Writings of Henry David Thoreau (1906)/Volume 5/Translations from Pindar

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For works with similar titles, see Translations from Pindar.

Thoreau translated select passages taken primarily from the Odes of Pindar, as well as some fragments which survive only as quotations in the works of other ancient writers.


Olympia ii, 109–150

Equally by night always,
And by day, having the sun, the good
Lead a life without labor, not disturbing the earth
With violent hands, nor the sea water,
For a scanty living; but honored
By the gods, who take pleasure in fidelity to oaths,
They spend a tearless existence;
While the others suffer unsightly pain.
But as many as endured threefold
Probation, keeping the mind from all
Injustice, going the way of Zeus to Kronos' tower,
Where the ocean breezes blow around
The island of the blessed; and flowers of gold shine,
Some on the land from dazzling trees,
And the water nourishes others;
With garlands of these they crown their hands and hair,
According to the just decrees of Rhadamanthus,
Whom Father Kronos, the husband of Rhea,
Having the highest throne of all, has ready by himself as his assistant judge.
Peleus and Kadmus are regarded among these;
And his mother brought Achilles, when she had
Persuaded the heart of Zeus with prayers,
Who overthrew Hector, Troy's
Unconquered, unshaken column, and gave Cycnus
To death, and Morning's Æthiop son.

Olympia v, 34–39

Always around virtues labor and expense strive toward a work
Covered with danger; but those succeeding seem to be wise even to the citizens.

Olympia vi, 14–17

Dangerless virtues,
Neither among men, nor in hollow ships,
Are honorable; but many remember if a fair deed is done.

Olympia vii, 100–129

Ancient sayings of men relate,
That when Zeus and the Immortals divided earth,
Rhodes was not yet apparent in the deep sea;
But in salt depths the island was hid.
And, Helios being absent, no one claimed for him his lot;
So they left him without any region for his share,
The pure god. And Zeus was about to make a second drawing of lots
For him warned. But he did not permit him;
For he said that within the white sea he had seen a certain land
springing up from the bottom,
Capable of feeding many men, and suitable for flocks.
And straightway he commanded golden-filleted Lachesis
To stretch forth her hands, and not contradict
The great oath of the gods, but with the son of Kronos
Assent that, to the bright air being sent by his nod,
It should hereafter be his prize. And his words were fully performed,
Meeting with truth. The island sprang from the watery
Sea; and the genial Father of penetrating beams,
Ruler of fire-breathing horses, has it.

Olympia viii, 95, 96

A man doing fit things
Forgets Hades.

Olympia x, 59–68

He named the Hill of Kronos, for before nameless,
While Œnomaus ruled, it was moistened with much snow;
And at this first rite the Fates stood by,
And Time, who alone proves
Unchanging truth.

Olympia vii, 100–129

With the javelin Phrastor struck the mark;
And Eniceus cast the stone afar,
Whirling his hand, above them all,
And with applause it rushed
Through a great tumult;
And the lovely evening light
Of the fair-faced moon shone on the scene.

Olympia vii, 100–129

When, having done fair things, O Agesidamus,
Without the reward of song, a man may come
To Hades' rest, vainly aspiring
He obtains with toil some short delight.
But the sweet-voiced lyre
And the sweet flute bestow some favor;
For Zeus' Pierian daughters
Have wide fame.


Olympia xiv

O ye, who inhabit for your lot the seat of the Cephisian
Streams, yielding fair steeds, renowned Graces,
Ruling bright Orchomenos,
Protectors of the ancient race of Minyæ,
Hear, when I pray.
For with you are all pleasant
And sweet things to mortals;
If wise, if fair, if noble,
Any man. For neither do the gods,
Without the august Graces,
Rule the dance,
Nor feasts; but stewards
Of all works in heaven,
Having placed their seats
By golden-bowed Pythian Apollo,
They reverence the eternal power
Of the Olympian Father.
August Aglaia and song-loving
Euphrosyne, children of the mightiest god,
Hear now, and Thalia loving song,
Beholding this band, in favorable fortune
Lightly dancing; for in Lydian
Manner meditating,
I come celebrating Asopichus,
Since Minya by thy means is victor at the Olympic games.
Now to Persephone's
Black-walled house go, Echo,
Bearing to his father the famous news;
That seeing Gleodamus thou mayest say,
That in renowned Pisa's vale
His son crowned his young hair
With plumes of illustrious contests.

Pythia i, 8–11

Thou extinguishest even the spear-like bolt
Of everlasting fire. And the eagle sleeps on the sceptre of Zeus,
Drooping his swift wings on either side,
The king of birds.

Pythia i, 25–28

Whatever things Zeus has not loved
Are terrified, hearing
The voice of the Pierians,
On earth and the immeasurable sea.

Pythia ii, 159–161

A plain-spoken man brings advantage to every government,—
To a monarchy, and when the
Impetuous crowd, and when the wise, rule a city.

As a whole, the third Pythian Ode, to Hiero, on his victory in the single-horse race, is one of the most memorable. We extract first the account of

Pythia iii, 83–110

As many, therefore, as came suffering
From spontaneous ulcers, or wounded
In their limbs with glittering steel,
Or with the far-cast stone,
Or by the summer's heat o'ercome in body,
Or by winter, relieving he saved from
Various ills; some cherishing
With soothing strains,
Others having drunk refreshing draughts, or applying
Remedies to the limbs, others by cutting off he made erect.
But even wisdom is bound by gain,
And gold appearing in the hand persuaded even him, with its bright reward,
To bring a man from death
Already overtaken. But the Kronian, smiting
With both hands, quickly took away
The breath from his breasts;
And the rushing thunderbolt hurled him to death.
It is necessary for mortal minds
To seek what is reasonable from the divinities,
Knowing what is before the feet, of what destiny we are.
Do not, my soul, aspire to the life
Of the Immortals, but exhaust the practicable means.

In the conclusion of the ode, the poet reminds the victor, Hiero, that adversity alternates with prosperity in the life of man, as in the instance of

Pythia iii, 145–205

The Immortals distribute to men
With one good two
Evils. The foolish, therefore,
Are not able to bear these with grace,
But the wise, turning the fair outside.

But thee the lot of good fortune follows,
For surely great Destiny
Looks down upon a king ruling the people,
If on any man. But a secure life
Was not to Peleus, son of Æacus,
Nor to godlike Cadmus,
Who yet are said to have had
The greatest happiness
Of mortals, and who heard
The song of the golden-filleted Muses,
On the mountain, and in seven-gated Thebes,
When the one married fair-eyed Harmonia,
And the other Thetis, the illustrious daughter of wise-counseling Nereus.
And the gods feasted with both;
And they saw the royal children of Kronos
On golden seats, and received
Marriage gifts; and having exchanged
Former toils for the favor of Zeus,
They made erect the heart.
But in course of time
His three daughters robbed the one
Of some of his serenity by acute
Sufferings; when Father Zeus, forsooth, came
To the lovely couch of white-armed Thyone.
And the other's child, whom only the immortal
Thetis bore in Phthia, losing
His life in war by arrows,
Being consumed by fire excited
The lamentation of the Danaans.
But if any mortal has in his
Mind the way of truth,
It is necessary to make the best
Of what befalls from the blessed.
For various are the blasts
Of high-flying winds.
The happiness of men stays not a long time,
Though fast it follows rushing on.

Humble in humble estate, lofty in lofty,
I will be; and the attending dæmon
I will always reverence in my mind,
Serving according to my means.
But if Heaven extend to me kind wealth,
I have hope to find lofty fame hereafter.
Nestor and Lycian Sarpedon—
They are the fame of men—
From resounding words which skillful artists
Sung, we know.
For virtue through renowned
Song is lasting.
But for few is it easy to obtain.

Pythia v, 87–90

He bestowed the lyre,
And he gives the muse to whom he wishes,
Bringing peaceful serenity to the breast.

Pythia viii, 136

The phantom of a shadow are men.

Pythia ix, 31–44

He reared the white-armed child Cyrene,
Who loved neither the alternating motion of the loom,
Nor the superintendence of feasts,
With the pleasures of companions;
But, with javelins of steel
And the sword contending,
To slay wild beasts;
Affording surely much
And tranquil peace to her father's herds;
Spending little sleep
Upon her eyelids,
As her sweet bedfellow, creeping on at dawn.

Pythia x, 33–48

Fortunate and celebrated
By the wise is that man
Who, conquering by his hands or virtue
Of his feet, takes the highest prizes
Through daring and strength,
And living still sees his youthful son
Deservedly obtaining Pythian crowns.
The brazen heaven is not yet accessible to him.
But whatever glory we
Of mortal race may reach,
He goes beyond, even to the boundaries
Of navigation. But neither in ships, nor going on foot,
Couldst thou find the wonderful way to the contests of the Hyperboreans.

Nemea iii, 32–37

If, being beautiful,
And doing things like to his form,
The child of Aristophanes
Went to the height of manliness, no further
Is it easy to go over the untraveled sea,
Beyond the Pillars of Hercules.

Nemea iii, 69–90

One with native virtues
Greatly prevails; but he who
Possesses acquired talents, an obscure man,
Aspiring to various things, never with fearless
Foot advances, but tries
A myriad virtues with inefficient mind.
Yellow-haired Achilles, meanwhile, remaining in the house of Philyra,
Being a boy played
Great deeds; often brandishing
Iron-pointed javelins in his hands,
Swift as the winds, in fight he wrought death to savage lions;
And he slew boars, and brought their bodies
Palpitating to Kronian Centaurus,
As soon as six years old. And all the while
Artemis and bold Athene admired him,
Slaying stags without dogs or treacherous nets;
For he conquered them on foot.

Nemea iv, 66–70

Whatever virtues sovereign destiny has given me,
I well know that time, creeping on,
Will fulfill what was fated.

Nemea v, 1–8

The kindred of Pytheas, a victor in the Nemean games, had wished to procure an ode from Pindar for less than three drachmæ, asserting that they could purchase a statue for that sum. In the following lines he nobly reproves their meanness, and asserts the value of his labors, which, unlike those of the statuary, will bear the fame of the hero to the ends of the earth.

No image-maker am I, who being still make statues
Standing on the same base. But on every
Merchant-ship and in every boat, sweet song,
Go from Ægina to announce that Lampo's son,
Mighty Pytheas,
Has conquered the pancratian crown at the Nemean games.

Nemea vi, 1–13

One the race of men and of gods;
And from one mother
We all breathe.
But quite different power
Divides us, so that the one is nothing,
But the brazen heaven remains always
A secure abode. Yet in some respect we are related,
Either in mighty mind or form, to the Immortals;
Although not knowing
To what resting-place,
By day or night, Fate has written that we shall run.

Nemea viii, 44–51

In secret votes the Danaans aided Ulysses;
And Ajax, deprived of golden arms, struggled with death.
Surely, wounds of another kind they wrought
In the warm flesh of their foes, waging war
With the man-defending spear.

Nemea viii, 68–75

Virtue increases, being sustained by wise men and just,
As when a tree shoots up with gentle dews into the liquid air.
There are various uses of friendly men;
But chiefest in labors; and even pleasure
Requires to place some pledge before the eyes.

Nemea ix, 41–66

Once they led to seven-gated Thebes an army of men,
not according
To the lucky flight of birds. Nor did the Kronian,
Brandishing his lightning, impel to march
From home insane, but to abstain from the way.
But to apparent destruction
The host made haste to go, with brazen arms
And horse equipments, and on the banks
Of Ismenus, defending sweet return,
Their white-flowered bodies fattened fire.
For seven pyres devoured young-limbed
Men. But to Amphiaraus
Zeus rent the deep-bosomed earth
With his mighty thunderbolt,
And buried him with his horses,
Ere, being struck in the back
By the spear of Periclymenus, his warlike
Spirit was disgraced.
For in dæmonic fears
Flee even the sons of gods.

Nemea x, 153–171

Pollux, son of Zeus, shared his immortality with his brother Castor, son of Tyndarus, and while one was in heaven, the other remained in the infernal regions, and they alternately lived and died every day, or, as some say, every six months. While Castor lies mortally wounded by Idas, Pollux prays to Zeus, either to restore his brother to life, or permit him to die with him, to which the god answers,—

Nevertheless, I give thee
Thy choice of these: if, indeed, fleeing
Death and odious age,
You wish to dwell on Olympus,
With Athene and black-speared Mars,
Thou hast this lot;
But if thou thinkest to fight
For thy brother, and share
All things with him,
Half the time thou mayest breathe, being beneath the earth,
And half in the golden halls of heaven.
The god thus having spoken, he did not
Entertain a double wish in his mind.
And he released first the eye, and then the voice,
Of brazen-mitred Castor.

Isthmia i, 65–71

One reward of labors is sweet to one man, one to another,—
To the shepherd, and the plower, and the bird-catcher,
And whom the sea nourishes.
But every one is tasked to ward off
Grievous famine from the stomach.

Isthmia ii, 9–18

Then the Muse was not
Fond of gain, nor a laboring woman;
Nor were the sweet-sounding,
Soothing strains
Of Terpsichore sold,
With silvered front.
But now she directs to observe the saying
Of the Argive, coming very near the truth,
Who cried, "Money, money, man,"
Being bereft of property and friends.

Isthmia vi, 62–73

"If ever, O Father Zeus, thou hast heard
My supplication with willing mind,
Now I beseech thee, with prophetic
Prayer, grant a bold son from Eribœa
To this man, my fated guest;
Rugged in body
As the hide of this wild beast
Which now surrounds me, which, first of all
My contests, I slew once in Nemea; and let his mind agree."
To him thus having spoken, Heaven sent
A great eagle, king of birds,
And sweet joy thrilled him inwardly.


First at Artemisium
The children of the Athenians laid the shining
Foundation of freedom,
And at Salamis and Mycale,
And in Platæa, making it firm
As adamant.


Having risen he went
Over land and sea,
And stood over the vast summits of mountains,
And threaded the recesses, penetrating to the foundations of the groves.


Heaven being willing, even on an osier thou mayest sail.
[Thus rhymed by the old translator of Plutarch:
"Were it the will of heaven, an osier bough
Were vessel safe enough the seas to plough."]


Honors and crowns of the tempest-footed
Horses delight one;
Others live in golden chambers;
And some even are pleased traversing securely
The swelling of the sea in a swift ship.


This I will say to thee:
The lot of fair and pleasant things
It behooves to show in public to all the people;
But if any adverse calamity sent from heaven befall
Men, this it becomes to bury in darkness.

Pindar said of the physiologists, that they "plucked the unripe fruit of wisdom."

Pindar said that "hopes were the dreams of those awake."


To Heaven it is possible from black
Night to make arise unspotted light,
And with cloud-blackening darkness to obscure
The pure splendor of day.

First, indeed, the Fates brought the wise-counseling
Uranian Themis, with golden horses,
By the fountains of Ocean to the awful ascent
Of Olympus, along the shining way,
To be the first spouse of Zeus the Deliverer.
And she bore the golden-filleted, fair-wristed
Hours, preservers of good things.

Equally tremble before God
And a man dear to God.


Pindar used such exaggerations [in praise of poetry] as to say that even the gods themselves, when at his marriage Zeus asked if they wanted anything, "asked him to make certain gods for them who should celebrate these great works and all his creation with speech and song."

  1. [This and the following are fragments of Pindar found in ancient authors.]