Pindar and Anacreon/Pindar/Olympic Odes/1

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In this ode Pindar, who, together with other bards, was probably at this time a guest at the royal table, sets forth in a beautiful strain of poetry the glory and superiority of the Olympic contest, in which Hiero has been victorious, to all other games; he then digresses to the history of Pelops, son of Tantalus, who formerly possessed Pisa and Olympia, and is now honoured as a hero within the sacred grove Altis. Returning to his principal subject, he concludes the ode with good wishes for the continued prosperity of the victor.

Note.—The inner number, placed at the end of the several paragraphs, shows the corresponding line of the original.

Water with purest virtue flows;[1]
And as the fire's resplendent light
Dispels the murky gloom of night,
The meaner treasures of the mine
With undistinguish'd lustre shine 5
Where gold irradiate glows.


Thus too when flames the orb of day
The anxious eye in vain would soar
Along the desert air,
Intently gazing to explore10
Another star whose lustre fair
Shines with a warmer ray.
And we will sing in loftiest strain
The contest of Olympia's plain;
Whence, Saturn's mighty son to praise,15
Poets the hymn of triumph raise,
To Hiero's festal dome who bend their way. 17

The monarch whose supreme command
In Sicily's prolific land
The righteous sceptre sways,20
Culling the pride of every flower
That blooms in Virtue's hallow'd bower;
A wreath of highest praise.
While music adds a brighter gem
To gild the regal diadem,25
When poets' sportive songs around
His hospitable board resound. 26

Then from its lofty station freed
Quickly seize the Dorian lyre,
If Pisa or the victor steed,30
Ne'er doom'd beneath the scourge to bleed
The mind with sweetest cares inspire.
When by Alpheus urged, his flight
Exalts his lord with conquering might,
In Syracuse who holds his reign,35
And loves the generous horse to train. 36
Such too his fame and lustre high
From Lydian Pelops' colony;[2]
Whom earth-encircling Neptune loved,
When from the glowing caldron's round,40
His arm with ivory shoulder crown'd,
Clotho the newborn youth removed.
So much to fabled lore we trace—
For wrapp'd in varied falsehood's veil
Full oft the legendary tale45
Can win to faith the mortal mind,
While truth's unvarnish'd maxims fail
To leave her stamp behind. 47

When from poetic tongue
The honey'd accents fall,50
Howe'er from monstrous fiction sprung,
They win their unsuspected way,
And grace disguises all,
Till some far-distant day
Render the dark illusion plain.55
Yet not to mortal lips be given
By tales unworthy to profane
The majesty of Heaven. 57

Offspring of Tantalus! my strain
A different story shall record;60
How to the genial board
Thy father call'd each heavenly guest,
To share the blameless feast,
With grateful hands upon the head
Of his dear Sipylus outspread.[3]65

'Twas then, by fond desire subdued,
Thy form the trident bearer view'd,
And whirl'd thee on his golden steeds above
To the high palace of immortal Jove;
Where Ganymede in days of yore70
The same illustrious office bore. 71

But when the long inquiring train
Had sought their absent charge in vain
To his fond mother to restore,
The slanderous whisper circled round75
That in the fervid wave profound,
Hewn by the sword, his limbs were cast,
And to the lords of heaven supplied a sweet repast!

But far the impious thought from me
To tax the bless'd with gluttony;80
For well I know that pains await
The lips that slanderous tales relate.
If the great gods who on Olympus dwell
High favour e'er on man bestow'd
Above the undistinguish'd crowd,85
To Tantalus the lot of honour fell.
But ah! too feeble to digest [4]
The raptures of the heavenly feast,
His haughty soul incensed to ire
The might of his immortal sire;90
Who o'er his head a massy rock
Suspended,[5] that with direful shock
Threatens to crush him from on high,
And scare his proud felicity. 94

Thus still in unavailing strife95
He drags a weary load of life,
The fourth sad instance of destructive pride [6]
Whose hand th' ambrosial food convey'd
(Which had himself immortal made)
To earthly guests beside.100
Then hope not, mortal, e'er to shun
The penetrating eye of Heaven;
For lo! the rash offender's son
Far from the happy haunts is driven
To join his kindred shortlived train,105
And wander o'er the earth again. 108

But when the thick and manly down
His black'ning chin began to crown,
From Pisa's lord he seeks to prove
Highborn Hippodamia's love.110
Full often near the hoary flood
The solitary lover stray'd,
And shrouded in nocturnal shade,
Invoked the trident-bearing god;
Who, ready the loud call to greet,115
Stood near the youthful suppliant's feet—
When thus he spoke: "If fond desire,
Neptune, could e'er thy bosom fire,
Œnomaus' brazen spear restrain,
And whirl me on thy swiftest car120
Victorious to th' Elean plain,
Since conquer'd in the rival war
Thirteen ill-fated suitors lie,[7]
And still the sire delays his daughter's nuptial tie.

Nor think I bear a coward soul125
Which every danger can control;
Since all the common path must tread
That leads each mortal to the dead,
Say wherefore should inglorious age
Creep slow o'er youth's inactive bloom,130
And sinking in untimely gloom,
Should man desert life's busy stage
To lie unhonour'd in the tomb?
This strife be mine: and thou, whose might
Can bless the issue of the fight,135
Oh! grant me thy propitious aid."
'Twas thus the ardent lover pray'd;
Nor sued with supplication vain
The mighty ruler of the main;
Who, mounted on his golden car,140
And steeds' unwearied wing,
Gave him to conquer in the war
The force of Pisa's king.
Obtaining thus the virgin fair,
Her valiant hero's couch to share;145
From whom six noble chieftains born,
With warlike fame their stem adorn:
Now by Alpheus' stream he lies,
Bless'd with funereal obsequies,
And every rite divine;150
Where strangers' feet innumerous tread
The precincts of the mighty dead,
Is rear'd his hallow'd shrine.
At distance beams his glory's ray
Conspicuous in Olympia's fray,155
Where strength and swiftness join in arduous strife:
And round the victor's honour'd head
The verdant wreath of conquest spread,
Heightens with bliss the sweet remains of life.159

Such bliss as mortals call supreme,160
Which with its mild, perpetual beam
Cheers every future day:
And such my happy lot to grace
His triumphs in the equestrian race
With soft Æolian lay.[8]165
Nor will the muse another find
Among the bless'd of human kind
More potent or in regal fame,
Or arts that raise a monarch's name,
For whom she rather would prolong170
The rich varieties of song.
The god who makes thy cares his own,
Thee, Hiero, still with favour crown.
And soon, if his protecting love
Not vain and transitory prove,175
I hope to find on Cronium's sunny height [9]
A sweeter vehicle of song
To publish, as it rolls along,
Thy rapid chariot's flight.
For me the muse with vigorous art180
Prepares her most puissant dart.179


While men in various paths their efforts bend
The steep of glory to ascend,
Sublime above the rest on high
Glitters the orb of majesty.185
No further then thy wishes raise,
Supreme in glory as in praise,
Long be it thine to tread:
Meanwhile my hymn's triumphant strain,
That celebrates the victor train,190
Exalts through Greece thy bard's illustrious head.


  1. In the Thalesian philosophy water was considered the most excellent of all the elements, as that to which all other things owed their origin. This opinion Plutarch (de Iside et Osiride) considers that Homer as well as Thales borrowed from the Egyptians. Juno, in the Iliad, b. xiv., v. 200, tells Venus, and afterward repeats it to Jupiter, that she came to visit the extremities of the earth, and Ocean, the progenitor of the gods, and their mother Tethys.
  2. A temple was erected to Pelops in the Altis, or sacred grove, which had been fenced from profane tread by Hercules, (see Ol. x, 62.) near to that of Jupiter at Olympia. Hence the story of Pelops is less episodical, and has a closer connection with the poet's subject than might at first appear.

    Within the precincts of the Altis was planted the sacred olive tree, called callistephanos, from which victors in the Olympic games were crowned.

  3. It was on the top of this mountain that, in a later age, Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus, melted away into her shower of snowy tears. See the exquisite description of Sophocles—(Antig. 824—833. ;) also that of Ovid—(Met. vi. 301—312.)
  4. Hesiod (Theog. 638, et seq.) declares that the same effects of pride and insolence were wrught on the minds of the Titans after they had been allowed to partake of the divine aliments:—

    "Their spirits nectar and ambrosia raise."
    Cooke's Version.

    Might not this fable, which is also related, almost in the words of Pindar, by the scholiast on the Odyssey, (iv. 58.,) owe its origin to some obscure tradition of the gathering of manna by the Israelites in the wilderness, when man did eat angels' food?

  5. Lucretius, in his magnificent description of infernal punishments (iii. 991, seq.,) appears to have had this passage in his mind, when he says,

    "Nec miser impendens magnum timet, aëre, saxum
    Tantalus, ut fama est, cassa formidine torpens;
    Sed magis in vita Divom metus urguet."

    Our own Spenser, too, has the same allusion, speaking of old Malbeceo, who lives

    "In drery darkenes, and continuall feare
    Of that rock's fall; which ever and anon
    Threates with huge ruine him to fall upon,
    That he dare never slepee."
    Faery Queene.

  6. The other three being Sisiphus, Tityus, and Ixion.
  7. The same number of Trojans are related by Homer to have been slain by Diomed in his celebrated night expedition, (Il. x. 493, &c.,) the last of whom is Rhesus himself.

    The scholiast on this passage gives us two catalogues of their names.

  8. I.e. Dorian; for the Dorians and Æolians were descended from a common origin: see v. 30.
  9. Pausanias (l. vi.) informs us that the Croman or Saturnian hill at Olympia rose above the Altis, so as to command a full view of the course.