poem was conventionally predetermined. The poet's task was to ennoble the commonplaces by stately and melodious utterance, to transfigure the whole in the light of the splendor and magnificence of the Olympian or the Pythian festival. To this end Pindar employs the myth, which fills the central portion of the ode and often seems to have little connection with the immediate theme, but which closer study shows to be chosen with an art that we can sometimes only divine, either to express the dominant mood of the occasion or to connect the hero with the mythic past. The English reader may compare the treatment of the legend of the golden fleece in the fourth Pythian ode with the leisurely epic handling of the same theme in Morris's Life and Death of Jason.
It is customary to describe Pindar's sublimity by comparing him to the eagle or to the lonely Alpine peak. His style is untranslatable and indescribable. Horace compares it to a torrent that has burst its banks. (Consult Odes, iv, 2, 132.) Boileau, Cowley, Gray, and the long line of eighteenth-century authors of Pindaric odes thought to reproduce it by jerky, irregular rhythms, abrupt transitions, and bombastic diction. Matthew Arnold praises it as "the grand style in simplicity." Myers's beautiful translation into archaizing English prose reproduces the matter excellently, but hardly the manner. The best translation is that of Myers (London, 1899).
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. XVIII (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 637-638.