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Pindar's Value System Notes

Classics Notes > Greek Literature of the 5th Century BC Notes

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What value-system is in place in Pindar's Odes, and how do the gods relate to it?
Pindar's odes celebrate victory at the games and so they also celebrate the pinnacle of Greek athletic prowess. It is, therefore, not surprising that Pindar is concerned predominately with the supreme values in all spheres of life and centres his value-system on excellence. Since the gods are traditionally the embodiments of supreme power in the entire universe they have an easy and clear place in his work. Men can only ever hope to emulate this glorious aspect of the gods by pushing themselves to the limits of their mortal bodies; the best way to do this is through athletic competition and so the honour that these victories bring forms the core of Pindar's value system. The beginning of Olympian one illustrates immediately how Pindar values only the very best things in the world. The opening word is Ariston and he goes on to compare water and gold, the most pre-eminent of all riches, to the games at Olympia, than which there are none better. He emphasises this again at line 95 when he says, "And far shines that fame of the Olympic festivals gained in the racecourses of Pelops, where competition is held for swiftness of feet and boldly labouring feats of strength." This is important because his society placed great value on athletic success because it represented not just technical skill but also a man's worth; the games were integral to a much more general value-system which extended throughout the Greek world and this is what Pindar's odes represent. For this reason he exhorts Hieron in Pythian one to do great deeds, "But nevertheless since envy is better than pity, do not pass over any great things. Guide your people with a rudder of justice; on an anvil of truth forge your tongue." A general principle of his odes is to guide their recipient towards the highest position of honour they can, as mortals, achieve, which is extended life through the reputation and songs that great victories bring. This, however, is nothing in comparison with the absolute supremacy of the gods. Pindar is careful to construct a very positive image of the gods and removes all reference to their more dubious actions which are frequent in the mythological cycles. A very clear example is the way in which he, in Olympian one, modifies the story of Pelops in order to defend Demeter from the charge of cannibalism and gluttony. He regards such talk as blasphemous slander, "But for my part, I cannot call any of the blessed gods a glutton- I stand back: impoverishment is often the lot of slanderers." He only mentions it so that he can make an active defence of the god's reputation and discredit a story which detracts from her divine majesty and awe. He does the same for Apollo in Pythian nine in which Chiron chides him for asking a question which he clearly already knows the answer to, "Do you ask from where the girl's lineage comes, O Lord? And yet you know the appointed end of all things and all the ways to them." Pindar also emphasises their supreme power by the way in which those who sin against the gods are punished, especially Tantalus in Olympian one whose son is denied immortality because of his father's crimes. For this reason man must always recognise his own limitations and not desire too much because all his worth as a man comes at the

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