Athletic Contests in Contexts of Epic and Other Related Archaic Texts
The term “archaic” in the title refers to a period in the history of Greek-speaking people that extends from the eighth century to the second half of the fifth century BCE, to be followed by the so-called classical period. The term “epic” here refers to the primary representatives of archaic poetry, the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, together with the Homeric Hymns. The “other related archaic texts” include the poetry attributed to Hesiod, whom the ancients in the classical period understood to be a contemporary of Homer, and the songmaking of the late archaic period as represented especially by Pindar and Bacchylides. In general, it can be said that the verbal arts of poetry and songmaking in the archaic period, grounded as they were in oral traditions, did not depend on the technology of writing for the actual composing and performing of the texts that have come down to us: writing was indispensable only for the recording of texts. The same kind of formulation applies to the visual arts of this period. In the case of black figure vase paintings, for example, the pictures that we see are not illustrations derived from set texts. Rather, they are visualizations grounded in oral traditions, just like the visualizations achieved in the verbal arts as recorded in the texts that have survived. Finally, in the case of recorded texts surviving from the archaic period, they include not only pieces of poetry and songmaking but also various inscriptions that record various athletic contests.
Greek words referring to athletics
In the archaic period, athletic contests were a matter of religion, which I analyze here in anthropological terms as a dynamic interaction of myth and ritual; to that extent, an understanding of athletics as “sport” in the modern sense of that word is historically inaccurate (Nagy 1990:118). A more accurate way of understanding athletic contests in their archaic Greek historical contexts is to keep in mind the meanings of the ancient Greek words āthlos (epic aethlos) ‘ordeal, contest’, āthlon (epic aethlon) ‘prize won in the course of participating in an āthlos’, and āthlētēs ‘athlete, one who participates in an āthlos’. To restate the concept of athletics in ancient Greek terms: an āthlos was the ritual ‘ordeal’ or ‘contest’ of an athlete engaging in athletic contests that were taking place in the historical present, but it was also the mythological ‘ordeal’ or ‘contest’ of a hero engaging in life-and-death contests that took place once upon a time in the heroic past; moreover, the ritual ‘ordeals’ or ‘contests’ of the historical present were viewed as re-enactments of the mythical ‘ordeals’ or ‘contests’ of the heroic past (Nagy 1990:137). That is to say, the myths about the life-and-death ‘ordeals’ of heroes functioned as aetiologies for the rituals of athletic competition. When I say aetiology here, I mean a myth that motivates an institutional reality, especially a ritual (Nagy 1999:279).
Besides āthlos and its derivatives, another ancient Greek word that proves to be essential for understanding the nature of athletic contests in archaic contexts is agōn, derived from the root ag of the verb agō as it is used in the compound formation sun-agō, which means ‘bring together, assemble, gather’. Basically, an agōn is a ‘bringing together’ of people; and the occasion of such a ‘bringing together’ is a ‘competition’. This meaning, ‘competition’, is still evident in the English borrowing of a compound formation involving the word agōn, that is, antagonism. We can see a comparable idea embedded in the meaning of the Latin word that gives us the English borrowing competition: basically, the meaning of Latin com-petere is ‘to come together’, and to come together is to compete (Nagy 1990:136). In the case of the Greek word agōn, the activity of competition to which it refers was understood to be a ritual ordeal, just as the Greek word āthlos meant ‘ordeal’ as well as ‘contest’, that is, competition. The concept of ordeal as embedded in the Greek word agōn is still evident in the English borrowing agony.
These words āthlos and agōn refer to the experience of a ritual ordeal not only in athletics but also in warfare. For example, the expression arēios agōn ‘the agōn of Ares’ as used by Herodotus (9.33.3) refers to the ritual experience of combat in war. Similarly in the case of āthlos, epic aethlos, this word refers to the experience of warriors (Herodotus 1.67.1) as well as athletes (Herodotus 5.22.2). In epic, we find aethlos applying to the martial efforts, all considered together, of Achaeans and Trojans alike in the Trojan War (Iliad 3.126), or, considered separately, to the efforts of the Achaeans in general (Odyssey 3.262) or of Odysseus in particular (4.170).
The mentality of re-enacting in athletics the experiences of heroes in war
As we have just seen by observing the uses of the words āthlos and agōn, the ritual ordeals of humans fighting in war and the mythical ordeals of heroes fighting in war were not distinguished from each other. In our own terms of thinking, by contrast, when someone undergoes the real experience of war in the historical context of his own life and times, this experience is seen as distinct from the mythical experiences of heroes who fought in wars in mythical times. But the thinking is different in terms of ritual and myth, reflecting the mentality of the ancient Greeks in their own historical context: from their standpoint, a human who fights in war is undergoing a ritual ordeal that re-enacts the mythical ordeals of heroes. This way, the distinction between that human’s ritual ordeal and the heroes’ mythical ordeals is neutralized. And such a mentality of not distinguishing between human experience and heroic experience in the context of ritual and myth applies not only to the ordeals of war but also to the ordeals of athletics.
It can be said in general that different aspects of athletics re-enact different aspects of warfare as experienced by heroes. Besides such obvious examples as the throwing of spears or javelins, however, there are other examples where it is not at all obvious how a given kind of athletic event is related to a given kind of event in warfare, even if these two kinds of events are defined by the same instrument of war. One such example is the athletic event of chariot racing. The question here is this: how exactly is chariot racing as an athletic event related to chariot fighting as an event in warfare? The answer here is not obvious until we examine at a later point two different kinds of chariot racing as attested at two different athletic festivals.
For now, however, it is enough to keep in mind a basic fact that we have seen by observing the uses of words like āthlos and agōn: just as the ritual ordeal of a human who fights in a real war and the mythical ordeals of heroes fighting in mythical wars are not distinguished from each other in the thinking we see reflected in the ancient Greek texts, so also the ritual ordeal of a human who competes in a real athletic contest is not distinguished from the corresponding mythical ordeals of heroes.
The mentality of re-enacting in athletics the experiences of heroes in contexts other than war
In terms of the argument so far, someone who competes in an athletic competition is undergoing a ritual ordeal that re-enacts the mythical ordeals of heroes. But the mythical ordeals of heroes may include any life-and-death experience, not only the experience of combat in war (Nagy 1990:138-139). For example, a conventional way to refer to one of the Labors of Herakles is to use the word aethlos: this word refers to the hero’s life-and-death struggle with the Nemean Lion (Pindar Isthmian 6.48; Bacchylides Epinician 9.8). This same word aethlos is in fact a generic designation of all the Labors of Herakles, as we see in epic usage (Iliad 8.363; also Iliad 19.133, Odyssey 11.622 and 624).
So the ritual ordeal of an athlete competing with other athletes in an athletic event re-enacts not only the ritual ordeal of a hero fighting to the death with other heroes in war: more than that, the ritual ordeals of athletes can re-enact any and all life-and-death experiences of heroes, not only their experiences in war.
The mentality of athletics as a compensation for death
The ritual ordeal of an athlete is not only a re-enactment: it is also a compensation for one single fact that is larger than life itself. And that fact is the hero’s mortality. The hero, though he is larger than life, is subject to death. To make up for that prototypical death of the hero, which is understood to be larger than life just as the hero is larger than life, athletes must die ritually to their old selves. Unlike the prototypical death of the hero in myth, however, which can happen only once, the figurative death of the athlete in ritual is recurrent, taking place year after year at the right season, in the context of seasonally recurring festivals. And, since the prototypical ordeal of the hero is understood to be larger than life, the corresponding ordeals of athletes can fully compensate for heroic death only if the seasonal recurrence of these ordeals lasts for a notional eternity.
There is a clear example in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, where we see a myth about the establishment of an athletic ritual in compensation for the ordeal of a hero’s death. The queen of Eleusis, mother of the infant hero Demophon, had inadvertently ruined the plan of the goddess Demeter to make Demophon exempt from death, and the goddess angrily announces that the infant will now be subject to death, like all other mortals. But there will be a compensation for the ordeal of this hero’s death, says the goddess to the mortal mother of Demophon:
I [= Demeter] swear by the Styx, the witness of oaths that gods make, as I say this: immortal and ageless for all days would I have made your dear [philos] little boy, and I would have given him honor [tīmē] that is unwilting [a-phthi-tos]. But now there is no way for him to avoid death and doom. Still, he will have an honor [tīmē] that is unwilting [a-phthi-tos], for all time, because he had once sat on my knees and slept in my arms. At the right season [hōra], every year, the sons of the Eleusinians will have a war, a terrible battle among each other. They will do so for all days to come.
Homeric Hymn to Demeter 259-267
The death of the infant hero will be compensated by seasonally recurring athletic re-enactment, as expressed by the word tīmē ‘honor’ (line 263), which refers here to the honor conferred upon cult heroes in the rituals of hero cult. In this case, the rituals take the form of athletic competitions that overtly simulate warfare. And these rituals will have to recur seasonally, year after year, for a notional eternity. That is why the tīmē ‘honor’ (line 263) that the prototypical hero receives in compensation for his death is described as a-phthi-tos ‘unwilting’, lasting forever.
We see in this passage a reference to a mock battle, an athletic event known as the Ballētus, which was evidently the ritual kernel of a whole complex of events known as the Eleusinian Games (Nilsson 1906:414n4; Nagy 1990:121n26; Pache 2004:76-77). Here is how the athletic event is defined in the Alexandrian lexicographical tradition named after Hesychius: Βαλλητύς· ἑορτὴ Ἀθήνησιν, ἐπὶ Δημοφῶντι τῷ Κελεοῦ ἀγομένη ‘Ballētus is a festival in Athens, celebrated in honor of Demophon son of Keleos’. For the moment, I translate the preposition epi (ἐπὶ) here as ‘in honor of’. As we will see later, however, a more accurate translation is ‘in compensation for [the death of]’.
This athletic event, the Ballētus, as featured in the Eleusinian Games, was understood to be a form of eternal compensation for the prototypical death of the cult hero Demophon, as we can see from the reference to this event as I quoted it from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. And there are historical parallels, including the Nemean and the Isthmian Games, which were seasonally recurring festivals featuring athletic competitions that were intended as an eternal compensation for the prototypical deaths of two other infant heroes, Arkhemoros and Melikertes respectively (Pache 2004:95-180). I will have more to say presently about those two heroes.
Ritual origins of athletics
Here I invoke, as I have invoked in my earlier research on the ritual origins of Greek athletics (Nagy 1990:118), the relevant evidence assembled by Walter Burkert in his handbook on Greek religion, showing that the traditions of ancient Greek athletics evolved out of practices that originated from (1) rituals of initiation into adulthood and (2) rituals of compensation for death (Burkert 1985:105-107).
These two kinds of rituals are actually related, since the ritual process of initiation, in and of itself, can be seen as a compensation for death. From an anthropological point of view, a common characteristic of initiation rituals is the figuring of death as a prerequisite for a rebirth from one given age class to another, as in the case of initiations from pre-adult into adult status; in terms of the mentality underlying such rituals of initiation, you must die to your old self in order to be reborn to your new self (Nagy 1990:118-119, 121-122, with examples and references).
Here is a salient example: in the case of athletic competitions at the festival of the Lykaia in Arcadia, these competitions are organically connected with rituals that re-enact the separations of pre-adult and adult age classes, and these rituals are in turn organically connected with a myth that tells about the death and regeneration of an infant hero named Arkas (Nagy 1990:126, following Burkert 1983:86-87). By contrast, in the case of athletic competitions held at the festival that we know as the Olympics, the Olympia, the existing patterns of separation between pre-adult and adult age classes are no longer overtly ritualized, though the myth that tells about the death and regeneration of the hero Pelops as an infant is still organically connected with an actual athletic competition. In this case, the ritual competition is a single-lap footrace known as the stadion, which is motivated by an aetiological myth about the death of Pelops (Burkert 1983:100; Nagy 1990:125). In terms of myth and ritual, the single-lap and double-lap footraces known respectively as the stadion and the diaulos at the Olympic Games need to be viewed together as an organic unity (Philostratus On athletics 5 and 6 respectively, as analyzed by Nagy 1990:123-127). The myth about the death and regeneration of Pelops is artfully retold in Pindar’s Olympian 1 as an alternative narrative within an overall narrative about the origins of the Olympic Games (Nagy 1990:121-135; Pache 2004:84-94).
By applying a comparative perspective, then, we have seen the initiatory aspects of athletics at work in the myth about the death and regeneration of the infant hero Pelops. In this case, the point of comparison was a corresponding myth about the death and regeneration of the infant hero Arkas, which as we have seen serves as an aetiology for the festival of the Lykaia. Such myths can be understood in terms of initiation from boyhood into manhood, for the purpose of preparing men for warfare. Such a ritualized purpose is evident also in such institutions as the seasonally recurring mock battle known as the Ballētus, which we have considered in the context of the Eleusinian Games. More famous examples include the mock battle of Spartan boys in a sacralized space known as the Platanistās ‘Grove of the Plane Trees’ (Pausanias 3.11.2, 3.14.8-9; at 3.20.8, we read that the boys sacrificed to the hero Achilles before they started their mock battle). On the basis of such rituals, we may infer that the institutionalized practices of athletics and warfare were originally viewed as parts of one single ritual continuum.
Such an inference, I must note in passing, is not an attempt to essentialize warfare. Given the exponentially increasing horrors of war in modern times, most observers today (including myself) would be repelled by any such attempt. Still, there is no denying that warfare was a fact of life in premodern times – and that it was ritualized in different ways in different societies.
Besides the narrative about the death and regeneration of the infant hero Pelops, there is also another narrative that serves as another aetiological myth for yet another athletic event at the Olympics. In this case, the narrative is about the victory of Pelops as an adolescent hero in a four-horse chariot race. In fact, this narrative serves as the aetiological myth for the athletic event of four-horse chariot racing at the Olympics, as we see from the artful retelling in Pindar’s Olympian 1 (Nagy 1990:199).
From other retellings of this aetiological myth, we learn that the basic motivation for the athletic event of the four-horse chariot race at the Olympics was the death of the hero Oinomaos while he was competing in a prototypical four-horse chariot race with Pelops. We learn what the Delphic Oracle is reputed to have said about the consequences of this prototypical death when we read the reportage of the antiquarian Phlegon of Tralles (FGH 257 F 1 lines 8-9): θῆκε δ’ ἔπειτα ἔροτιν καὶ ἔπαθλα θανόντι | Οἰνομάῳ ‘then he [Pelops] established a festival and contests for prizes [ep-āthla] in honor of the dead Oinomaos’. In terms of this extended narrative, not only the chariot race but the entire festival of the Olympics was founded by Pelops. Moreover, in the words of the Delphic Oracle as reported by Phlegon (lines 6-7), Pelops was in fact only the second founder of the Olympics: the Oracle says that the first founder was Pisos, the eponymous hero of Pisa, a place closely associated with the Olympics. As for the third founder, it was Herakles, as we read further in the words of the Oracle as quoted by Phlegon (lines 9-11): τρίτατος δ’ ἐπὶ τοῖς πάϊς ᾿Αμφιτρύωνος | ῾Ηρακλέης ἐτέλεσσ’ ἔροτιν καὶ ἀγῶνα ἐπὶ μήτρῳ | Τανταλίδῃ Πέλοπι φθιμένῳ ‘after them [= the first two founders of the Olympics] the third was Herakles son of Amphitryon: he established the festival and the competition [agōn] in honor of [epi] his maternal relative, the dead Pelops, son of Tantalos’.
Here we see the same syntactical construction that we saw in the compressed retelling of the aetiological myth that motivated the foundation of the athletic competition ‘in honor of’ the infant hero Demophon. I repeat here the wording as we found it in Hesychius: Βαλλητύς· ἑορτὴ Ἀθήνησιν, ἐπὶ Δημοφῶντι τῷ Κελεοῦ ἀγομένη ‘Ballētus is a festival in Athens, celebrated in honor of [epi] Demophon son of Keleos’. Once again, I have translated the preposition epi (ἐπὶ) here in combination with the name of Demophon in the dative case as ‘in honor of the dead Demophon’. But this translation, as I have noted already, is inadequate, and it would be more accurate to word it this way: ‘in compensation for [the death of] Demophon’. After all, as we saw in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the athletic competition of the Ballētus is overtly described as an act of compensation, recurring at the right season into all eternity, and this competition is understood to be an eternal compensation for one single all-important fact: that the hero Demophon must die.
The necessity of this death, of this primal ordeal of the hero in myth, is what motivates in aetiological terms the corresponding necessity of the seasonally recurring ordeals of participants in the ritual athletic competition of the Ballētus. And we have just seen a corresponding expression in the words of the Delphic Oracle as quoted by Phlegon (lines 10-11): ῾Ηρακλέης ἐτέλεσσ’ ἔροτιν καὶ ἀγῶνα ἐπὶ μήτρῳ | Τανταλίδῃ Πέλοπι φθιμένῳ ‘Herakles established the festival and the competition [agōn] in honor of [epi] his maternal relative, the dead Pelops, son of Tantalos’. And again, it would be more accurate to reword the translation: ‘in compensation for the death of his maternal relative, Pelops, son of Tantalos’. A parallel translation is needed for the wording attributed to the Delphic Oracle’s description of the competitions in honor of Oinomaos as instituted by Pelops. I repeat here the wording as quoted by Phlegon (lines 8-9): θῆκε δ’ ἔπειτα ἔροτιν καὶ ἔπαθλα θανόντι | Οἰνομάῳ ‘then he [Pelops] established a festival and contests for prizes [ep-āthla] in honor of the dead Oinomaos’. I now retranslate this way: ‘then he [Pelops] established a festival and contests for prizes [āthla] in compensation for the death of [ep] Oinomaos’. In this case, the myth makes it clear that the compensation was needed because Pelops himself had caused, wittingly or unwittingly, the death of Oinomaos in the course of their chariot race with each other (Apollodorus Epitome 2.7).
This kind of aetiology is typical of athletic contests. A case in point is the Tlēpolemeia, a seasonally recurring festival of athletic contests held on the island of Rhodes and named after Tlepolemos, son of Herakles and founder of Rhodes (Nilsson 1906:462-463). In the words of Pindar, this athletic festival was founded by the hero Tlepolemos as a lutron ‘compensation’ for a ‘pitiful misfortune’ (Olympian 7.77 λύτρον συμφορᾶς οἰκτρᾶς). The ‘misfortune’ or catastrophe to which Pindar’s wording refers is the hero’s deranged slaying of a maternal relative (7.27-32, with commentary by Nagy 1990:140).
It can be said in general that athletic festivals were aetiologically motivated by myths that told of a hero’s catastrophic death (Roller 1981a:107n4; an extensive set of examples is collected by Pfister 1912:496-497; see also Brelich 1958:94-95). In the case of the three other most prestigious athletic festivals besides the Olympic games in the Peloponnesus, that is, in the region recognized by all Hellenes as the cradle of their ancient Hellenic civilization, the relevant foundation myths are as follows (Roller 1981a:107n5; Nagy 1990:120):
- Pythian Games, founded by the Amphiktyones in compensation for the killing of the Python by Apollo : ἐπὶ τῷ Πύθωνος φόνῳ ‘in compensation for the killing of the Python [by Apollo]’ (Aristotle F 637.16).
- Isthmian Games, founded by the hero Sisyphus in compensation for the death of the infant hero Melikertes, who was also known as Palaimon: τὸν ἀγῶνα ἐπ’ αὐτῷ ‘the competition [agōn] in compensation for [epi] him’ (Pausanias 2.1.3).
- Nemean Games, founded by the heroes known as the Seven against Thebes in compensation for the death, by snakebite, of the infant hero Arkhemoros, who was also known as Opheltes: ἄθλησαν ἐπ’ ᾿Αρχεμόρῳ ‘they [= the Seven] endured ordeals [āthloi] in compensation for Arkhemoros’ (Bacchylides 9.12). In poetic terms, the antidote for the prototypical snakebite is the singing of ep-aoidai ‘incantations’ (Pindar Nemean 8.49), and such songs (aoidai means ‘songs’) counteract the deadly venom by celebrating athletic victories that are won at the Nemean Games in compensation for the prototypical death (Nemean 49-53).
As we have seen, then, the idea of athletics as a ritual activity that compensates for the death of a hero in myth can be expressed by combining the prefix / preposition / preverb epi (ἐπι) with the dative case referring to that hero. So far, we have seen this usage in the context of athletic competitions that are aetiologically motivated by the death of a hero in myth, as in the case of the Eleusinian Games as well as the Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean Games. But the aetiological motivation of compensating for a death can extend from mythical times to historical times as well. For example, I cite the evidence of dedicatory inscriptions that memorialize various prizes won at athletic competitions held in honor of persons who died in historical times: from a study of eight such inscriptions (collected by Roller 1981b:2-3), ranging in date from the early seventh to the middle fifth century BCE, we can see that the texts of seven of these eight inscriptions show a combination of the preposition epi with the dative case of the name of the dead person who is being honored by way of the competitions (Nagy 1990:120-121). The same combination can also be found in inscriptions on gravestones where the gravestone itself is notionally speaking by way of the letters inscribed on the gravestone, saying that ‘I am’ here as a compensation for the death of the person whose dead body is marked by ‘me’ (for example, IG VII 605 επι Φαεινιδι ειμι ‘I am [here] in compensation for [the death of] Phaeinis’; examples collected by Häusle 1979:130n330).
Conversely, the aetiological motivation of compensating for a death can extend from historical times to mythical times. That is to say, ritual competition in athletics can be performed not only by athletes in historical times but also by heroes who compete as athletes in mythical times. A case in point is the hero Herakles, who as we saw was considered to be a founder of the athletic festival of the Olympics. Here again are the words of the Delphic Oracle as quoted by Phlegon (FGH 257 F 1 lines 10-11): ῾Ηρακλέης ἐτέλεσσ’ ἔροτιν καὶ ἀγῶνα ἐπὶ μήτρῳ | Τανταλίδῃ Πέλοπι φθιμένῳ ‘Herakles established the festival [of the Olympics] and the competition [agōn] in compensation for [epi] his maternal relative, the dead Pelops, son of Tantalos’. In terms of this myth, as we see from a retelling by Diodorus of Sicily (4.14.1-2), the hero Herakles not only founded this major athletic festival but also competed in every athletic event on the prototypical occasion of the first Olympics: on that occasion, he won first prize in every Olympic event.
The hero’s engagement in athletics
As we have seen by examining the relevant interactions of myth and ritual in ancient Greek thinking, athletes who participate in athletic competitions are undergoing a ritual ordeal that re-enacts the mythical ordeals of heroes. This way, the distinction between the ritual ordeals of athletes and the mythical ordeals of heroes is neutralized. And this is why heroes in their heroic past can compete as athletes in their own right, thus showing the way for humans in the historical present who compete as athletes. As athletes, heroes compensate for the deaths of other heroes just as athletes in historical times compensate for the deaths of heroes. A case in point, as we have just seen, is the aetiological myth about the engagement of the hero Herakles in the athletic competitions at the Olympics, which he organizes in compensation for the death of his maternal relative, the hero Pelops.
In the Alcestis of Euripides, we find a most evocative example of heroic engagement in athletics. To compensate for the death of Alcestis, the hero Herakles engages in a wrestling match with Death personified, Thanatos. After he has defeated Thanatos and thus won back the life of Alcestis, Herakles declares his victory over death by cryptically referring to his struggle with Thanatos as an athletic event: ἀθληταῖσιν ἄξιον πόνον ‘a worthy exertion for athletes [āthlētai]’ (Euripides Alcestis 1027). In the wording of his declaration of victory, Herakles does not reveal that he has struggled with Thanatos but prefers to represent his life-and-death ordeal as a wrestling match that took place in a ‘competition’ at a ‘local’ festival, described as an agōn pan-dēmos (ἀγῶνα πάνδημον Alcestis 1024; commentary by Nagy 1990:138). In this context, the festive mood that Herakles displays after his victory over death reflects what can best be described as an epinician celebration. In what follows, we will consider the meaning of this term epinician.
Athletics and the epinician
There was a form of poetry and songmaking that explicitly coordinated the ritualized experiences of athletes with the mythical experiences of heroes. Modern literary historians commonly refer to this form as the victory ode. Most surviving examples of the victory ode were composed by the poets Pindar and Bacchylides, who both flourished in the first half of the fifth century BCE, toward the end of the archaic period. In the words of Pindar himself, victory odes are epinīkioi aoidai, or ‘epinician songs’ (Nemean 4.78 ἐπινικίοισιν ἀοιδαῖς). On the basis of such poetic self-references, literary historians sometimes describe the victory ode simply as the epinician or, in Hellenized spelling, the epinīkion.
The adjective epinīkios, which for the time being has been translated here simply as ‘epinician’, is derived from a combination of the prefix epi with an adjectival form of the noun nīkē, meaning ‘victory’. As we have seen, when this same form epi is used as a preposition in combination with the dative case of a noun or a pronoun referring to a dead person who is being honored at an athletic event, it has the specialized sense of ‘in compensation for’, with reference to the death of that given person. But this specialized use of the preposition epi combined with the dative in the sense of ‘in compensation for’ extends beyond references to a death that has to be compensated. As we will now see, it can be argued that the same sense of ‘in compensation for’ can refer to a celebration of a victory, and that this celebration notionally compensates for the ordeal that went into the winning of the victory.
There are numerous attestations of the preposition epi combined with the dative of nīkē ‘victory’ (so, ἐπὶ + νίκῃ) in contexts relating to public celebrations held in compensation for individual victories in athletic events (for example, Pausanias 5.21.4, 6.13.11, 6.15.2, 6.20.19, 10.7.8) or for collective victories in war (6.2.8, 10.11.5). Of particular interest is a reference made by Plutarch (Life of Demosthenes 1.1.) to an epinician song composed for a public celebration of Alcibiades in compensation for his sponsoring victorious chariot teams at the Olympics: Ὁ μὲν γράψας τὸ ἐπὶ τῇ νίκῃ τῆς Ὀλυμπίασιν ἱπποδρομίας εἰς Ἀλκιβιάδην ἐγκώμιον, εἴτ’ Εὐριπίδης ὡς ὁ πολὺς κρατεῖ λόγος, εἴθ’ ἕτερός τις ἦν ‘the person who wrote the encomium [en-kōmion] for Alcibiades in compensation for [epi] his victory [nīkē] in the chariot racing at the Olympics, whether that person was Euripides, which is what most people say, or someone else …’. (I will have more to say later about the use of the word en-kōmion ‘encomium’ with reference to the epinician.) Also of interest is the ritual shout epi nīkēi (ἐπὶ νίκῃ) as attested in poetry dating back to the classical period (Aristophanes Lysistrata 1278, Women at the Assembly 1182; we may compare also Aeschylus Libation Bearers 868).
The linguistic evidence of such attestations, we should note, does not require us to interpret the adjective epi-nīkios only in the specialized sense of ‘compensating for the victory’. We may also interpret epi-nīkios in the more general sense of ‘marking the occasion of the victory’. Still, this linguistic evidence does show that there was a built-in idea of compensation in the semantics of epi-nīkios. So, such attestations of the preposition epi combined with the dative of nīkē ‘victory’ weaken the argument (made by Rodin 2009:315, disputing Nagy 1990:142) that the adjective epi-nīkios does not express the idea of compensation. And these same attestations strengthen the argument that epinician song serves the function of compensating for victories won by athletes (as we will see later, Rodin p. 315n71 offers a different explanation).
In terms of the underlying meaning of the adjective epi-nīkios ‘epinician’, I offer this working definition of the expression epinīkioi aoidai ‘epinician songs’ as used by Pindar (again, Nemean 4.78 ἐπινικίοισιν ἀοιδαῖς): an epinician song compensates for the competition of the athlete whose competitive ordeal leads to victory, just as the ordeal of the athlete compensates for the prototypical ordeal of the hero as he struggles to achieve victory over death itself. This definition is based on an extended analysis of the relevant wording used in the songs of Pindar and Bacchylides in referring to their medium of songmaking in the contexts of their victory odes (Nagy 1990:140-142). Here I sum up the essentials of that analysis:
In the end, of course, all heroes must die, just as all mortals must die, and so the prototypical struggle with death is ultimately lost. But this struggle is then taken up anew, year after year, in the seasonally recurring competitions of athletes at festivals. These ritual events of athletic competition, linked as they are with mythical events of heroic regeneration as in the case of the infant hero Pelops, dramatize the ultimate victory of life over death. And a notionally eternal series of such victories in the course of seasonally recurring athletic ordeals can then compensate for the one-time heroic ordeal of a death that is primordial and therefore larger than life. In these terms, then, an epinician song is required as a compensation for each one of these seasonally recurring athletic victories. And, as we can see from the actual wording of epinician songs composed by Pindar and Bacchylides, the effort that it takes to compose and to perform such a song is imagined as a ritualized ordeal in its own right - an ordeal that becomes the last link in a sacred chain of compensation that goes all the way back to the idea of a first ordeal, which is a primordial heroic struggle with death.
Having explained the victory ode or epinician song as a ritualized compensation for the victory of the athlete, I note that there have been other explanations offered. Here is an example (Rodin 2009:315n71): “A different explanation for the use of the vocabulary of recompense in the epinikia is advanced in Kurke (1991:108-116): inasmuch as apoina [this Greek word refers to a set of compensatory gestures conceptualized as a unitary system] ‘protects the community from the threat of a destructive past,’ Pindar’s use of this concept serves to ‘depict the whole community’s well-being as contingent on the smooth workings of aristocratic exchange’ [Kurke p. 108].”
As a genre, epinician song was a complex form, and there is good reason to think that this form had to keep on adapting itself to the historical vicissitudes of the first half of the fifth century, which was the era when poets like Pindar and Bacchylides were composing their songs for public performances in a wide variety of political situations (Kurke 1991:1, 134). Still, the simple fact remains that the basic form of epinician song was at its core deeply conservative (Currie 2005:18).
Granted, epinician song cannot be described as the most ancient attested form of Greek poetry. That kind of description applies only to the epic poetry of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, the formation of which can be dated as far back as the eighth century BCE. But the epinician, as a form, is remarkably ancient nonetheless. In fact, the actual form of epinician lyric poetry can be considered to be in some ways more ancient than the corresponding form of epic poetry (Nagy 1990:416-418, applying the methods of comparative linguistics in analyzing the relevant poetic diction and meter). And the wording of epinician song even claims that it is more ancient than epic. In Pindar’s Nemean 8 (50-52), for example, where the epinician lyric poem celebrates the prototypical athletic feats of the heroes known as the Seven against Thebes, the claim is made that the poetic medium for celebrating these feats was even more ancient than the poetic medium for celebrating the prototypical martial feats of these same heroes. Just as the athletic feats happened earlier than the martial feats in the case of the myths about the Seven against Thebes, so also the epinician poetic medium for celebrating the athletic feats was supposedly more ancient than the epic poetic medium for celebrating the martial feats (as attested in the surviving fragments of the epic Thebaid). In the logic of the poetry here, the victory ode of Pindar claims that its epinician lyric poetry was praising heroes even before the events recorded by epic poetry (Nagy 1990:192-194, 1999:227-228). Here is the actual wording:
ἦν γε μὰν ἐπικώμιος ὕμνος | δὴ πάλαι καὶ πρὶν γενέσθαι | τὰν Ἀδράστου τάν τε Καδμείων ἔριν.
But the epi-kōmios humnos has been in existence since ancient times. It was there even before the war between Adrastos and the Thebans ever happened.
Pindar Nemean 8.48-50The adjective epi-kōmios here, combined with the noun humnos ‘song’, refers to epinician singing, that is, to a form of song that is sung and danced in a victory revel or kōmos, and such a description is relevant to the fact that Pindar’s epinician songs conventionally refer to their own occasion of performance as a kōmos ‘victory revel’ (Nagy 1990:142). Accordingly, we may translate epi-kōmios humnos here as ‘the song marking the occasion of a kōmos’.
The prefix epi in the adjective epi-kōmios seems at first to be semantically less specialized than the corresponding prefix epi in the adjective epi-nīkios. In the case of epi-nīkios, as we have seen, epi has the specialized sense of ‘compensating for’; in the case of epi-kōmios, on the other hand, epi seems at first to have only the more general sense of ‘marking the occasion of’. But the general sense of epi is not excluded in the meaning of epi-nīkios. As we have already noted, this adjective epi-nīkios can be interpreted not only in the specialized sense of ‘compensating for the victory’ but also in the more general sense of ‘marking the occasion of the victory’. Conversely, as we may now also note, the specialized sense of epi is in fact included in the general sense of epi-kōmios, which can be interpreted not only in the general sense of ‘marking the occasion of a victory revel’ but also in the more specialized sense of ‘compensating for a victory revel’, since the reveling that takes place at a kōmos presupposes a victory. By implication, then, every new kōmos will compensate for every previous kōmos.
In the passage just quoted from Pindar’s Nemean 8, the epinician song is claiming to be the same thing as a prototypical epinician song that keeps on renewing itself every time it celebrates athletic victories won at the seasonally recurring Nemean Games. As we noted earlier, myth has it that these Nemean Games were begun in the heroic age by the Seven against Thebes in compensation for the death, by snakebite, of the infant hero Arkhemoros. And, as we also noted earlier when we first considered this same epinician song of Pindar, the antidote for the prototypical snakebite is imagined metaphorically as the singing of ep-aoidai ‘incantations’ (Nemean 8.49). In terms of such a metaphor, these ‘incantations’ are a succession of self-renewing epinician songs (aoidai) that compensate (preverb ep) for that prototypical snakebite, counteracting its venom of death by celebrating athletic victories that are won every two years, into eternity, at the seasonally recurring Nemean Games (Nemean 49-53). By implication, the genre of epinician songmaking is a form that will keep renewing itself forever by eternally compensating for previous forms of itself.
The adjective epi-kōmios ‘marking the occasion of a kōmos’, which refers to the prototypical form of epinician song in Pindar’s Nemean 8, is related to the adjective en-kōmios, to be translated as ‘having its occasion in a kōmos’ or ‘taking place in a kōmos’, which can likewise refer to epinician songmaking. Here is an example we find in another epinician song, Pindar’s Olympian 2 (47): ἐγκωμίων τε μελέων λυρᾶν τε τυγχανέμεν ‘to win [tunkhanein] melodies [melea] that are en-kōmia, sung to the tune of the lyre’. So these melea ‘melodies’, described by the adjective en-kōmia ‘taking place in a kōmos’, are epinician melodies. In the wording of this kind of songmaking, the primary prize for the athlete to win must be the epinician song itself. A derivative of the adjective en-kōmios ‘having its occasion in a kōmos’ is the noun en-kōmion ‘encomium’, which as we have already seen can also refer to the epinician (in the case of the song celebrating the chariot victories of Alcibiades).
Another striking example of the epinician as a prototypical song is a mythical encomium sung to Herakles on the occasion of that hero’s athletic victories at a prototypical scene of Olympic celebration – an encomium re-enacted in the poetry of Archilochus (F 324). And this encomiastic re-enactment is recognized as the wording of Archilochus himself in the poetry of Pindar at the beginning of his Olympian 9 (τὸ μὲν Ἀρχιλόχου μέλος φωνᾶεν Ὀλυμπίᾳ ‘the song of Archilochus, sounding forth at Olympia’).
Of particular interest is the historical fact that Pindar’s epinician songs were transmitted in the form of four scrolls canonically arranged to match the four most prestigious festivals celebrated in the Peloponnesus: The four scrolls of Pindar’s epinician songs, the Olympians, Pythians, Isthmians, and Nemeans, originally followed the order that is given here, though the ordering of the Nemeans and the Isthmians was accidentally switched at a later point in the course of their textual transmission (Irigoin 1952:100).
These four festivals are known as the Panhellenic Games. The Panhellenic prestige of these four festivals, headed by the Olympics as notionally started in 776 BCE, was rivaled, however, by the newer Panhellenic prestige of the festival of the Great Panathenaia as notionally started in 566 BCE. This newer festival, operating on a four-year cycle, was celebrated at Athens in the late summer after the earlier summer celebration of the Pythian Games in that same year, which as we have seen took place every second year after the Olympics (Bell 1995:18).
The seasonally recurring celebration of the Great Panathenaia, which lasted several days and required several months of preparation, was evidently designed to rival the four most prestigious older festivals celebrated in the Peloponnesus. And, as in the case of the Olympic and the Pythian and the Isthmian and the Nemean Games, the Panathenaic Games were likewise ritually motivated by an aetiological myth about the death of a prototypical hero. In this case, as we can see from what we read in Hesychius (s.v. ἐπ’ Εὐρυγύῃ ἀγών) with reference to the testimony of Amelesagoras (FGH 330 F 2), the combination of the preposition epi with the dative of the name Euruguēs indicates that the death of the hero who was called by this name led to the founding of the Panathenaia (Nagy 1990:121n26).
Here are two indications of the rivalry between the Great Panathenaia and the other four Panhellenic games:As we will now see, the idea of ‘musical’ competitions here will be key to understanding the correlation of epic and athletics.
Athletics in epic and beyond
Having considered the epinicians of Pindar, which celebrate mostly the agōnes ‘competitions’ of athletes at the four Panhellenic Games, we noted that the epinician song itself can refer to itself as an agōn ‘competition’. This kind of self-reference, as we will now see, is relevant to competitions in the performance of epic at the fifth of the Panhellenic Games, the Panathenaia. These competitions, as we will also see, are likewise known as agōnes. So the question is, how are the athletic competitions related to the epic competitions?
In epic, we find clear examples of athletic events where heroes compete as athletes. In the Iliad, there are the Funeral Games for Patroklos (23.257-897), for Amarynkeus (23.629-642), and for Oedipus (23.677-680). In the Odyssey, there are the Funeral Games for Achilles (24.85-92). A most telling feature of the narrative about the Funeral Games for Achilles is the expression epi soi (ἐπί σοι 91) with reference to the prizes to be won in the competitions: once again we see here the preposition epi in combination with the dative case referring to the hero who died and whose death is being compensated by way of athletic competitions for prizes. And the setting for the competitions that take place at the Funeral Games for Achilles is called an agōn (86), while the prizes to be won in these competitions are called aethla (85, 89, 91).
Examples of such athletic competitions in lyric include the Funeral Games for Pelias (Stesichorus PMG F 178), for Adrastos (Pindar Isthmian 4.26), for Protesilaos (Isthmian 4.58), and for Tlepolemos (Olympian 7.80).
In vase paintings, most illustrations of athletic competitions among heroes center on the Funeral Games for Patroklos and the Funeral Games for Pelias, all dating no earlier than the early sixth century BCE (Roller 1981a:108-113; Scanlon 2004:79). In the case of the athletic competitions held in honor of Patroklos, there are two black figure paintings attested: (1) on a fragment of a dinos by Sophilos, dating from about 580 BCE (ABV 39.16) and (2) on the “François Krater” by Kleitias and Ergotimos, dating from about 570 BCE (ABV 76.1). On the dinos we see an inscription that identifies a scene of chariot racing: ατλα Πατροκλυc = āt(h)la Patrokl(o)us ‘prizes to be won in the contests of Patroklos’ (Roller 1981a:108-109). In the case of the athletic event for Pelias, the two most important pieces of evidence are depictions on two precious artifacts, both now lost: (1) the chest of Kypselos, dating from before the second quarter of the sixth century BCE, as described by Pausanias (5.17.5-11), and (2) the throne of Apollo at Amyklai, dating from shortly after the middle of the sixth century BCE, again as described (though much more briefly in this case) by Pausanias (3.19.16). In the case of the chest of Kypselos, it also depicts the chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops, who is shown riding with Hippodameia on his chariot (Scanlon p. 71).
Just as heroes in epic as also in lyric can compete as athletes to compensate for the deaths of other heroes who lived in heroic times, humans in historical times can compete as athletes to compensate for the deaths of other humans in their own times – if and when such other humans are deemed worthy of heroic honors. Examples include the athletic festivals established in honor of historical figures like Miltiades (Herodotus 6.38), Brasidas (Thucydides 5.11), and Leonidas (Pausanias 3.14.1). And, in such cases, we can see further attestations of a combination of the preposition epi with the dative case in expressing the idea that the athletic competition is meant as a compensation for the deaths of such historical figures (Nagy 1990:121n27). A salient example is the expression ἐπ’ αὐτοῖς … τιθέασιν ἀγῶνα ‘they organize a competition [agōn] in compensation for [epi] them’ (again, Pausanias 3.14.1), with reference to seasonally recurring competitions held near the cenotaph of Brasidas and the tomb of Leonidas (along with the tomb of another Spartan king, Pausanias).
As for the actual athletic events described in poetic contexts, they closely resemble the athletic events that we see attested in historical contexts. For example, in the Funeral Games for Patroklos (Iliad 23.257-897), the setting for which is described overall as an agōn ‘competition’ (258) for aethla ‘prizes’ (259), the premier event is two-horse chariot-racing (262-652), followed by boxing (653-699), wrestling (700-739), a footrace (740-797), mock combat in full battle gear (798-825), tossing a lump of iron (826-849), archery (850-883), and the casting of spears (884-897).
A notably archaizing detail in this narrative about the Funeral Games for Patroklos is the reference to the tossing of a lump of iron instead of a discus (Scanlon 2004:63). Another archaizing detail is the fact that the racing chariots in the narrative about the chariot race at these funeral games are drawn by two horses instead of four (Scanlon p. 67). A two-horse chariot team, known by its Latin name as the biga, was more suitable for warfare than a four-horse chariot team, known as the quadriga, and there is evidence for the active use of the biga in the Mycenaean era (again, Scanlon p. 67). As for the quadriga, visual representations of its use for racing are poorly attested before the seventh century BCE but there are clear traces in the seventh; by the early sixth century the visual evidence is amply attested (Scanlon pp. 67-69). According to Pausanias (5.8.7), the athletic event of racing in the quadriga at the festival of the Olympics was introduced already in the 25th Olympiad, that is, in the year 680 BCE (Scanlon p. 67 finds this dating plausible).
In the text of Homeric poetry as we have it, there are two references to a racing chariot drawn by a team of four horses. In one case (Odyssey 13.81), we find the reference in the context of a Homeric simile. In the other case (Iliad 11.699-702), it has been argued that the narrative is making a veiled reference to the competition in chariot racing at the Olympics (Scanlon pp. 63-89). In terms of this argument, the dating of such a reference could be explained as follows (Scanlon p. 79):(For a similar explanation, see also Frame 2009:727-746, who argues that the passage we see in Iliad 11.689-672 derives from a version of the Iliad that used to be performed at the festival of the Panathenaia; see especially his p. 733.)
There can, of course, be no certainty in determining when the Iliad 11 quadriga passage was composed, but given the […] evidence on iconography and popularity of themes, we can reasonably conjecture that it was a product of the evolving Iliadic tradition between 680 [BCE], when the quadriga first appeared in the Olympic program, and 580-40 [BCE], when epic depictions on vases enjoyed great popularity and four-horse chariots were first widely evident in art. More precisely, […] the passage was likely an invention of the first half of the sixth century, the period when the other Panhellenic games and the Panathenaic games are founded or reorganized.
Now I proceed to consider another relevant example of an epic narration of athletic events: in this case, the competition takes place in the public gathering space of the Phaeacians (Odyssey 8.100-101). Here again, the word agōn ‘competition’ applies to the overall set of athletic events (259). The first event is the footrace (120-125), followed by wrestling (126-127), jumping (128), discus throwing (129), and, finally, boxing (130).
There are also references in epic to forms of athletic competition that are only rarely attested in the historical evidence. A striking example is the Homeric mention of a kind of ballgame (Iliad 12.421-423) that dramatizes “the negotiation of competing territorial claims” (Elmer 2008:420). The fighting between the Achaeans and the Trojans over the possession of the Trojan Plain is implicitly being compared here to this game, the basic rules of which can be summarized as follows (Elmer p. 414):
The team that acquired possession threw the ball toward their opponents’ half of the field, while the opposing team had the task of retrieving the ball […] and of casting it back, in turn, toward the opposite side. The object of the game was to force one’s opponents across the base line, thus claiming possession of the entire field. As far as we can tell, the game ended when the field was gained.
What appears at first to be radically different about epic narrations of athletic events, as we see most clearly in the case of the Funeral Games of Patroklos, is that the events themselves seem to happen only once, by contrast with historical attestations of corresponding athletic competitions. Those competitions, as we have already seen, were not one-time events in their historical settings. Rather, they were seasonally recurring events that took place at festivals held year after year, notionally for all eternity. When we take a closer look at epic narrations of athletic competitions, however, we find that first appearances are deceiving. Such competitions as narrated in epic are not really one-time events, since they were narrated again and again at festivals held year after year, notionally for all eternity. And, as we will now see, these recurring epic narrations took place in the form of poetic competitions that were being held at these festivals. Moreover, as we will also see, these festivals were the same festivals at which athletic competitions were being held, and the poetry of the poetic competitions that were being held at these same festivals could even be coordinated with these athletic competitions.
Such a coordination of poetic and athletic competitions can best be understood if we take a second look at the epic narrative about the athletic competitions held in the public gathering space of the Phaeacians (Odyssey 8.100-101), where the word agōn applies to the overall set of events (259). As we saw earlier, the athletic events are the footrace (120-125), followed by wrestling (126-127), jumping (128), discus throwing (129), and, finally, boxing (130). But the events are not only athletic (Nagy 2010:91): there is also choral dancing and perhaps singing (370-380), and the setting is described as an agōn ‘competition’ (380). The same word agōn occurs at an earlier point as well, where it refers to the setting for the singing of the court poet Demodokos when he performs his second song (259, 260). Still earlier, agōn refers to the athletic competition (200, 238).
There is a striking parallel to be found in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (146-155), which is a passage describing the Delia, a seasonally recurring festival of Ionians who come from all over the Ionian world to gather together on the island of Delos. I highlight the fact that the occasion of this Delian festival is described as an agōn ‘competition’ (149). The competitive events at this festival include athletics - boxing is the example that is highlighted – as well as dancing and singing (149). In this case, the poetry that underlies the dancing and singing is overtly coordinated with the athletics. There is a comparable occasion described in the Hesiodic Works and Days (654-659), where the figure of Hesiod himself claims to have won a victory in a competition for aethla ‘prizes’ (454, 456); the form of this competition is said to be a humnos ‘song’, whereas the other forms of competition on this occasion appear to be athletic events (Roller 1981b:1-6).
Thucydides (3.104.2-6) quotes and analyzes the passage in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (146-150) that describes the seasonally recurring festival of the Delia. In his analysis, he refers to this festival as an agōn ‘competition’ that combines athletic and ‘musical’ events: ἀγὼν ἐποιεῖτο αὐτόθι καὶ γυμνικὸς καὶ μουσικός, χορούς τε ἀνῆγον αἱ πόλεις ‘a competition [agōn] was held there [= at Delos] that was both athletic [gumnikos] and musical [mousikos]; also, the cities brought choral ensembles’ (3.104.3). Having said this, Thucydides goes on to explain what he means when he says that ‘musical’ competitions took place along with athletic competitions at the seasonally recurring festival of the Delia: he now goes on to say that the ‘musical’ competitions involved the ‘art of the Muses [mousikē]’ (3.104.5), and he makes it clear that he has in mind primarily the art of Homer, that is, the art of performing the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey as well as the Homeric Hymns (Nagy 2010:15-18).
During the fifth and the fourth centuries BCE, the most important context for competitions in performing the poetry of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey was the seasonally recurring festival of the Panathenaia in Athens, featuring a grand agōn ‘competition’ in mousikē tekhnē, ‘the art of the Muses’ (Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 60.1). At the Panathenaia, there were separate sets of competitions in performing separate kinds of mousikē, and those who competed with each other in performing the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey were called rhapsōidoi ‘rhapsodes’ (Plato Ion 530a-b, 533b-c; Isocrates Panegyricus 159; and Plutarch Life of Pericles 13.9-11). It can be argued that these rhapsodic competitions in performing Homeric poetry at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens stemmed ultimately from earlier performance traditions that evolved at the festival of the Panionia as celebrated in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BCE at the Panionion of the Ionian Dodecapolis in Asia Minor (Nagy 2010:22, following Frame 2009:551-620).
So by now we have seen that the one-time athletic events as described in the epics of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey were transformed into seasonally recurring events by virtue of being retold year after year at the seasonally recurring rhapsodic competitions that were held at festivals like the Panathenaia in Athens.
A direct link between an athletic event and a heroic experience
Besides the poetic competitions of rhapsodes and of other kinds of specialists in poetry and song, there were also seasonally recurring athletic competitions that were held at that same festival of the Panathenaia. And, in one such athletic competition, the experiences of the athletes were directly linked with the experiences of heroes in mortal combat. That is because these experiences were being narrated in the Homeric poems as performed by the rhapsodes. This athletic competition was known as the apobatōn agōn, which means ‘competition of the apobatai’ (Photius Lexicon α 2450, see also α 2449 and Suda α 3250), where competing athletes wearing full battle gear and standing next to their charioteers on the platforms of their speeding chariots would suddenly leap to the ground (the word apobatēs means literally ‘one who steps off’) and then race with each other, thus ritually re-enacting the leaps executed by warriors in the battle narratives of the Homeric Iliad as retold by rhapsodes competing with each other at the same festival.
Here is how I describe the experience of the apobatēs as re-enacted at the Panathenaia (Nagy 2010:172):
Weighted down by his hoplite armor, the apobatēs must literally hit the ground running as he lands on his feet in his high-speed leap from the platform of his chariot. If his run is not broken in a fall, he continues to run down the length of the racecourse in competition with the other running apobatai, who have made their own leaps from their own chariots.
The execution of such an apobatic leap by a heroic warrior was a climactic moment in the Homeric narrative, as we see from this example:
Ἕκτωρ δ’ ἐξ ὀχέων σὺν τεύχεσιν ἆλτο χαμᾶζε
Hector leapt out of his chariot, armor and all, hitting the ground.
Iliad 11.211In other climactic moments as well, Hector is described as leaping out of his chariot:
αὐτίκα δ’ ἐξ ὀχέων σὺν τεύχεσιν ἆλτο χαμᾶζε
Straightaway he leapt out of his chariot, armor and all, hitting the ground.
Iliad 5.494, 6.103, 12.81, 13.749Four other warriors are described in comparable wording at moments when they too leap out of their chariots: Menelaos (Iliad 3.29), Diomedes (4.419), Sarpedon (16.426), and Patroklos (16.427). In the case of Menelaos (3.29), he leaps out of his chariot and hits the ground running as he rushes toward Paris to fight him in mortal combat on foot. Paris does not meet him head on but keeps backing up until he melts into a crowd of footsoldiers who are massed behind him (3.30-37). In the case of Diomedes (4.419), he leaps off his chariot as he hits the ground running, while his bronze breastplate makes a huge clanging sound upon impact as he rushes toward the enemy, who all shrink back to avoid encountering him in mortal combat on foot (4.420-421). Similarly, in a scene already cited (12.91), Hector leaps out of his chariot and hits the ground running as he rushes to fight the enemy on foot, and, in this case, his fellow chariot fighters follow his lead and dismount from their chariots, since they too are now ready to fight on foot (12.82-87). In the case of Sarpedon and Patroklos, we see these two heroes simultaneously leaping out of their chariots and hitting the ground running as they rush toward each other to fight one-on-one in mortal combat on foot – a combat that is won here by Patroklos (16.428-507). Later on, when Patroklos is about to engage in mortal combat with Hector, he once again leaps out of his chariot:
Πάτροκλος δ’ ἑτέρωθεν ἀφ’ ἵππων ἆλτο χαμᾶζε
Then Patroklos, from one side, leapt from his chariot, hitting the ground.
Iliad 16.733What happens next is that Patroklos throws a rock at Kebriones, the charioteer of Hector, which hits Kebriones on the forehead, smashing his skull (Iliad 16.734-754). Meanwhile, Hector leaps out of his chariot:
Ἕκτωρ δ’ αὖθ’ ἑτέρωθεν ἀφ’ ἵππων ἆλτο χαμᾶζε.
Then Hector, from the other side, leapt from his chariot, hitting the ground.
Iliad 16.755Patroklos and Hector proceed to fight one-on-one in mortal combat on foot – a combat that is won here by Hector (16.756-863).
From this collection of apobatic moments in the Iliad, it is evident that Hector is featured far more often than any other Homeric hero in the act of leaping out of his chariot to fight in mortal combat on foot. It can be argued, then, that Hector’s virtuosity in his feats of apobatic bravura is relevant to the fact that this hero is exceptionally described as having a four-horse chariot (Iliad 8.185). As we have seen, four-horse chariots are more suitable for racing than for warfare (Scanlon 2004:67). And we know for a fact that the athletic event of apobatic racing at the Panathenaia involved four-horse chariots (Shear 2001:48, 55, 301, 303, 309). A prime illustration comes from the representation of the Panathenaic Procession on the Panathenaic Frieze of the Parthenon, where we see twenty-one apobatic chariot teams on display, with eleven chariots featured on the north side (North XI-XXIX) and ten on the south side (South XXV-XXXV); in each case, the chariot is shown with four horses, a driver, and an apobatēs (Shear pp. 304-305).
The apobatic leap in heroic warfare is also attested in the wording of Pindar. Here is his description of the hero Achilles himself in the act of leaping out of his chariot as he rushes ahead to kill his mortal enemy, the hero Memnon:
καὶ ἐς Αἰθίοπας | Μέμνονος οὐκ ἂν ἀπονοστή|σαντος ἔπαλτο· βαρὺ δέ σφιν | νεῖκος Ἀχιλεύς | ἔμπεσε χαμαὶ καταβαὶς ἀφ' ἁρμάτων, | φαεννᾶς υἱὸν εὖτ' ἐνάριξεν Ἀόος ἀκμᾷ | ἔγχεος ζακότοιο.
And it [= the name of the lineage of the Aiakidai, especially the name of Achilles] leapt at the Aethiopians, now that Memnon would not be coming back safely [to his troops]. Heavy combat fell upon them [= the Aethiopians] in the person of Achilles hitting the ground as he stepped down [kata-bainein] from his chariot. That was when he killed [Memnon] the son of the luminous dawn-goddess, with the tip of his raging spear.
Pindar Nemean 6.48-53
There is a vivid reference to the athletic event of the apobatai in a work falsely attributed to Demosthenes (61.22-29). The speaker here refers to the event as an agōn ‘competition’ that is highlighted by the act of apobainein ‘stepping down’ (61.23 τοῦ δ’ ἀποβαίνειν … ἐπὶ τοῦτον τὸν ἀγῶν’). This athletic event of ‘stepping down’ from a speeding chariot is singled out as the most similar, among all agōnismata ‘forms of competition’, to the experiences of warriors in the life-and-death struggles of combat warfare (61.24). As a spectacle, the event of the apobatai is described as matching most closely the grandeur of the gods themselves (61.24-25), and thus it can be counted as deserving of the greatest of all āthla ‘prizes won in contests’ (61.25 μεγίστων δ’ ἄθλων ἠξιωμένον). The speaker views this kind of competition as closest not only to combat warfare in general but also, in particular, to the scenes of combat as narrated in Homeric poetry, and that is why, the speaker goes on to say, only the greatest cities of the Hellenic world preserve the tradition of such agōnes ‘competitions’ (61.25-26). The speaker then goes on to tell about a spectacular feat once performed by the athlete whom he is praising (61.27-29). Though it is difficult to reconstruct the details of this compressed narration, it appears that our athlete, having leapt from his speeding chariot and running with all his might, was almost run over from behind and trampled to death by horses drawing the chariot of a rival team that was heading full speed toward him; instead of losing his nerve, our athlete somehow managed to surpass the momentum of this oncoming chariot team.
Here is the original Greek text of the climax of the narration (“pseudo-”Demosthenes 61.28):This passage has been translated by N. J. DeWitt (London 1949). I offer revisions, highlighting with strikethrough / italics the wording that I have subtracted / added:
τῶν γὰρ ζευγῶν ἀφεθέντων, καὶ τῶν μὲν προορμησάντων, τῶν δ’ ὑφηνιοχουμένων, ἀμφοτέρων περιγενόμενος ὡς ἑκατέρων προσῆκε, τὴν νίκην ἔλαβες, τοιούτου στεφάνου τυχὼν ἐφ’ ᾧ, καίπερ καλοῦ τοῦ νικᾶν ὄντος, κάλλιον ἐδόκει καὶ παραλογώτερον εἶναι τὸ σωθῆναι. φερομένου γὰρ ἐναντίου μέν σοι τοῦ τῶν ἀντιπάλων ἅρματος, ἁπάντων δ’ ἀνυπόστατον οἰομένων εἶναι τὴν τῶν ἵππων δύναμιν, ὁρῶν αὐτῶν ἐνίους καὶ μηδενὸς δεινοῦ παρόντος ὑπερηγωνιακότας, οὐχ ὅπως ἐξεπλάγης ἢ κατεδειλίασας, ἀλλὰ τῇ μὲν ἀνδρείᾳ καὶ τῆς τοῦ ζεύγους ὁρμῆς κρείττων ἐγένου, τῷ δὲ τάχει καὶ τοὺς διηυτυχηκότας τῶν ἀνταγωνιστῶν παρῆλθες
When the [chariot] teams had been started and some had leaped rushed to the fore and some were being reined in, you, prevailing over both [the faster and the slower teams], first one and then the other, in proper style [surpassing each team] in a way that was most appropriate [for each situation], seized the victory, winning that envied crown garland in such fashion that, glorious as it was to win it, it seemed the more glorious and astounding that you came off safely. For when the chariot of your opponents was bearing down upon you head-on and all thought the momentum of your their horses beyond checking, you, aware that some drivers [runners], though even when no danger should threatens, become overanxious for their own safety, not only did not lose your head or your nerve, but by your courage got control of overcame the impetus of your their [chariot] team and by your speed passed even those contenders [= the other runners] whose luck had suffered no setback.
This athletic event of the apobatai as held at the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens was in some ways more conservative than the athletic event of the chariot race as held at a festival like the Olympics. For example, whereas only the chariot driver was standing on the platform of the speeding chariot in the Olympic chariot race, there was also a chariot rider standing next to the chariot driver in the Panathenaic race of the apobatai, and this chariot rider or apobatēs would then leap off the speeding chariot and back on it in death-defying maneuvers that re-enacted the leaps executed by chariot fighters like Hector in the epic. Even in comparison with the chariot race at the Funeral Games for Patroklos as narrated in our Iliad, the apobatic chariot race at the Panathenaia is more conservative – at least with regard to the pairing of a chariot rider with the chariot driver. Further, the event of the apobatai at the Panathenaia was in some ways also more conservative than the event of the chariot race at the Funeral Games of Patroklos as depicted on the “François Krater,” where we see that the heroes driving their racing chariots are wearing the ankle-length costume of professional chariot drivers, not the full armor of apobatic chariot fighters.
In some other ways, however, the relevant black figure vase paintings are most conservative. A case in point is the composite picturing of Achilles in two roles: he is depicted simultaneously as an epic chariot fighter and as a Panathenaic athlete participating in an apobatic competition (Nagy 2010:170-177, following Stähler 1967). From the standpoint of these paintings, Achilles will keep on riding on his speeding chariot, ready at any moment to leap to the ground and rush into mortal combat on foot, so long as his heroic feats as a chariot fighter are being re-enacted again and again by competing apobatic athletes on each new occasion of the seasonally recurring festival of the Panathenaia - and so long as his story is being re-performed again and again by competing rhapsodes at that same festival.
In the narrative of the Homeric Iliad as we have it, by contrast, Achilles is featured only as a chariot fighter, not as an apobatic athlete. Even at the Funeral Games for Patroklos as retold in the Iliad, Achilles delegates the role of the athlete to his fellow heroes. Instead of engaging in any athletic event, Achilles here reserves for himself the role of the one hero whose death must be compensated by way of athletic competitions. That one hero is Patroklos. And so Achilles becomes the ritual representative of Patroklos, his other self, by presiding over the athletic competitions at the Funeral Games for his dead friend. His chosen role as presider here is a substitute for the role that he choses in the vase paintings, where he engages directly in the athletic competition of the apobatai (Nagy 2010:175-176).
No matter which hero is shown as engaging in athletic events, whether it be Achilles or only his fellow heroes, the fact remains that heroes who engage in these events become models for athletes who compete in these same kinds of events. And they are models because they are shown as competing in athletic ordeals that are instituted explicitly in compensation for the death of one of their own kind, a hero.
This is not to say that the modeling is consistently positive. We have already seen that the actions of heroes may be negative models - even when they serve as aetiologies for existing institutions like athletic festivals, as in the case of the Tlēpolemeia. Moreover, the models for heroes who compete in athletics may be their very own selves in other phases of their own lives as narrated in epic. For example, the heroes who compete in athletic events at the Funeral Games for Patroklos in the Iliad can unwittingly re-enact corresponding heroic events, either positive or negative, that they will experience at some point in their actual lives as characters in the heroic narration (Whitman 1959:169, Nagy 1990:193, Frame 2009:170-172, 205-216).
I close by recalling the tīmē a-phthi-tos ‘unwilting honor’ of the seasonally recurring athletic event that the hero Demophon receives as an eternal compensation for his death in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (line 263). We may now compare that seasonal recurrence with the seasonal recurrence of the kleos a-phthi-ton ‘unwilting glory’ that the hero Achilles receives as a likewise eternal compensation for his own death in the Iliad:
My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end [telos]. If I stay here and fight, I shall not have a return [nostos] alive but my glory [kleos] will be unwilting [aphthiton]: whereas if I go home my name [kleos] will perish, but it will be long before the end [telos] shall take me.
Iliad 9.410-416Just as the tīmē a-phthi-tos ‘unwilting honor’ awaiting the hero Demophon is equated with the hero’s cult, which is understood as lasting for eternity by virtue of being renewed year after year in the form of seasonally recurring athletic competitions, so also the eternal kleos a-phthi-ton ‘unwilting glory’ awaiting the hero Achilles is being equated here with the hero’s epic, which is Homeric poetry itself, and which is likewise understood as lasting for eternity. In the case of epic, as we have seen, its notional eternity is achieved by virtue of being renewed year after year in the form of seasonally recurring rhapsodic competitions at the Panathenaia, which are coordinated with the seasonally recurring athletic competitions at the same festival.
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