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

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5. The Ordeal of the Athlete and the Burden of the Poet

§1. Having contemplated the ritual ideology of athletic events in one particular festival from among the four seasonally recurring Panhellenic Games that produced the victors celebrated by the lyric poetry of Pindar, we may proceed to consider how this poetry formally relates itself to such ritual ideology.

§2. A prominent word used in the lyric poetry of Pindar and elsewhere for the concept of athletic event is agōn (e.g., Pindar Olympian 1.7), apparently derived from the root ag– of agō as in sunagō ‘bring together, assemble, gather’. [1] The notion of ‘assemble’ is intrinsic to the general sense of agōn, that is, ‘assembly’ (e.g., Pindar Pythian 10.30). This meaning is still preserved in various contexts, from which we can see that there can be ‘assemblies’ of not just people but even, for example, ships (e.g., Iliad XV 428). But in numerous other contexts the word specifically means ‘contest’ (e.g., Pindar Olympian 9.90). Thus agōn conveys not only the social setting for an activity, namely, an assembly of people, but also the activity itself, namely, a contest. The implicitness of the notion of contest in the word for ‘assembly’ reflects a basic institutional reality about the ancient Greeks: [2] whenever they came together in whatever was called an agōn, they competed. [3] Using this word agōn, Nietzsche in fact characterized {136|137} competitiveness, this fundamental aspect of ancient Greek society, as der agonale Geist: [4] The notion of competition built into agōn is admirably reflected in the English borrowing antagonism. [5] To think of agōn as ‘athletic contest’, however, would be to understand but one aspect of the ancient Greek agonale Geist. The word applies not only to athletic but also to martial activity. [6] Moreover, it applies to poetic or rhetorical activity. [7] The ritual aspect of these activities is suggested by attestations of the derivative word agōniā in the sense of ‘agony’ (e.g., Demosthenes On the Crown 33, “Aristotle” Problems 869b6). Instead of the English borrowing agony, however, I prefer to use the word ordeal, which connotes not only the personal but also the ritual aspect of the agōn as a process diachronically characteristic of initiation into adulthood. [8]

§3. The ritual aspect of the agōn is elucidated by another word, aethlos or āthlos, [9] which is likewise used in the sense of ‘contest’ in referring to the activities of athletics (e.g., Herodotus 5.22.2) and war (e.g., 1.67.1). A closely related word is aethlon or āthlon, meaning ‘prize to be won in a contest’; [10] a derivative is āthlētēs, meaning ‘athlete’ (the English word is a borrowing from the Greek). That this word aethlos carries with it the sense of ritual is already clear from the epithet that characterizes it: hieros ‘sacred’ (Pindar Olympian 8.64, 13.15). More than that: in Pindaric usage aethlos applies equally to the contests of athletes and to the life-and-death ordeals of heroes. We have already seen from the myth of the chariot race of Pelops that the ordeals of heroes on the level of myth correspond aetiologically to the contests of athletes on the level of ritual, in that the myths can motivate the rituals. Now we see that a word like aethlos can collapse the very distinction between the myth and the ritual. Thus when Pelops embarks upon {137|138} the chariot race against Oinomaos with the understanding that he will live if he wins but die if he loses, he refers to the race as an aethlos (Pindar Olympian 1.84). [11] Elsewhere in Pindaric song, the word applies to the mortally dangerous tasks imposed by King Aietes on Jason as a precondition for the hero’s possessing the Golden Fleece (Pindar Pythian 4.220) [12] —ordeals that include the ploughing of a large field with a pair of fire-breathing bronze bulls (4.224–227) and fighting to the death a monstrous dragon that was guarding the Fleece (4.243–246). [13] In yet another Pindaric context, aethlos applies to one of the Labors of Herakles, namely, the hero’s life-and-death struggle with the Nemean Lion (Pindar Isthmian 6.48). [14] In the language of epic as well, aethlos applies either to an athletic competition, such as the Funeral Games of Patroklos (e.g., Iliad XXIII 646), or to a life-and-death struggle: as an example of the latter theme, I cite the Homeric application of the word in the plural to the Labors of Herakles, all considered together (Iliad VIII 363). [15] Finally, in the context of actual war, we find aethlos applying to the martial efforts, all considered together, of Achaeans and Trojans alike in the Trojan War (Iliad III 126), or, considered separately, to the efforts of the Achaeans in general (Odyssey iii 262) or of Odysseus in particular (iv 170).

§4. For the athlete the ritual significance of these life-and-death struggles by heroes finds its expression in the occasional lyric poetry of Pindar. In order to introduce this topic, however, I choose a remarkably suggestive passage not from Pindar but from quite elsewhere, namely, the Alcestis of Euripides. Offstage, the quintessential hero Herakles has just wrestled with and defeated Thanatos, Death personified; then, on stage, he cryptically refers to this confrontation as an athletic event: ἀθληταῖσιν ἄξιον πόνον ‘a worthy exertion [ponos] for athletes’ (Euripides Alcestis 1027). In his speech Herakles does not reveal that he has struggled with Thanatos but prefers to represent his life-and-death ordeal as a wrestling match at a local athletic festival. [16] In the words of Herakles his ‘exertion’ in the wrestling match with Death was a {138|139} ponos (again Alcestis 1027). [17] This and another word for ‘exertion’, kamatos, are programmatically used in the diction of Pindar to designate the hardships of preparing for and engaging in athletic competition. [18] Moreover, both ponos and kamatos are used by the poet to designate the life-and-death struggles of heroes. [19] As with the word aethlos ‘contest’, with ponos and kamatos there is a collapsing of the distinction between the myth of the hero’s struggle and the ritual of the athlete’s competition. Accordingly, ‘ordeal’ may be more apt a translation than ‘exertion’ for both ponos and kamatos since it conveys not only a heroic but also a ritual experience.

§5. This set of poetic words, as used in Pindar’s diction, helps us understand more clearly the ritual ideology inherited by Greek athletics. As noted, [20] this ideology reveals diachronic features of two kinds of ritual: (1) initiation into adulthood and (2) compensation for the catastrophe of death. In the first case it is easy to see how the ordeal conveyed by words like aethlos, ponos, and kamatos is characteristic of initiation. In the second case, however, the connection between a hero’s ordeal and the idea of compensating for a primordial death is more difficult to intuit. We must call to mind again the formulation of Karl Meuli: in various societies throughout the world, ritual combat can have the function of compensating for guilt about someone’s death. [21] The guilt can be canceled by way of an ordeal that decides the guilty person, in that the guilty person is killed in the ordeal while any innocent person survives. Such an ordeal may take the form of either a life-and-death contest [22] or an attenuated form of competition where “living” and “dying” may be stylized as winning and losing, respectively. [23] As I have already proposed, however, the ancient Greek model of such an ordeal reflects a rearrangement in ideology: in contrast with other models where the ordeal instituted to compensate for the guilt of a given person’s death requires that one contestant “die” by losing and thereby be proven guilty while the other contestant or {139|140} contestants “live,” the Greek model requires that one contestant “live” by winning. [24] This “survival” of one person is then pluralized, communalized by the khoros ‘chorus’, on the occasion of the epinician or victory celebration. [25] But the Greek model is still an ordeal, instituted to compensate for the guilt of a given person’s death; to engage in the ordeal is to engage in the act of compensation. The ordeal, as part of an initiation, leads to a “winning” of life, a “rebirth” that compensates for death.

§14. So much for the specific Greek variant of the general anthropological category of competition in honor of the dead. As for the other anthropological category that applies to the Panhellenic Games, the category of initiation, the athletic victory and the subsequent celebration of victory are not strictly speaking an initiation for the Greeks, in that the setting is not the tribe but, in the case of the victory, an assembly representing all Hellenes and, in the case of the subsequent celebration of victory, a chorus representing the victor’s {143|144} polis. So, again, we are dealing with a product of the twin phenomena of Panhellenism and the polis.

§15. I do not mean to say that these twin phenomena are antithetical to the tribal institutions that preceded them. Rather, they represent a set of differentiations emanating from tribal institutions. The polis, as not only heir to but also rival of the tribe, neutralizes the threat of rivalry derived from its own tribal heritage by absorbing the compatible aspects of this heritage and by internationalizing (that is, making inter-polis) the incompatible aspects. [41] I call endoskeletal those aspects of the tribe that are absorbed within the polis and exoskeletal those aspects that are generalized outside the polis. [42] In this line of thought, we may say that the institution of ordeal through competition, instead of surviving as the institution of initiation within the endoskeleton, has moved into the exoskeleton as the institution of the Panhellenic Games. Thus, there is a neutralization of a potential conflict between the institution of the polis and the ancestors, who represent the original focus of ordeal through competition and who are the very foundation of extended family structures that survive as institutions antithetical to the evolving polis. My formulation here dovetails with an observation made by Erwin Rohde, that the concept of ancestors in Archaic Greece becomes differentiated into two distinct categories: on the one hand there are the heroes, stylized remote ancestors, who are defined both by their cult in any given individual polis and by their being recognized as heroes by citizens of any other given polis, and on the other hand there are the immediate ancestors, who can be kept within the confines of the polis in the restricted context of families and extended families. [43]

§17. In these patterns of differentiation, it is clear that the concept of local in the opposition of local and Panhellenic is not to be equated with the concept of the polis itself. The polis is local only insofar as it absorbs the endoskeletal aspects of the tribe; but it is also Panhellenic in that it promotes the exoskeletal aspects. The ideology of the polis is not exclusively local, or epichoric: it is simultaneously Panhellenic. Thus whenever the chorus, as representative of the polis, speaks about things epichoric, it does so with a Panhellenic point of view. {145|146}


[ back ] 1. Chantraine DELG 17.

[ back ] 2. I use institution in the sense adopted by Benveniste 1969.

[ back ] 3. For an institutional parallel as reflected by the Latin language, see Ch. 4§11–12 on the semantics of competō.

[ back ] 4. Background in Burkert 1985.105. See also Martin 1983.65–76 on the Greek notion of contest as a solution to problems.

[ back ] 5. Cf. agōnismos ‘rivalry’ in Thucydides 7.70.3.

[ back ] 6. See Brelich 1961 on the ritual parallelism of these two activities. Note especially the reference to war as arēïos agōn ‘the agōn of Ares’ in Herodotus 9.33.3. On the ritual dimensions of early Greek land warfare: Connor 1988, following Burkert 1985.169–170.

[ back ] 7. On agōn as a festival of contests in poetry, see Homeric Hymn 6.19–20. On agōn as a festival of contests in athletics and in poetry, song, and dance, see Homeric Hymn to Apollo 149–150 and Thucydides 3.10.3/5. On the state-supported Athenian institution of the agōn epitaphios in honor of the war-dead, featuring contests in athletics and in speeches praising the dead, see Demosthenes On the Crown 288 and Aristotle Constitution of the Athenians 58; cf. Roller 1977.26–30, especially p. 27 on the Funeral Oration of Pericles (Thucydides 2.35–46). Note too the following three subjects of the verb agōnizomai ‘compete, engage in an agōn’ in Herodotus: athletes (e.g., 2.160.3–4), warriors (e.g., 1.76.4), and rhapsōidoi ‘rhapsodes’ (5.67.1).

[ back ] 8. We may note the semantics of German Urteil ‘judgment’, cognate of English ordeal.

[ back ] 9. Note the combination ἐν … ἀγωνίοις ἀέθλοισι ‘in aethloi [plural of aethlos] of the agōn’ in Pindar Isthmian 5.7.

[ back ] 10. See Chantraine DELG 21; also Loraux 1982.187–188, especially nn84, 87.

[ back ] 11. Quoted Ch. 4§22–23.

[ back ] 12. Cf. Pindar Pythian 4.165.

[ back ] 13. I interpret the word ponos at Pindar Pythian 4.243 as applying to the ordeal of slaying the dragon, not just to the feat of ploughing.

[ back ] 14. See also Bacchylides Epinician 9.8 SM. On aethlos as a generic designation of the Labors of Herakles, see Loraux 1982.186.

[ back ] 15. Also Iliad XIX 133; Odyssey xi 622, 624.

[ back ] 16. On the theme of wrestling with Death incarnate, common in latter-day Greek Demotic folklore, see Alexiou 1974.37–38. In view of the fact that Hades is the prevalent manifestation of the death god in Archaic Greek literature while Thanatos is rare, it is striking that the scholia to Alcestis 1 describe the myth of this drama as ἡ διὰ στόματος καὶ δημώδης ἱστορία ‘the current and popular story’. See Alexiou, p. 5. As H. Pelliccia suggests to me, the expression διὰ στόματος ‘orally, by word of mouth’ conveys the idea that a given theme is current, in currency, as in Xenophon Cyropaedia 1.4.25 and Theocritus 12.21.

[ back ] 17. Cf. the parallel in Phrynichus TGF 2, where Herakles has a wrestling match with Hades (on which see Brelich 1958.102n90, 208).

[ back ] 18. For ponos, see, e.g., Pindar Olympian 5.15, Isthmian 5.25, etc. For kamatos, see, e.g., Pythian 5.47, Nemean 3.17, etc.

[ back ] 19. For ponos, see, e.g., Pindar Pythian 4.236 (ἐξεπόνησεν, applying to Jason’s task of ploughing with the bronze bulls); Pythian 4.243 (the same); Pythian 4.178 (the voyage of the Argo). For kamatos, see, e.g., Nemean 1.70 (the Labors of Herakles). For more on ponos as a heroic struggle, see Loraux 1982.174nn13, 14. For kamatos as heroic ‘fatigue’, see the passages collected by Loraux, p. 183n61. Note too the expression dus-ponos kamatos at Odyssey v 493. On mokhthos ‘struggle’, another synonym of ponos, see Loraux, p. 185.

[ back ] 20. Cf. Ch. 4§3–5.

[ back ] 21. Cf. Ch. 4§7–8.

[ back ] 22. By contest I do not mean to exclude such events as a race to the death. In Plutarch Sympotic Questions 675c, there is a fascinating but all too brief reference to primordial combats to the death at Olympia.

[ back ] 23. Cf. Ch. 4§8–9.

[ back ] 24. Cf. Ch. 4§8–9.

[ back ] 25. Note the formulation of Burnett 1985.42: “The numbers of the chorus generalized the singular success of the victor.” She cites (ibid.) the expression of a collective possession of victory garlands at Bacchylides Epinician 6.8–9 SM (also at Pindar Isthmian 7.38).

[ back ] 26. See Nilsson 1906.462–463 on both the literary and the nonliterary evidence for this athletic festival; also Rohde 1898 I 151n1 (I draw attention to the particularly useful comments toward the end of this note).

[ back ] 27. Cf. Homeric Hymn to Demeter 262–267, with reference to a ritual mock-battle at Eleusis, a quasi-athletic event which was officially held on a seasonally-recurring basis to compensate for the death of the child-hero Demophon (N 1979.184); this mock-battle seems to have been the ritual kernel of a whole complex of events known as the Eleusinian Games (cf. Richardson 1974.246).

[ back ] 28. For more on ponos in such a context, see Loraux 1982.174n14.

[ back ] 29. In this instance I have even suggested at Ch. 4§10 and following that the quasi-athletic aspects of the ordeal of Pelops reflect the chronologically secondary nature of the Olympic chariot race and of the aition that motivates it: they are predicated on the Olympic foot race and on its respective aition.

[ back ] 30. When heroes themselves are represented as engaging in athletics, the narrative tends to treat the event overtly as athletics, not as a life-and-death struggle. I cite the story of the founding of the Nemean Games by the Seven against Thebes, who were the first to participate in the athletic events (e.g., Bacchylides Epinician 9.10–24 SM: see Ch. 4§6–7); also the Funeral Games of Patroklos in Iliad XXIII (in this case, however, the happenings in the athletic events at least latently mirror the life-and-death martial ordeals of the heroes who participate in these events: see Whitman 1958.169).

[ back ] 31. Brelich 1969.242–279; also Vidal-Naquet 1981.197–200 and Vemant 1982–1983.451–456. Cf. Henrichs 1981.198–208. Update in Kahil 1983.

[ back ] 32. The sources are conveniently assembled in Brelich 1969.248–249; cf. also Henrichs 1981.200n2. See Kahil, pp. 237–238 on the iconographic evidence for a sacred footrace, in which young girls run naked; also p. 238 on the sacred dance.

[ back ] 33. This epinician theme of reintegration at home is explored at length by Crotty 1982.104–138 and Slater 1984. Cf. also Kurke 1988.

[ back ] 34. For an explicit reference to singing and dancing: Pindar Pythian 1.1–4; cf. Ch. 3§5–6.

[ back ] 35. Calame 1977; cf. Burnett 1985.50 and 175n6, who surveys a series of passages where the epinician poet equates the chorus with the polis. For a useful survey of festivals serving as contexts for choral performance in the Greek-speaking areas of Italy and Sicily, see Burnett 1988.129–147.

[ back ] 36. See Ch. 5§4–5. Cf. Hubbard 1987b.5–6. At p. 8 he writes: “The chorus in Pindar’s epinicia is never an independent personality in its own right, but is significant mainly as a reflection of community spirit in celebration of the athletic victory or some other object of praise.”

[ back ] 37. Just as the athlete’s compensation is a ponos ‘effort’, so also the poet’s: see Pindar Pythian 9.93 and Paean 7B.22. Also Nemean 7.74, as discussed by Segal 1967.437–439.

[ back ] 38. We may note that the epi– of this formation corresponds to the usage of the preposition epi with the dative case to designate the dead person for whom a given festival of funeral games was celebrated in compensation. See, for example, Ch. 4§5–6.

[ back ] 39. Cf. Ch. 5§4–5. For a working definition of tribal society, see the discussion in N 1987.

[ back ] 40. Discussion in N 1979.5–9, 114–117. It may be that descriptions of the deaths of warriors in Homeric poetry serve as a compensation for the absence of ritual detail in descriptions of the deaths of sacrificial victims. Homeric poetry, as a medium that seems to have reached its synthetic Panhellenic status by virtue of avoiding the parochial concerns of specific locales, specific regions, tends to avoid realistic descriptions of ritual, including ritual sacrifice (N, pp. 118–141). This is to be expected, given that ritual sacrifice—as for that matter any ritual—tends to be a localized phenomenon in Archaic Greece. What sacrificial scenes we do find in Homer are highly stylized, devoid of the kind of details that characterize real sacrifices as documented in the epigraphical evidence (cf. N, pp. 132–134, 217). In real sacrifice the ritual dismemberment of the sacrificial victim corresponds to the ideological articulation of the body politic (cf. Detienne and Svenbro 1979). Moreover, the disarticulation of the body in sacrifice presupposes the rearticulation of the body in myths of immortalization (N, pp. 208–209). Given, then, that Homeric poetry avoids delving into the details of disarticulation as it applies to animals, in that it avoids the Realien of sacrificial practice, we may expect a parallel avoidance of the topic of immortalization for the hero. By contrast the local practices of hero cult, contemporaneous with the evolution of Homeric poetry as we know it, are clearly based on religious notions of heroic immortalization (N, pp. 151–210). While personal immortalization is a theme too localized in orientation for Homeric poetry, the hero’s death in battle, in all its staggering varieties, is universally acceptable. Homeric poetry compensates for its avoidance of details concerning the sacrifices of animals by dwelling on details concerning the martial deaths of heroes. In this way, the epic poetry of the Greeks, in describing the deaths of heroes, seems to serve as a compensation for sacrifice.

[ back ] 41. Cf. N 1987.

[ back ] 42. These terms were inspired by a conversation with J. Wickersham.

[ back ] 43. See Rohde 1898.108–110; also Brelich 1958.144n202; N 1979.115. Cf. the distinction between the generation of Minos and ἀνθρωπηίη γενεή ‘human ancestry’ in Herodotus 3.122.2, as discussed by Darbo-Peschanski 1987.25. The remote ancestors, as distinct from the immediate ancestors, tend to be absorbed into the political genealogies of the city-state’s existing constitution. See, for example, Roussel 1976.68 and 76n21 on the Boutadai, named after the cult hero Boutes. The Reform of Kleisthenes led to the naming of one of the dēmoi ‘demes’, the new social subdivisions of Athens, as Boutadai, which in turn led to the designation Eteoboutadai ‘genuine Boutadai’ to distinguish the genuine lineage from the deme; only one of the two branches of the Eteoboutadai resided in the deme to be called Boutadai at the time of the Reform (ibid.).

[ back ] 44. On the chorus as representative of the polis, cf. again Burnett 1985.50 and 175n6, who surveys a series of passages where the epinician poet equates the chorus with the polis. Parallel to this function of the epinician poet, equating the chorus with the polis, is the function of the athlete himself within the ideology of epinician lyric poetry: as Hubbard 1986.44 notes, “the athletic victor too serves as a private man on a collective mission and […] his victories are just as much an adornment of his city as to himself personally.”

[ back ] 45. The polis of Thebes, myth has it, was founded when the sound of Amphion’s lyre performance literally built the city walls (Hesiod F 182 MW; Pausanias 6.20.18). A related theme is apparent in the etymological connection of Latin mūnus ‘token of reciprocity, duty’ and commūnis ‘communal’ with moenia ‘city walls’. The word kosmos can refer to (1) the ‘arrangement’ of beautiful adornment (Iliad XIV 187), (2) the beautiful ‘arrangement’ or adorned ‘composition’ of a song (as in Pindar F 194 SM; cf. Odyssey viii 489), (3) the ‘arrangement’ or ‘constitution’ of a polis (Herodotus 1.65.4), and later, by extension, (4) the ‘arrangement’ or ‘order’ of the universe (Xenophon Memorabilia 1.1.11). For the connection of this concept of kosmos with that of harmoniā, dramatized in Theognis 15–18 as the Wedding of Kadmos and Harmonia, an alternative myth about the foundation of Thebes, see N 1985.41 §25n2.