Pindar’s epinician poems, sung in praise of victorious athletes and other competitors at the four stephanitic (crown) competitions, are an invaluable source of information about elite Greek athletic culture. Describing the lineages, achievements, and mythical connections of those who won at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia, Pindar’s works powerfully demonstrate the ways athletics both fit within and spanned broader aspects of Greek culture. Myth and religion, politics and power, beauty and economics, folk wisdom and philosophy—all blend together in these highly lyrical and at times striking poems.
Although Pindar was widely celebrated and revered in ancient times, his ornate style can seem bizarre, if not entirely opaque, to modern readers. His ideas and imagery quickly oscillate between being dense and free-floating, specific and general, historical and mythical—all within an elevated poetic register that was difficult to construe even to original audiences.
Despite these obvious differences, in some respects Pindar’s poetry is strikingly modern—especially when we recall that in Pindar’s time (the early fifth-century BCE), poetry in Greek was typically performed, not written or read, and was accompanied by music. Despite the high-flown and archaic language, in many ways Pindar stands closer to Kendrick Lamar than he does to Shakespeare. And, much like popular recorded music today, in the oral culture of Pindar’s time, songs could be an athlete’s ticket to enduring, and international fame. Talented poets like Pindar commanded substantial fees for their work, and students in this class, too, have the chance to “earn” more on this assignment through live performance.
Inspired by Pindar’s style but praising an individual athlete (sorry, no teams!) from our contemporary world, write your own brief (ideally, 1–2 page, or 30–50 line) praise poem that includes several of the stylistic features discussed in class, including (but not limited to): metaphor, extended similes, mythic paradigms, ascending tricola, topical references, etc. Regardless of the specific techniques used, students should attempt to follow Pindar in being most striking when simple words are arranged in some novel, unexpected, or otherwise compelling way.
Your praise poems may be serious or frivolous – this should be a fun, but also potentially rather awkward, assignment. Regardless of the subject of your poem or the way you praise the honorand, please pursue the chief goal of praise poetry—to make your subject known, memorably and favorably, to others.
In short, do your best to capture the “spirit of Pindar” however you see fit. This may—or may not—include a high poetic register. Play to your own established strengths or strike out in an adventurous new direction.