Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past

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4. Pindar’s Olympian 1 and the Aetiology of the Olympic Games

§1. Let us begin a closer scrutiny of Pindar’s traditions by examining an occasion that typifies the social context of his authorship. This occasion is memorialized in Pindar’s Olympian 1, a composition commissioned by the tyrant Hieron of Syracuse to celebrate a Panhellenic victory in a horse race event of the Olympics of 476 B.C. [1] To begin, let us review the major themes of Olympian 1. In this composition the voice of the poet explicitly rejects the myth that told of the dismemberment of Pelops and his cannibalization at a feast of the gods. In its place is an explicit substitution of a myth that told of the young hero’s abduction by the god Poseidon, who eventually repaid Pelops by helping him win a chariot race with Oinomaos. The telling of the second myth, however, is launched in Olympian 1 with a partial retelling of the first; the resulting juxtaposition of the two myths has led to major problems of interpretation. The focal point of these problems is the ongoing dispute over the meaning of ἐπεί at Olympian 1.26: was Pelops abducted ‘after’ or ‘since’ (in the causal sense) Klotho the Moira ‘Fate’ took him out of the ‘purifying cauldron’ (καθαροῦ λέβητος, 26), resplendent as he was with his shoulder of ivory (ἐλέφαντι φαίδιμον ὦμον κεκαδμένον, 27)? The bibliography for both alternatives, ‘after’ or ‘since’ (causal), is massive, and {116|117} consensus is lacking. [2] In the course of my own investigation, I adopt the interpretation after.

§2. In reaching this conclusion, however, I take an approach that differs from earlier attempts: instead of assuming that Pindar is literally substituting one myth for another, I argue that the substitution as represented in Olympian 1 is in fact a poetic expression of a preexisting fusion of two myths, where the earlier myth is officially subordinated to but acknowledged by the later myth. Furthermore I argue that the relative earliness and lateness of these two myths has to do not with any innovation by Pindar himself but rather with the historical sequence of the accretion of traditional myths officially associated with the complex institution of the Olympics. In other words both myths are traditional and in fact signal that they are traditional. As for the subordination of the myth that told of the dismemberment of Pelops to the myth that told of the abduction of Pelops by Poseidon and the hero’s victory in the chariot race, I propose that this pattern corresponds to the subordination of the oldest athletic event of the Olympics, the single-course foot race, to the most prestigious athletic event of the Olympics in Pindar’s time, the four-horse chariot race. In this sense Pindar’s Olympian 1 may be said to reflect the evolving aetiology of the Olympics in the early fifth century.

§3. Before we proceed, some definitions of terms are in order. By using the word aetiology here, I am implying that the relationship of given myths to given athletic events corresponds to the general relationship of myth to ritual. [3] Having noted in the previous discussion that the occasional nature of Pindar’s songs or lyric poetry, especially as attested in his victory odes, seems at first a potential obstacle to Panhellenization, we have begun to explore, and later explore further, the transcendence of occasionality in this poetry. For now, however, we must concentrate on defining with greater precision the nature of the occasions for Pindar’s victory odes, which will have a direct bearing on the nature of his poetry. The victory ode cannot be understood without coming to terms with the notion of victory from the standpoint of ancient Greek athletics. The most distinctive feature of this standpoint is that the essence of the ancient Greek athletic games, including the four great Panhellenic festivals known as the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian Games, is fundamentally a matter of ritual. By ritual I mean a given set of formal actions that correspond to a given set of thought patterns that can take shape as a given myth. [4] The myth may refer to itself as the motivation, in {117|118} Greek, the aition ‘cause’, of the ritual. Such self-reference, commonly known as aetiology, should not be taken as evidence for the notion that myth exists in order to explain ritual. It would be more accurate to say that ritual motivates myth as much as myth motivates ritual. In another context I have offered the following additional observations on Greek aition ‘cause’ in the sense of “a myth that traditionally motivates an institution, such as a ritual”: “I stress ‘traditionally’ because the myth may be a tradition parallel to the ritual, not derivative from it. Unless we have evidence otherwise, we cannot assume in any particular instance that an aetiological myth was an untraditional fabrication intended simply to explain a given ritual. The factor of motivating—as distinct from explaining—is itself a traditional function in religion, parallel to the traditional function of ritual. It is only when the traditions of religion become obsolescent that rituals may become so obscure as to invite explanations of a purely literary nature.” [5]

§7. Besides seasonally-recurring festivals of athletic events officially motivated by the death of heroes, there are early and rare traces in Archaic Greece of occasional or once-only festivals of athletic events motivated by the death of immediate ancestors or relatives. This evidence comes from dedicatory inscriptions that memorialize various prizes won at such events. [22] Just as the heroes of epic narrative can respond to the death of a fellow hero by instituting a once-only festival of athletic events ‘for’ this hero, a concept {120|121} that is regularly conveyed by the idiom of epi + dative of the hero’s name, [23] so also the bereaved in real life could institute what appear to be once-only festivals ‘for’ the deceased, a concept again conveyed by the idiom of epi + dative of the name of the deceased. [24] This rarely attested custom of instituting once-only athletic events in honor of immediate ancestors was clearly obsolescent even by the time of the Archaic period, [25] and the custom that replaced it is clearly represented by the countless attestations of seasonally-recurring athletic events ‘for’ heroes, a concept yet again conveyed by the idiom of epi + dative of the given hero’s name. [26] After the obsolescence of once-only athletic events instituted in honor of immediate ancestors, the way to institute funeral games for a person who had just died was for that person to be made a cult hero under the authority of the polis, so that seasonally-recurring athletic festivals could be held in his honor. [27]

§8. The thought patterns that underlie both the once-only and the seasonally-recurring Greek athletic festivals are analogous to what Karl Meuli has found in various rituals of combat or mock combat in a wide range of societies throughout the world. [28] From Meuli’s far-reaching survey, we find that in some specific instances of ritual combat a fundamental motive is to compensate for feelings of guilt—defined or undefined—about someone’s death. [29] The dead person’s anger can be assuaged—and the guilt {121|122} or pollution canceled—by a death or a mock death that serves as compensation for the original death. [30] More fundamentally, the combat in such instances is a special kind of ordeal—where you fight for your “life” or run for your “life” or struggle in whatever other form of competition for your “life.” Thus a word more appropriate than combat might be contest. [31] Who is to “live” and who is to “die” is determined not by chance but by the given society’s sense of cosmic order. In some societies, the real death of one person is compensated proportionately: one other person “dies” in a ritual contest, while the one or ones who competed with this other person “live.” In other societies, however, including the Greek, the proportion is inverted: one person “lives” by winning in a ritual contest, while the one or ones who competed with this person “die” by losing. In this way the compensation for the pollution of a death takes the form of winning one other life rather than losing one.

§9. From this point of view we can see how the diachronic features of initiation in the preliminary rituals of Greek athletic festivals are connected to the diachronic features of ritual contest in the actual athletic events: the athlete, like an initiate, undergoes a ritualized death in preparation for the new “life” that will be his if he wins in his contest. And as he engages in the contest, he is struggling for this “life” in order to compensate for the death that called for his own “death.” {122|123}

§10. Such a pattern of thought can be elicited from a rereading of Burkert’s analysis of the chronologically oldest athletic event in the Olympics, the stadion, a single-course foot race in the stadium (the recording of victors in this race starts with 776 B.C.). [32] This event was as a rule inaugurated with the sacrifice of a black ram at the Pelopion ‘precinct of Pelops’, [33] to be followed by the corresponding sacrifice of a bull [34] at a heap of ash known as “the altar of Zeus,” which was to serve as the finishing-point of the single-course foot race that came after these sacrifices (in fact the early stadium at Olympia ended at the altar of Zeus). [35] As Pausanias observes (5.13.1), the preeminence of Pelops among all the heroes involved in the sacrifices at Olympia corresponded to the preeminence of Zeus among all the gods. Thus the inaugural set of sacrifices to Pelops and to Zeus, before the foot race, unites the hero and god in a “polar tension,” [36] while the foot race itself “presupposes the bloody act of killing.” [37] Moreover, from an aetiological point of view the foot race was actually part of the overall sacrifice, as we learn from the observation, made by Philostratus, that the sacrifice to Zeus was not complete until the foot race was won:

στάδιον δὲ ὧδε εὕρηται· θυσάντων Ἠλείων ὁπόσα νομίζουσι, διέκειντο μὲν ἐπὶ τοῦ βωμοῦ τὰ ἱερά, πῦρ δὲ αὐτοῖς οὔπω ἐνέκειτο. στάδιον δὲ οἱ δρομεῖς ἀπεῖχον τοῦ βωμοῦ καὶ εἱστήκει πρὸ αὐτοῦ ἱερεὺς λαμπαδίῳ βραβεύων· καὶ ὁ νικῶν ἐμπυρίσας τὰ ἱερὰ ὀλυμπιονίκης ἀπῄει.

Philostratus On Gymnastics 5

§11. Another athletic event that counted as part of the overall scenario of sacrifice was the diaulos, a double-course foot race that followed the foot race of the stadion and was twice the stadion in length (this athletic event of the diaulos was apparently introduced in the Olympics at 724 B.C.). [40] Again, we turn to the description by Philostratus:

ἐπεὶ δὲ Ἠλεῖοι θύσειαν, ἔδει μὲν καὶ τοὺς ἀπαντῶντας Ἑλλήνων θύειν θεωρούς. ὡς δὲ μὴ ἀργῶς ἡ πρόσοδος αὐτῶν γίγνοιτο, ἔτρεχον οἱ δρομεῖς ἀπὸ τοῦ βωμοῦ στάδιον οἷον καλοῦντες τὸ Ἑλληνικὸν καὶ πάλιν εἰς ταὐτὸν ὑπέστρεφον οἷον ἀγγέλλοντες, ὅτι δὴ ἀφίξοιτο ἡ Ἑλλὰς χαίρουσα. ταῦτα μὲν οὖν περὶ διαύλου αἰτίας.

Philostratus On Gymnastics 6

Burkert concludes about the foot race of the stadion: [

In other words the transition from the pollution of bloodshed to the purification of fire is a transition from participating in death to experiencing a life after death as manifested in the victory of the athlete and as symbolized by the sacrificial fire that he lights at the altar of Zeus. [

§14. I propose two qualifications. First, Pindar’s “shock” is a poetic convention that allows the subordination of one myth, the dismemberment and reintegration of Pelops, to another myth. Second, the myth of Pelops’ dismemberment and reintegration need not be viewed as an aition for the Olympic festival as a whole. True, it suits admirably the oldest aspect of the {126|127} festival, the foot race of the stadion as framed by the sacrifices at the precinct of Pelops and at the altar of Zeus. But we must keep in mind that the Olympics kept evolving with later accretions of further and further athletic events, and that the ritual features of these events would have required a corresponding evolution in aetiology, with later accretions of myths.

§16. The very activity of a chariot race, as an athletic event—which one would expect to be conceived in myth as a custom resulting from a hero’s death [62] —is instead treated in the myth of Pelops as a preexisting institution. Oinomaos is represented as customarily challenging each of the suitors of his daughter, Hippodameia, to a chariot race to the death, where the loser had to forfeit his life; in a fragment from Hesiod (F 259a MW) we witness a reverse victory list of successive suitors who had in this way lost their lives to Oinomaos. The race between Pelops and Oinomaos, however, transforms the preexisting institution from the standpoint of the myth: with the death of Oinomaos the “old institution” with its consecutive series of losers before Pelops becomes a “new institution” with its consecutive series of winners after Pelops. The “new institution” clearly is based on the death of Oinomaos; but what about the “old institution”? We must keep in mind that the “new institution” of the chariot race, from an aetiological standpoint, is {127|128} also “new” by opposition to the genuinely older institution of the foot race, which is based on the death of Pelops. What is more, the chariot race of Pelops happens after this same death in the narrative. Thus the “old” institution of the life-and-death chariot race could be considered equivalent, in terms of the myth, to the genuinely older institution of the foot race on the level of ritual: in the chicken-and-egg pattern of myth making, [63] the death of Pelops could motivate the competition in which Pelops competes. [64] The death of Oinomaos in this competition could then motivate the successive competitions of the athletic event of the Olympic chariot race founded by Pelops.

§19. The most remarkable of these rearrangements in Olympian 1 is a narrative reordering, whereby the story about the dismemberment of Pelops is ostentatiously subordinated to a story that starts with his abduction by Poseidon, which leads into the story about the chariot race of Pelops. The key to this rearrangement is the detail about the ivory shoulder of Pelops in Olympian 1.27, which can be correlated with the cult object of the larger-than-life ivory shoulder blade of Pelops as described by Pausanias 5.13.4–6.

§20. The story of the dismemberment of Pelops by Tantalos and the eating of his flesh by the gods is being ostentatiously rejected as a “false” substitute for the “true” story of the abduction and rape of Pelops by Poseidon (Pindar Olympian 1.28–29, 30–42, 46–53). [74] And yet, the “true” story turns out to be aetiologically equivalent to the rejected “false” story. In the “true” story as well, Pelops undergoes a process of symbolized “death” and “rebirth,” since his being abducted and sexually forced by Poseidon is a scenario of initiation into adulthood. [75] As Jean-Pierre Vernant has observed, [76] there is a striking analogue attested in some legally sanctioned customs of Crete (Ephorus FGH {129|130} 70 F 149 by way of Strabo 10.4.21 C483–484), [77] where a boy can be abducted, sexually forced, and thereafter reintegrated with his society by an older citizen, who is then obliged to present the boy with various legally specified gifts (Ephorus ibid.). A final sacrifice, also legally specified (ibid.), underscores the institutional and even ritual nature of the proceedings. The diachronic features of initiation are perhaps most overt in the period of segregation, legally limited to two months in duration: after the boy is abducted, sexually forced, and taken away to the abductor’s andrōn ‘men’s house’, he is taken by his abductor into the wilderness, where men and boys spend their time hunting (ibid.). After this period of marginal activity, the boy is returned to his society as a man: one of the legally prescribed gifts that he then gets from his abductor is military equipment, as befits an adult warrior (ibid.). [78] Similarly with Pelops: after the boy is abducted, sexually forced, and taken to his divine abductor’s home on Olympus, [79] the young hero receives from Poseidon the gift of a magnificent chariot team (Pindar Olympian 1.86–87). It is with this chariot team that Pelops wins his race against Oinomaos, [80] and the hand of Hippodameia, and thereby inaugurates a kingship that serves as a model of political power and sovereignty by virtue of being the ideological foundation for the royal Peloponnesian dynasties of Argos, Sparta, and Messene. [81] There is even an analogy with the Cretan boy’s period of segregation: before Pelops gets his chariot team, he is expelled from his abductor’s home on Olympus and banished to a place that is as yet foreign to him, the Peloponnesus. [82]

§24. The maintenance of the aetiological sequence of the Olympics in Pindar’s Olympian 1 is at the cost of a narrative inconsistency in terms of the professed “true” story: the emergence of Pelops from the cauldron, ivory shoulder and all, just before his abduction by Poseidon (Olympian 1.25–27), gives the impression that, even from the standpoint of Olympian 1, there were two perverted feasts of Tantalos. It is as if Tantalos first fed human flesh to the immortals before the abduction of Pelops and then fed nectar and ambrosia to mortals after the abduction. This impression is “false” in terms of the professed “true” story of Olympian 1, but the sequence of two perverted feasts, one before and one after the abduction, may be valid in terms of the accretive aetiological program of the Olympics. [91] The full aetiological sequence is reinforced by the description of the feast at which Poseidon fell in love with Pelops as the youth emerged from the cauldron with his ivory shoulder, where the wording fits the context of the “first” feast (Olympian 1.37–40). In terms of the “true” story of Olympian 1, however, the two stories of the two perverted feasts must be alternatives, and Pindar’s composition in fact treats them that way, explicitly rejecting one of the stories as “false” (= ABC) in favor of the other, which is “true” (= A´B´C´):

A  Tantalos perverts feast by serving up inappropriate food
    (the flesh of Pelops) to immortals.
B  Tantalos is punished by gods.
C  Pelops survives cauldron.
    Pelops abducted by Poseidon.
    Tantalos gets nectar and ambrosia (as compensation?).

A´ Tantalos perverts feast by serving up inappropriate food
    (nectar and ambrosia) to mortals.
B´ Tantalos is punished by gods.
    Pelops is exiled from Olympus to Peloponnesus.
    Pelops calls on Poseidon for help.
C´ Pelops survives chariot race against Oinomaos.
    Pelops settles Peloponnesus.

In fact the rejection of the “false” story is already being introduced immediately after mention of the emergence of Pelops from the cauldron: {133|134}

ἦ θαύματα πολλά, καί πού τι καὶ βροτῶν | φάτις ὑπὲρ τὸν ἀλαθῆ
λόγον | δεδαιδαλμένοι ψεύδεσι ποικίλοις ἐξαπατῶντι μῦθοι

Pindar Olympian 1.27–29

Still the details about the cauldron and the ivory shoulder, parts of the “false” story, are linked with the details about the abduction of Pelops by Poseidon, parts of the “true” story. [
93] To paraphrase: “When the god saw you emerging from the cauldron, with your shoulder of ivory, then it was that Poseidon abducted you.” The prominent details of the “false” story are but a momentary flash: Poseidon abducts Pelops immediately after the young hero emerges from the cauldron (ἐπεί at Olympian 1.26). [94]


[ back ] 1. See Köhnken 1974.205: Hieron won in the single-horse competition of the Olympics of 476 B.C., and the preoccupation of Pindar’s Olympian 1 with the theme of chariot racing shows clearly that the tyrant is looking forward to winning a future Olympic victory in the more prestigious four-horse chariot competition. On the canonization of Olympian 1 as the lead poem of the corpus of Pindaric epinicians, see the arguments of Young 1983, especially pp. 47–48.

[ back ] 2. There is a useful inventory of opposing views in Köhnken 1983.66–67, who argues for the interpretation since (causal). Although I disagree with his conclusions, I have learned much from Köhnken’s observations, as also from those of Slater 1979.63–70 and of Gerber 1982.55–56.

[ back ] 3. Cf. Ch. 1§23–31.

[ back ] 4. This working definition of ritual can apply to the ritual foundations of tragedy as briefly discussed in Ch. 1§44–47. Further discussion at Ch. 13§8–10 and following. My working definition of ritual is broad enough to accommodate much of the valuable comparative evidence on athletics assembled by Sansone 1988 (see especially pp. 129–130). Sansone’s own formulation of ritual, however, is narrower: for example, he assumes at p. 113 that a given society’s procedures of fasting and purification in hunting “are by no means ritual matters” on the grounds that “they are rational and pragmatic measures designed to enhance the likelihood of success.” There is no reason to assume that ritual cannot be “rational and pragmatic.” Such narrowing leads to unnecessary complications in establishing a hermeneutic compatibility between ritual and athletics in Sansone’s book (e.g., p. 19).

[ back ] 5. N 1979.279§2n2. For further discussion of aetiology, see Calame 1977 I 44–45.

[ back ] 6. Burkert 1985.105–107.

[ back ] 7. Burkert 1983.101.

[ back ] 8. On the terms synchronic/diachronic: Introduction §7–11.

[ back ] 9. Cf., for example, Jeanmaire 1939.342–343. Cf. also Brelich 1969.

[ back ] 10. See Burkert 1985.106; fuller documentation in Burkert 1983.102n43. Also Sansone 1988.54.

[ back ] 11. Rohde 1898 I 152n1.

[ back ] 12. Ibid. Note too Rohde I 151n5 on the funerary symbolism of the myrtle and the use of this flower for victory garlands in the Theban Games known as the Iolaia.

[ back ] 13. There is a list of 20-odd examples collected by Pfister II 496-497, to be supplemented by the list of Brelich 1958.94-95. The variations in these myths reflect the political vicissitudes of the festivals themselves, in that different versions may represent the traditions of different groups, places, and times.

[ back ] 14. It is important to keep in mind the following formulation of Rohde 1898 I 151-152 (1925.117): “The greatest Games of all, to which all Greece assembled, the Pythian, Olympian, Nemean, and Isthmian, were during the historical period, it is true, celebrated in honor of the gods; but that they had been originally instituted as Funeral Games of Heroes and only subsequently transferred to higher guardianship was, at any rate, the general opinion of antiquity.” Rohde’s accompanying note at I 152n1 is particularly helpful.

[ back ] 15. Phlegon FGH 257 F 1: the Delphic Oracle is quoted as saying (lines 8-9) θῆκε δ᾽ ἔπειτα ἔροτιν καὶ ἔπαθλα θανόντι | Οἰνομάῳ ‘he [Pelops] established a festival and contests [ ep-āthla ] for the dead Oinomaos’. On the basis of observations to be presented below concerning the semantics of epi + dative of the person in funerary contexts, I infer that the collocation of ep-āthla ‘contests’ with the dative in this present passage conveys the notion, to be developed further below, that Pelops instituted the contests in compensation for the death of Oinomaos. In this particular case, furthermore, myth has it that Pelops actually caused, wittingly or unwittingly, the death of Oinomaos (cf., e.g., Apollodorus Epitome 2.7).

[ back ] 16. Phlegon ibid.: the Delphic Oracle is quoted as saying (lines 9-11): τρίτατος δ’ ἐπὶ τοῖς πάις Ἀμφιτρύωνος | Ἡρακλέης ἐτέλεσσ’ ἔροτιν καὶ ἀγῶνα ἐπὶ μήτρῳ | Τανταλίδῃ Πέλοπι φθιμένῳ ‘after them, the third was Herakles, son of Amphitryon: he established the festival and the contest [ agōn ] for the dead Pelops, son of Tantalos, a maternal relative’ [the daughter of Pelops, myth has it, was the mother of Amphitryon, father of Herakles]. On the basis of the phraseology here, I am ready to argue that the collocation of agōn ‘contest’ with epi with the dative conveys the notion that Herakles instituted the festival in compensation for the death of Pelops (cf. Herodotus 5.8 on agōn as a response to death; cf. also 5§2-3 on the state-supported Athenian institution of the agōn epi-taphios in honor of the war-dead). From the standpoint of this oracular poem, Pelops and Herakles were respectively the second and the third founders of the Olympics; the “first founder” was one Pisos (lines 6-7), the eponymous hero of Pisa, the site of the Olympics. For another version, see Pindar Olympian 10.43 and following, where Herakles founds the Olympics with the spoils taken from the dead Augeias (41-42). For a survey of versions about the foundation of the Olympics, with references, see Burkert 1983.95n7. On Herakles as the founder of the Olympics, there is a generalized reference in Pindar Olympian 2.3-4; see also Aristotle F 637 Rose (cf. Pausanias 5.13.12); overview in Brelich 1958.103. According to the scholia to Pindar Olympian 1.149a Drachmann, Herakles is said to have instituted the practice of sacrificing first to Pelops and then to Zeus.

[ back ] 17. Cf. the note that immediately precedes.

[ back ] 18. Ibid.

[ back ] 19. Anonymous Peplos (quoted by scholia to Aristides Panathenaicus 189); Varro De Lingua Latina 7.17; Clement Protrepticus 1.2, 2.1. Besides Burkert 1985.105–107, see Brelich 1958.95–97, especially p. 96n70 on Python as a ritual hero. According to a variant, Diomedes was first to hold the Pythian Games in honor of Apollo: Pausanias 2.32.2 (Trozenian version).

[ back ] 20. Pindar F 5, F 6 SM (p. 3); Pausanias 2.1.3 (note the phraseology: ἀγῶνα ἐπ᾽ αὐτῷ, with ἐπί + dative in the context of agōn); Hyginus Fabulae 273; Clement Protrepticus 2.29; Hypotheses to Pindar Isthmians. Cf. Brelich 1958.103. On infants as cult-heroes, see Brelich 1958.85, 121–122, 237.

[ back ] 21. Bacchylides 9.12 SM (note the phraseology: ἄθλησαν ἐπ’ Ἀρχεμόρῳ, with ἐπί + dative in the context of aethlos); Aeschylus Nemea (TGF 149); Euripides Hypsipyle (ed. Bond) 97-103; Apollodorus 3.6.4 (note the phraseology: ἐπ’ αὐτῷ … ἀγῶνα, with ἐπί + dative in the context of agōn); Hyginus Fables 273; Clement Protrepticus 2.29; and Hypotheses to Pindar Nemeans. This myth can function as a supplement to the myth of Herakles and the Nemean Lion: cf. Callimachus F 254–269 in the edition of Lloyd-Jones and Parsons 1983. W. Race points out to me that the myth involving the Seven may correspond to the chariot race specifically, as distinct from the myth involving Herakles.

[ back ] 22. There is a valuable collection of eight such inscriptions, ranging in date from the early seventh to the middle fifth centuries B.C., in Roller 1981.2–3. The author is helpful in addressing various questions raised about the geographical distribution of the evidence (p. 15n47).

[ back ] 23. For example, Odyssey xxiv 91, where the idiom refers to Achilles as the dead hero in whose honor the Achaeans set up a once-only festival of athletic events. For a survey of the iconographic testimony on funeral games, see Roller 1981b.

[ back ] 24. The idiom is attested in seven of the eight inscriptions adduced by Roller 1981.2–3; the eighth is too fragmentary for us to be certain whether the idiom was used there as well.

[ back ] 25. See Roller, pp. 5–6, who ascribes the obsolescence of this custom to the progressive encroachment of the polis upon funerary practices and other such practices characteristic of powerful extended families. In the case of once-only athletic events in honor of immediate ancestors and the like, we must take note of the tendency toward Panhellenism even in this obsolescent custom: we know from the inscriptions that the athletes who competed in such events could come from other city-states (Roller, p. 3). Thus there must have been some degree of Panhellenic “advertisement.”

[ back ] 26. For example, Hesychius s.v. ἐπ’ Εὐρυγύῃ ἀγών, with reference to the Athenian festival of the Panathenaia (cf. Amelesagoras FGH 330 F 2 and Jacoby’s commentary). Also Hesychius s.v. Βαλλητύς· ἑορτὴ Ἀθήνησιν ἐπὶ Δημοφῶντι τῷ Κελεοῦ ἀγομένη, with reference to a seasonally-recurring ritual mock battle in compensation for the death of the child-hero Demophon (cf. Homeric Hymn to Demeter 262–267, with commentary by Richardson 1974.245–247); this mock battle seems to have been the ritual kernel of a whole complex of events known as the Eleusinian Games (cf. Richardson, p. 246). See also Ch. 4§5–6, with reference to the festival of the Olympics.

[ back ] 27. See, for example, the list in Rohde 1898 I 151n4: the Delphic Oracle orders hero cults, taking the form of seasonally-recurring athletic festivals, in honor of such historical figures as Miltiades (Herodotus 6.38), Brasidas (Thucydides 5.11), Leonidas (Pausanias 3.14.1: note the phraseology: ἐπ’ αὐτοῖς … [sc. for both Brasidas and Leonidas] ἀγῶνα). A comparable case is that of the murdered Phocaeans at Agylla/Caere (Herodotus 1.167.2).

[ back ] 28. Meuli 1968 (1926); 1975 (1941) 881–906.

[ back ] 29. There is no reason to assume that all instances of human ritual combat are built on any one motivating principle. For a reassessment of Meuli’s views, see Sansone 1988.38 and following. In considering the valuable comparative data adduced by Sansone, I distance myself from his notions of “common origin” (e.g., p. 52).

[ back ] 30. On the notion of compensation as owed by the living to the dead and more generally on the notion of a contract or pact between the living and their ancestors, see Lévi-Strauss 1984.245–248.

[ back ] 31. In this connection I found it helpful to read Ong 1981.104–107 on the custom of “land diving” as practiced on the New Hebrides island of Pentecost. In an annual ritual intended to promote a good yam crop, the men of the community compete with each other by diving “from tree-and-vine towers as high as eighty feet and more, headfirst, with lianas tied to their ankles, the woody vines just long enough to break the men’s fall as they hit the bare ground below” (p. 104). For the participants, the aetiological motivation for the ritual is as follows: once “a man named Tamalie quarreled with his wife, who ran away and climbed a banyan tree. Tamalie followed to recapture her, she jumped down to escape him, and he jumped after her. But she had tied lianas around her ankles to break her fall, while he, without lianas, simply plunged to his death. The other men took up the practice of land diving so that no woman would trick them again” (p. 106). I infer that the mock death of the men engaged in the ritual, modeled on the mock death of the primordial woman in the myth, compensates for the “real” death of the primordial man in the myth. Note too that the setting for the stylized death in the ritual is a thing of culture, that is, a tower, while the setting for the “real” death in the myth was a thing of nature, a tree. Ong continues: “The threat of death is real enough, though accidents, which occur with fair frequency, are generally minor (pulled muscles, sprains, contusions, skinned shoulders), since even if the lianas break, they generally do so at a point where they have already notably decelerated the fall. But death is in the air, literally and figuratively, and it is meant to be” (p. 105).

[ back ] 32. Burkert 1983.95–98. Datings for the introduction of various athletic events in the Olympics: Pausanias 5.8.6–7 (on which see Huxley 1975.38–39).

[ back ] 33. See Pausanias 5.13.1–2, and the comments of Burkert, p. 98.

[ back ] 34. Burkert, p. 98n25.

[ back ] 35. Burkert, p. 97. Such sacrifices in the context of the Olympics, as Burkert notes (p. 96), would have had smaller-scale analogues in the context of epichoric ritual practices at Olympia on occasions other than the Olympics.

[ back ] 36. Burkert, p. 97.

[ back ] 37. Burkert, p. 98.

[ back ] 38. The wording here indicates clearly that the author is concerned not so much with describing current athletic practice as with indicating the aetiology that accompanies athletic practice.

[ back ] 39. The translation follows Burkert, p. 97. Note the parallel wording adduced by Burkert, p. 97n22, from an inscription concerning institutional procedures at Delphi (as funded by Eumenes II), LSS 44.15: ὁ δὲ δρόμος γινέσθω … ἄχρι ποτὶ τὸν βωμόν, ὁ δὲ νικέων ὑφαπτέτω τὰ ἱερά ‘the running is to extend up to the altar, and the winner is to set fire to the consecrated parts’. I am puzzled by the translation in LSJ s.v. ὑφάπτω: ‘is to set the fire for lighting the sacred lamps’.

[ back ] 40. Datings for the introduction of various athletic events in the Olympics: Pausanias 5.8.6–7.

[ back ] 41. Note the translation of ὡς δὲ μὴ ἀργῶς ἡ πρόσοδος αὐτῶν γίγνοιτο by Jüthner 1909.139: “Damit aber deren Ankunft nicht ohne Zeremoniell vor sich gehe ….”

[ back ] 42. Translation after Burkert, p. 97, who notes (p. 100) that the portent recounted in Herodotus 1.59.1 about Hippokrates, father of the tyrant Peisistratos of Athens, must be understood as taking place immediately after the Olympic event of the diaulos, as the envoys were approaching the altar of Zeus. Hippokrates was one of these envoys, and as he approached, the water inside the sacrificial cauldrons (presumably at the altar of Zeus) started to boil before the application of fire. This portent seems to have conveyed the idea that the very presence of Hippokrates, as the future father of Peisistratos, was the equivalent of the Olympic victor’s fire that was required to start the sacrifices at the altar of Zeus.

[ back ] 43. Burkert, p. 98.

[ back ] 44. I substitute ‘thigh-portions’ for ‘thigh-bones’, on the basis of the discussion in N 1979.216–217 (following Gill 1974).

[ back ] 45. On purification as transition, consider the semantics of Latin pūrgō ‘purify’, the etymology which, according to Thurneysen 1912–1913, is *pūrigō ‘carry [verb agō] fire [*pūr, as attested in Oscan pūr, Umbrian pīr, and Greek pūr]’. The context of *pūr agere ‘carry fire’ is actually attested in a ritual recorded in the Iguvine Tables (Ib 12), where fire is being carried in a portable altar or brazier called an ahti– (from verb agō). See N 1974b.105.

[ back ] 46. Burkert’s formulation can be more fully appreciated in light of the following observation on the typology of initiation: “Just as pollution is disease and disease is death, so purification is a renewal of life” (Thomson 1946.93).

[ back ] 47. On the symbolism of fire as victory, see Ch. 4§11 on the portent presaging the Panhellenic importance of the birth of Peisistratos: the fire of the victor is here made analogous to the begetting of the tyrant. Note too that the Greek word kratos designates not only political and military power but also athletic victory (cf. N 1979.90 §37n6). For a parallel thought pattern, consider the Roman aetiology for the games known as the Compitālia, a word derived from com-pitum ‘crossroads’, further derived from com-petō ‘meet, come together; compete with others in pursuit of a given honor’ (for the latter definition, see Nonius Marcellus 276.10 Lindsay). According to this aetiology, as reported by Pliny the Elder (Natural History 36.204), the games of the Compitālia were founded by Servius Tullius, a primaeval king of Rome who was begotten by a flaming phallus that appeared out of the royal hearth tended at the time by his mother; young Servius succeeded to the kingship when it was discovered that his head lit up while he slept (for more on this myth, see N 1974b.96-100). The aetiology specifically accounts for the foundation of the games as resulting from the belief that Servius Tullius had thus been begotten by the Lār familiāris ‘the ancestral spirit of the family’ of the previous king, Tarquinius Priscus (Pliny ibid.). Moreover, it is specified that Servius Tullius founded the games in honor of the Lārēs ‘ancestral spirits’ (ibid.).

[ back ] 48. Burkert 1983.100.

[ back ] 49. A survey of testimonia in Burkert, p. 99n32.

[ back ] 50. Burkert, p. 100.

[ back ] 51. On the dismemberment and eating of Lykaon by the gods, see Hesiod F 163 MW (and the comments by Burkert, pp. 86–87). On the revival of Lykaon, see [Eratosthenes] Katasterismoi (Fragmenta Vaticana ed. Rehm), p. 2 (and the comments by Burkert, p. 87n20).

[ back ] 52. Burkert, pp. 84–93. Note his discussion of age divisions at p. 90 and of expulsion/impulsion rituals at p. 92. I would draw special attention to this observation (p. 92): “The younger members of the rising generation had to be forced away into the wild ‘outdoors’ while the [older] twenty-five-year-olds, now marriageable, entered athletic competitions.” In other words age classes could be differentiated by way of overt vs. stylized separation (i.e., rustication vs. athletics, respectively).

[ back ] 53. Sources in Burkert 1983.99n32: most notably Bacchylides F 42 SM, Euripides Iphigeneia in Tauris 386–388, Lycophron 152-155, Apollodorus Epitome 2.3.

[ back ] 54. Burkert, p. 99n30 cites further sources.

[ back ] 55. Burkert, p. 100, with documentation.

[ back ] 56. Burkert, p. 100 and n34.

[ back ] 57. Burkert, p. 100.

[ back ] 58. Pausanias 5.8.7; this date seems to parallel the era when chariot fighting was becoming obsolescent in warfare. I owe this insight to J. L. Bentz.

[ back ] 59. Burkert 1983.95n9 gives bibliography on counterarguments in favor of an earlier date. On the role of chariots as a mark of aristocratic prestige, see Connor 1987.47–49, especially with reference to Strabo 10.1.10 C448 (p. 49).

[ back ] 60. Burkert, p. 95.

[ back ] 61. Cf. Ch. 4§5–6.

[ back ] 62. Consider the general aetiologies connected with the four Panhellenic Games, as discussed above.

[ back ] 63. On which see N 1974b.77.

[ back ] 64. Cf. N 1979.284 on the aetiological significance of the myth concerning the death of Aesop at Delphi: “The Life of Aesop tradition actually presents the death of Aesop as a cause of the First Sacred War, but the institutional reality that Aesop reproaches—namely, that the people of Delphi are sacred to Apollo—is a lasting effect of the First Sacred War. From the standpoint of the myth, the death of Aesop is the effect of his reproaching the institutions of Delphi; from the standpoint of these institutions, on the other hand, his death is their indirect cause. It is this sort of ‘cause’ that qualifies as an aition.”

[ back ] 65. Diodorus 4.73.4; cf. Burkert 1983.98.

[ back ] 66. I note in passing the use of the word signature by Derrida 1972.393.

[ back ] 67. Burkert 1983.99n33.

[ back ] 68. Pindar Olympian 1.38.

[ back ] 69. Moreover the “new” setting in Asia Minor is perfectly in keeping with evolving patterns of myths about the origins of Peloponnesian dynasties. These patterns tend to augment the political prestige of Sparta and to diminish that of Argos: see Ch. 10§23–25 and following.

[ back ] 70. Pace Burkert, p. 99.

[ back ] 71. Burkert, p. 95; cf. Pausanias 5.17.7. For a slightly different dating, see Roller 1981b.109–110.

[ back ] 72. Burkert ibid.

[ back ] 73. My views here differ from what is found in the available commentaries on Pindar, which favor the idea that substantial parts of the myths related in Olympian 1 were the poet’s own personal invention. For an example of this different view, see Lefkowitz 1976.81–82. For a systematic argumentation along these lines, see Köhnken 1974. I interpret σὲ δ’ ἀντία προτέρων φθέγξομαι at Olympian 1.36 as ‘I shall call upon you [= Pelops] in the presence of the predecessors’, that is, with the past tradition as witness; for ἀντία in the juridical sense of ‘in the presence of, cf. ἀντία σεῦ ‘in your presence’ in Herodotus 7.209.2; also καλίον ἀντὶ μαιτύρον ‘summoning in the presence of witnesses’ in the Gortynian Code (e.g., 1.41 [ed. Willetts], etc.). Others interpret ἀντία προτέρων in the sense of ‘contrary to the predecessors’ (e.g., Slater 1969.57), as if Pindar were contradicting the tradition that came before him. On proteroi ‘predecessors, men of the past’ as designating the tellers of the tradition (e.g., Pindar Pythian 3.80), see 7§1-2. Instead of ‘contrary to the predecessors’, I propose a slightly modified interpretation, ‘in rivalry with the predecessors’, which is compatible with ‘in the presence of the predecessors’ inasmuch as the present performance, in agonistic pride, calls to witness all past performances to validate its own truth. Further, this present truth is to be witnessed not only by the past but also by the future (Olympian 1.33–34).

[ back ] 74. On the contrast of alēthea ‘true’ versus pseudea ‘false’ at Olympian 1.28–32, see Ch. 2§27–28; there I argue that the version designated by alēthea is Panhellenic. As such, this version is appropriately the program of the Olympics.

[ back ] 75. This point is effectively argued by Calame 1977 I 421–427 and by Sergent 1984.75–84.

[ back ] 76. Vernant 1969.13–14. See also Sergent 1984.80–81.

[ back ] 77. Cf. Brelich 1969.198–200. For evidence that these customs in Crete have antecedents reaching back into the second millennium B.C.: Koehl 1986.

[ back ] 78. For more on the Ephorus passage, see Sergent 1984.15–53.

[ back ] 79. On the topic of Poseidon’s home on Olympus, as it figures in this story, see Köhnken 1974.204.

[ back ] 80. On the pertinence of this theme to Hieron in Olympian 1, see Köhnken, p. 205: after having won in the single-horse competition of 476 B.C., the tyrant is looking forward to winning a future Olympic victory in the chariot competition.

[ back ] 81. On the dynastic transition from Pelopidai to Herakleidai, representing the royal houses of Argos, Sparta, and Messene, see Ch. 10§31–34 and following. The essence of Pelops as the archetype of political power and sovereignty in the Peloponnesus is clear from such indications as the passing of the skēptron ‘scepter’ from Zeus to Hermes to Pelops to Atreus to Thyestes to Agamemnon in Iliad II 100–108. The very name of the Peloponneus, the island of Pelops (cf. Tyrtaeus 2.15 W), bears out the status of Pelops as the prototypical king and authority (cf. West 1985.159); cf. Apollodorus Epitome 2.11, where the people of Mycenae install Atreus and Thyestes after being told by an oracle to choose a descendant of Pelops as their king.

[ back ] 82. In this “foreign” land, Poseidon helps Pelops succeed in his exploits. At Olympian 1.24 the Peloponnesus is described as the apoikiā ‘settlement’ of Pelops. After this ordeal in the chariot race, the Peloponnesus finally becomes his new home.

[ back ] 83. We may contrast the story of the abduction and rape of Ganymede by Zeus in Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 200–217. In this case the boy never leaves Olympus (nor does he ever become a man), and the gift of a magnificent chariot team goes not to him but to his father—a fitting compensation for permanently losing the boy. I consider this story a variant, just as the story of the abduction and rape of Pelops by Poseidon must be considered a variant. It is methodologically unsound to insist that one variant is the exemplum and the other, the imitation.

[ back ] 84. I see no reason to argue that the story about Tantalos’ perverted sharing of nectar and ambrosia was an invention of Pindar. That Tantalos had received the gift of nectar and ambrosia—a gift that he proceeded to misuse—can be analyzed as a traditional story pattern where (1) the gods wrong a mortal, (2) the mortal is given a divine gift in compensation for the wrong, (3) the mortal misuses the gift, thereby wronging the gods, and (4) the gods punish the mortal and take back the gift. It may be that Tantalos’ gift of nectar and ambrosia from the gods was viewed as a payment in compensation for the gods’ having taken Pelops to Olympus, just as the gift of a chariot team to the father of Ganymede was in compensation for the gods’ having taken Ganymede to Olympus (see n83). Then, after Tantalos wrongs the gods, the gift is taken back and Pelops is expelled from Olympus. The compensation that was owed to Tantalos, so long as Pelops stayed on Olympus, now reverts to Pelops, once he is released, just as the abducted Cretan boy is compensated by his abductor upon being released. Thus Pelops gets the gift of a chariot team.

[ back ] 85. On the semantics of olbos ‘good fortune, bliss’ and olbios ‘fortunate, blissful’, see Ch. 8§43–45 and following.

[ back ] 86. On koros as ‘insatiability’, see Ch. 10§21–22.

[ back ] 87. I owe this parallel to J. F. Nagy. It may well be that even the story of Tantalos’ perverted feeding of human flesh to the gods—not just the story of his feeding nectar and ambrosia to mortals—presupposes that Tantalos had enjoyed the ultimate bliss of having access to nectar and ambrosia in the first place.

[ back ] 88. One of the anonymous referees for the earlier version of this presentation points out that the word ammoros ‘having no share’ in this passage may convey yet another image of eating; on the semantics of moira and related words in the sense of ‘share, portion’ of meat, see N 1979.134–135. I quote from the referee’s incisive remarks: “Pelops, sitting by the cauldron of his stewing old age, cannot get a name for himself because he does not reach in and ‘get his share’—the champion’s portion.” On the theme of the champion’s portion of meat in Greek and Irish traditions, see N 1979.133§19n4.

[ back ] 89. On the purification in the cauldron, we may compare the formulation of Thomson quoted at Ch. 4§11–12. My interpretation of ἐπεί at line 26 as ‘after’ rather than ‘since’ is supported by the wording of Pindar Olympian 1.46–48, to be discussed further at Ch. 4§24–26. On the associations of Klotho with the theme of birth, see Köhnken 1983.70; I find it unnecessary, however, to deny the associations of Klotho with the theme of rebirth.

[ back ] 90. Cf. Ch. 4§12–14.

[ back ] 91. Cf. Hubbard 1987.9–11, who posits a parallel narrative sequence of two feasts in the Hesiodic treatment of the Prometheus myth.

[ back ] 92. On the connotations of mūthoi ‘myths’ in this passage, see Ch. 2§27–28.

[ back ] 93. Bundy 1972.70 writes: “Once [Pindar] has given his audience a familiar frame of reference, he can find this version not to his liking and dismiss it for another.” Bundy’s opinion is that Pindar’s preferred version is not one of his own making, and that it is less widely known than the rejected version (ibid.). I agree with the first part of this opinion and disagree with the second. Cf. Ch. 2§27–28.

[ back ] 94. My interpretation of ἐπεί here as ‘after’ rather than ‘since’ is supported by the wording of Pindar Olympian 1.46–48, to be explained in what immediately follows.

[ back ] 95. On the programmatic use of the adjective phthoneros ‘begrudging, envious’ in the diction of praise poetry to designate the generic opponent of praise poetry, see N 1979.223–232.

[ back ] 96. Bundy 1972.71n79 writes: “Although Pindar’s purposes here require that he rejects this version, yet the detail of the ivory shoulder is too good to spare, both for enhancing the beauty of Pelops as inspirational to Poseidon’s love and for making us aware of the power of art irrationally to persuade men’s minds by directing them toward outward beauty and away from inner truth.”

[ back ] 97. Cf. Ch. 4§12–14.