Lexicon Valley

What the Ancient Epinikion, or Victory Song, Teaches Us About Olympic Athletes

Michael Phelps.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Forget medals, Wheaties boxes, interviews on Good Morning America, or corporate sponsorships: The ancient Greeks celebrated their Olympic champions with poetry. “When anyone is victorious through his toil,” as Diane Arnson Svarlien translates a victory ode composed by Pindar, one of ancient Greece’s greatest lyric poets,*

then honey-voiced odes become the foundation for future fame, and a faithful pledge for the great deeds of excellence. This praise is dedicated to Olympian victors, without stint.

OK, the athletes did enjoy cash prizes, free meals at city hall for life, front-row seats at the theater, and some tax exemptions—not to mention some pretty epic sex parties upon homecoming. But orgies, unlike odes, don’t last forever.

During the fifth century B.C., Pindar composed 45 such victory odes, perfecting this genre known as the epinikion, which literally means “upon victory.” (Nike, the Greek word for, and goddess of, victory, lives on in the athletic brand name.) The Hellenic elite commissioned these epinikia, to use the Greek plural. Choruses performed them in the victors’ hometowns with music and dance. Pindar left us four books of such odes, named for the four great Panhellenic Games: the Olympians, Pythians, Nemeans, and Isthmians. Chief among the games, and among the odes, were the Olympics, that quadrennial religious festival held in honor of Zeus in Olympia starting in 776 B.C.

As poetry, Pindar’s epinikia are highly wrought. They draw on a variety of ancient Greek dialects, unfold in dense syntax and meter, develop elaborate metaphors in a lofty register, abound in cultural allusions, and shift topics abruptly. Much of this complexity, which scholars agree requires a Herculean effort to translate, is lost on the modern reader. But nearly 2,500 years later, Pindar’s poetry—and the social, moral, and aesthetic moves he makes in it—has compelling and instructive echoes for Rio 2016 today.

Pindar first opens each ode with the name and event of the winner: “Theron of Acragas, Chariot Race,” as Arnson Svarlien renders Olympian 2. Then, Pindar starts singing praises right out of the starting blocks:

Songs, rulers of the lyre, what god, what hero, what man shall we celebrate? Indeed, Pisa belongs to Zeus; and Heracles established the Olympic festival, as the finest trophy of battle; and Theron must be proclaimed who is just in his regard for guests, and is the bulwark of Acragas, the strength of the city, the choicest bloom of illustrious ancestors, who labored much with their spirits, and won a sacred home by the river, and were the eye of Sicily; their allotted lifetime attended them, bringing wealth and grace to their inborn excellence.

The poet praises the victor, yes, but he also lauds Zeus, Heracles, and the people of Acragas, Theron’s homeland. When he does explicitly praise Theron, he doesn’t hold up his performance on the racetrack but, rather, his hospitality and public good. Pindar goes on, relating an important myth associated with Olympia, the site of victory, further ennobling Theron’s accomplishment. Yet he intersperses the sacred tale with cryptic, cautionary aphorisms on the unpredictable, transient nature of the human condition: “But at various times various currents, both of pleasure and toil, come to men.” (Or, in his exquisite cadence to Olympian 7: “In a single space of apportioned time the winds shift quickly from moment to moment.”)

Just as he elevates Theron to divine, mythic status, he cuts him back down to size, emphasizing his humility, his humanity, his earthliness. What is Pindar trying to accomplish here? This tension, as the tradition of Pindaric scholarship has long noted, marks an essential social function of epinikia. As Oliver Taplin puts it in Literature in the Greek World, the epinikia “worked to reintegrate the victor who had so distinguished himself into his various communities.” Victory conferred immense honor on athletes, who enjoyed the support and sponsorship of the aristocracy, and so Pindar “reassured citizens that the victor wouldn’t use prestige to wield undue influence.”

We can also observe the negotiation of the individual and the collective, of the aristocratic and the democratic, when Pindar extols the “toil” required of victory, in contrast to any innate superiority in the athlete that might excite envy back home. In Olympian 5, Pindar observes:

Always, when it is a question of excellence, toil and expense strive to accomplish a deed that is shrouded in danger; those who are successful seem wise, even to their fellow citizens.

But in the Greek psyche, personal glory didn’t just risk alienating the athlete’s compatriots. It also presents the moral danger of hubris: the Greek concept of excessive arrogance and pride before the gods, “the arch-crime against the life of the Greek state,” as one classicist dubbed it. In the closing of Olympian 3, which placed another olive wreath on the head of our Theron, Pindar admonishes:

If water is best and gold is the most honored of all possessions, so now Theron reaches the farther point by his own native excellence; he touches the pillars of Heracles. Beyond that the wise cannot set foot; nor can the unskilled set foot beyond that. I will not pursue it; I would be a fool.

Philosophers, athletes, poets: In thought, feat, or verse, none should tempt nemesis, the force of retributive justice the Greeks believe struck down the overconfident person, who would seek “to become a god,” as Pindar phrases it in Olympian 5.

We can find ready parallels to Pindar’s themes of public good, toil, and hubris in our own coverage of Olympic champions today. A recent tweet from National Public Radio linked to an article: “Judoka Rafaela Silva won Brazil’s first gold, but it was all of her country’s to share.” Her victory is a public good: It brings glory to all her people, an honor many smaller nations also bask in when their athletes podium on the world stage. Commentators marvel at how gymnast Simone Biles, as she lithely defies the air, literally and figuratively transcended a challenging early childhood to become the best in the world. Her victory is the product of toil: Olympians overcome, their superhuman athletic prowess only outmatched by their spirit and tenacity. We splash water at Michael Phelps, who has added to his own record-holding decoration this Olympics, as we cheer on the athletes who can wrap themselves with no nation’s flag, the Refugee Olympic Team. The victor should heed hubris: No one man, no matter how great, deserves all the glory, and so we temper triumph with humor, humility, and humanity.

But what is our parallel for Pindar’s poetry? As Mark Golden observes in Sport and Society in Ancient Greece, “It is an index of the importance of competition in ancient Greece that it gave rise to a distinctive art form, the victory song…” With a self-awareness remarkable for such early poetry, Pindar often speaks of his “arrows of song,” dressing his craft in metaphors of sport: “May I be a suitable finder of words as I move onward in the Muses’ chariot; may boldness and all-embracing power attend me.” In celebrating the feats of the great ancient Olympian, Pindar is seeking a lyric to match them in skill. Who a culture honors says a lot about what it values—but so does how it honors them. What is our modern-day epinikion? What great art form can, does, or should Olympic competition inspire in us today?

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.

*Update, Aug. 16, 2016: This post has been updated to include translator Diane Arnson Svarlien’s full last name.