Pindar’s Verbal Art: An Ethnographic Study of Epinician Style

  Wells, James Bradley. 2010. Pindar's Verbal Art: An Enthnographic Study of Epinician Style. Hellenic Studies Series 40. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


The line outside the bus starts with Iris. Behind her stands the widow of the pastor in Michigan who died after being hit by a car, could Lance write a letter to be read at the funeral? Behind her stand the parents of a twelve-year-old Pennsylvania boy wondering if Armstrong might have a minute to make a phone call. Behind them stand still others, more and more every day, every minute, like the parents in France who wrapped up their sick child in a white blanket and met Armstrong in a field. Could Lance just touch him on the forehead, just once? Please?

Daniel Coyle, Lance Armstrong’s War

No less an authority on matters of cool than former Clash road manager Johnny Green describes cycling as the new rock ‘n’ roll in his book Push Yourself Just a Little Bit More, and it is all thanks to Lance Armstrong. Lance’s association with Nike, and black and white publicity photos showing just the kind of square jaw line and intense look which play particularly well among the younger demographic have promoted him to A-list celebrity status.

Cycle Sport Magazine

High/low, elite/popular, exclusive/inclusive—the figure of Lance Armstrong collapses such binary oppositions. As a person who has not only survived cancer but has also attained the highest achievements in the most prestigious professional cycling event in the world, his presence and, better, his touch evidently convey a healing, talismanic power for many. For many, Armstrong is an inspiration. He is also a media magnet, a high-end spokesperson, and a brand. This is certainly not the place for developing a cultural analysis of Lance Armstrong, but if one were to undertake such a project, to exclude the low, the popular, the inclusive from the Armstrong field of cultural production would betray an analytical bias that further indexes the ideological predisposition(s) of the interpreter.

Returning to the question of what the word kômos can tell us about epinician performance, in my Introduction I argued that Malcom Heath’s study (1988) of the word is inadequate on methodological grounds for determining whether Pindar refers to the khoros when he uses kômos. However, as a study of kômos per se, Heath’s analysis confirms the widely recognized application of the word to “a ritualistic, drunken procession” (Rothwell 2007:7). From the point of view of ideology rather than methodology, what is really at issue in the choral-monody debate is the resistance to linking popular cultural life with epinician art in order to preserve the exclusive, “high art” status of epinikion. So the monodists in the choral-monody debate posit a solo mode of performance for epinikion rather than associate it with the unbecoming low behavior characterized by our understanding of kômos, and the choralists maintain that for Pindar a kômos is not that kind of kômos, but a khoros.

The opposition between an oral and written Pindar correlates to the opposition between a popular and elite Pindar. Indeed, Hermann Fränkel, describing the inclusive and exclusive dimensions of Pindar’s art, has argued both that epinikion involved “festal public performance” and that “the text became an heirloom in the family” (1973:429). These widely recognized views assume two kinds of audience: popular and exclusive. Kurke has characterized the complexity of Pindar’s audience in the following way (1991:260):

[T]he uneasy balance of different interest groups in the audience—the individual house, the Panhellenic aristocracy, and the city—is itself the result of profound historical developments in this period. Pindar’s era was heir to the crisis of the aristocracy, the last flowering of tyranny, the rise of the democratic polis, and the shift from a premonetary to a money economy. Such social turbulence demands sophisticated poetic strategies. Pindar responds with a densely layered text that simultaneously evokes many different, even competing, symbolic systems and ideologies.

While New Historicists such as Kurke, Dougherty, and Nicholson have made impressive contributions to our understanding of the cultural poetics of commemorating athletic victories in ancient Greece, the popular dimensions of epinikion remain underserved by students of Pindar. If it is true that “as a newcomer, the victory ode needed to validate itself to its diverse audience in order to be able to perform its social function” (Kurke 1991:259), then it is necessary to discover the inclusive dimensions of Pindar’s art in order to develop a well-rounded cultural poetics. Nicholson notes that fluency in the conventions of victory songs “must have restricted their reach to the elites, but it is clear from their content, as well as from the testimony that Pindar’s ode to Diagoras of Rhodes [Olympian 7] was dedicated to the temple of Lindian Athena, that they were directed to members of the victor’s city, not just his friends and clan” (2005:11). [
2] The point is well made, but not developed further, since Nicholson’s study explores the elite interests served by the public display of victory memorials. A similar gap exists in one of Kurke’s most productive insights about ancient Greece: the talismanic quality of the victorious athlete and the “economy of kûdos,” where she defines kudos as “magical potency in battle” (1993:133; cf. Currie 2005:128–129). It would seem that the economy of kudos entails popular dimensions, since “[t]he city…rewards [the returning athlete] for his victory with a lavish reentry rite, crowns and fillets, the lifelong privilege of eating in the prytaneion, large monetary awards, special front-row seats in the theater, and sometimes a statue set up at public expense in the city or at the site of the games” (1993:141). But Kurke finally argues that “we must ground our cultural poetics in a politics and see the phenomenon of kudos as an attempt by the aristocracy to lay claim to special power within the polis” (1993:153).

While there are many parallels between my criticism of approaches to the study of epinician performance and Bakhtin’s criticisms of scholarship on the novel, I cite here an example that highlights stylistics, which along with speech and performance has been central to Pindar’s Verbal Art (Bakhtin 1981:263):

Such a combining of languages and styles into a higher unity is unknown to traditional stylistics; it has no method for approaching the distinctive social dialogue among languages that is present in the novel. Thus stylistic analysis is not oriented toward the novel as a whole, but only toward one or another of its subordinated stylistic unities. The traditional scholar bypasses the basic distinctive feature of the novel as a genre; he substitutes for it another object of study, and instead of novelistic style he actually analyzes something completely different. He transposes a symphonic (orchestrated) theme on to the piano keyboard.

This criticism of “traditional stylistics” occurs in the context of Bakhtin’s description of heteroglossia and the dialogical quality of style in the novel. [
5] In a similar vein, I have variously argued that conventional exegesis is ill-equipped to describe the polyphonic and multivalent language of Pindar’s art: exegesis simply starts from the wrong set of questions, treating epinikion as a written form of art rather than a spoken one, privileging the referential function of language over the poetic function of language, siding with historical conjecture over and against historical practice, and, finally, treating an art form with significant popular dimensions strictly as a form of high literature. From the perspective of a practice-centered and ethnographically grounded philology, the text-artifact of Pindar’s epinikia is a record of communication occurring between the epinician composer-performer Pindar and his audience via the channel of a chorus. The study of Pindar’s epinikia then begins with the description of epinician language as a special way of speaking dedicated to epinician performance. The purpose of Pindar’s Verbal Art has been to lay the groundwork for such a performance- and practice-centered description of epinician language. On the basis of this description, I find that epinikion is a novelistic form of traditional discourse. As I have already stated, I do not claim that epinikion belongs to the genre of the novel, but that it is a mode of communicative practice that is immanently grounded in its ambient present, characterized by flux and open-endedness, and replete with parodic moments and heteroglossia, which are crucially constitutive features of the novel for Bakhtin.

The vantage point that the study of Pindar’s poetry offers on the project of classical philology ultimately drives my interest in epinician poetics, so that Pindar’s Verbal Art is as much about philology as it is about Pindar. My approach to classical philology is that it is the endeavor to describe the social practices recorded in ancient texts. Because ancient texts are records of past cultural contexts, philology always entails history: there are historical factors shaping the evidence and how an analyst encounters it historically; there is temporal distance between the context recorded in ancient texts and the context of encounter with those ancient texts; and the doing of history, understood as a metadiscursive re-presentation of past events to a contemporary audience, is embedded in the process of philological analysis. Classical philology is for me the study concomitantly of history and of culture through the language records produced by communities. From this point of view philology takes in under its analytical purview two overlapping fields of investigation: discourse as historical record and discourse as record of culture. A difference in attitude toward events, discourses, and the relationships between them distinguishes history in an outside-in approach to context from history in a practice approach to the study of culture. History in exegesis considers how events, discourses, and the relationships between them inform the production of a narrative historiography that recounts a chronological sequence of events. The cultural poetics of New Historicism has focused on the exclusive dimensions of epinikion as coin in a gift economy or as a vehicle for promoting aristocratic ideology. History from a practice perspective, however, treats events, discourses, and the relationships between them as cultural systems at once socially situated in local contexts and related to other contexts, including the historical context of philological analysis itself.


[ back ] 1. Pfeijffer sustains this oral/low and epinikion/high opposition in his explanation of what he calls the “polyinterpretability” of Pindar’s songs, which “ties in with his general tendency to present his odes as if they were spontaneous, informal celebration, created at the very spot, rather than the intricate, well rehearsed performances that they were” (1999a:25–26, my emphasis). In his “close reading” of Olympian 12 Silk asserts the “elevated” quality of Pindar’s poetry, arguing that this “elevation is, and is shown to be, the linguistic corollary of its aristocratic ideology” (2007:180).

[ back ] 2. Kurke 1991:5 also discusses this episode as an indication of the popular dimension of Pindar’s audience. Thomas has recently posed a serious challenge to the view that epinikion is aligned with aristocratic ideology in opposition to democratic ideology: “It is clear that the Pindaric victory ode is a phenomenon mainly devoted to the aristocratic and wealthy elite of Greece, and celebrates what are essentially aristocratic values, aretê, beauty, athletic prowess. But it is worth remembering that the Athenian people applied just the same set of aristocratic ideals to itself, to the democratic dêmos. There is also little sign of much self-conscious democratic ideology (though much anti-tyrant feeling), at least in the early stages of the democracy. The idea that these values were deliberately elevated by Pindar in antagonism to the new democratic ideas seems stretched” (2007:142). Kurke 2007:157–158 has recently explored the differing rhetorical strategies of epinikia for elite tyrants and those for middling private citizens.

[ back ] 3. In a similar vein Mackie describes how the epinician composer “must also worry about how the victor will react to what he has to say” (2003:27–36).

[ back ] 4. This double-voicedness of kharis serves the “double-project” that victory memorials fulfill; as Nicholson puts it: “the need to justify the continuing political power of the aristocrats to both the aristocrats themselves and the wider community” (2005:16). I would, in addition, call attention to the carnivalesque quality of the parodic representations of athletic victory, as described by Nicholson (2005:15): “The meaning of an athletic victory was neither self-evident nor uncontested: that it was the pinnacle of human achievement, a sign of supreme virtue and divine favor, and a boon to the victor’s civic community had to be established, and had to be established against very different versions of its meaning. Some of these versions survive—such as the elegies of Xenophanes of Colophon and Tyrtaeus of Sparta that deny the usefulness of a champion athlete to the good government and military security of his city, or the vases that ridicule the aristocratic ideals of fairness and nobility by depicting pancratiasts gouging their opponents’ eyes and boxers punching their genitals—but such evidence only hints at the size of the crisis threatening aristocratic athletics”; see Nicholson 2005:222n84 for testimonia and sources.

[ back ] 5. For recent examples of traditional stylistics see Pfeijffer 1999a:22–54, Hornblower 2004:354–372 (comparing Thucydides and Pindar), and Fearn 2007:219–225 (Bakkhulides).