Praise? What Praise?

Pindar, Olympian Ode 11

There’s a time when man’s greatest need is wind,
and there’s a time when it’s waters from the sky,
the rainy offspring of clouds.
But when an individual toils and prevails
dulcet hymns are where his future fame begins
and testify to his great achievements.

Lavish is the praise offered up
for Olympic victors. My tongue would lead the way,
but here too, it’s only because of god
a man’s art blossoms.
Now then, son of Archestratus, know this:
Hagesidamus, because of your boxing,

as an adornment of your golden-olives crown
I will shout a sweet song
which recognizes your Western Lokrian tribe.
Go join the revels there, O muses!
I promise you will not encounter a host
unwelcoming and unschooled in beauty,
but one quite wise, and spear-fighting at that.
I can promise, for neither flame-colored fox
nor loud-roaring lions change their natural ways.

ἔστιν ἀνθρώποις ἀνέμων ὅτε πλείστα
χρῆσις, ἔστιν δ᾽ οὐρανίων ὑδάτων,
ὀμβρίων παίδων νεφέλας:
εἰ δὲ σὺν πόνῳ τις εὖ πράσσοι, μελιγάρυες ὕμνοι
ὑστέρων ἀρχὰ λόγων
τέλλεται καὶ πιστὸν ὅρκιον μεγάλαις ἀρεταῖς.
ἀφθόνητος δ᾽ αἶνος Ὀλυμπιονίκαις
οὗτος ἄγκειται. τὰ μὲν ἁμετέρα
γλῶσσα ποιμαίνειν ἐθέλει,
ἐκ θεοῦ δ᾽ ἀνὴρ σοφαῖς ἀνθεῖ πραπίδεσσιν ὁμοίως.
ἴσθι νῦν, Ἀρχεστράτου
παῖ, τεᾶς, Ἁγησίδαμε, πυγμαχίας ἕνεκεν
κόσμον ἐπὶ στεφάνῳ χρυσέας ἐλαίας
ἁδυμελῆ κελαδήσω,
Ζεφυρίων, Λοκρῶν γενεὰν ἀλέγων.
ἔνθα συγκωμάξατ᾽: ἐγγυάσομαι
ὔμμιν, ὦ Μοῖσαι, φυγόξενον στρατὸν
μηδ᾽ ἀπείρατον καλῶν,
ἀκρόσοφον δὲ καὶ αἰχματὰν ἀφίξεσθαι. τὸ γὰρ
ἐμφυὲς οὔτ᾽ αἴθων ἀλώπηξ
οὔτ᾽ ἐρίβρομοι λέοντες διαλλάξαντο ἦθος.

Where’s the Praise?

In Pindar’s cosmos, contingency reigns. Neither wind nor rain, whatever the need, can be counted on. The athlete isn’t assured success (it depends on the god), and if he attains it, his greatest need (an enduring and relied-upon hymn) may go unmet (it too depends on the god). That seems to be the point of the priamel: the athlete, like those who rely on specific weather, might be frustrated in their greatest need.

It’s against this backdrop that we should interpret the singer’s promise to the Muses. It’s not irrelevant that the promise is couched in the language of oaths (ἐγγυάσομαι: I promise, I pledge); after all, the ambitious claims for the hymn were too (πιστὸν ὅρκιον: literally “a reliable oath”). Those claims were of course undermined by the singer’s reminder about contingency.

And so we should read the gnomic statement about fox and lion as also unreliable. Fox and lion are constant, just as the character of Western Lokrians is constant. What the ode has not done is identify a constant in an inconstant world. Rather, claims of predictability should have been sufficiently undermined by now that we hear irony in the lines, or perhaps a test of whether we have absorbed the ode’s lesson.

I ask where’s the praise in the ode, precisely because the singer who questions his ability to hymn the Olympic victor, by extension undermines his praise of the athletes tribe as well.

Black figure vase: two boxers face each other with hands held high
Black figure amphora.
Athens, 550-500 BCE.
British Museum.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at

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