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Timeline: Pindar, Olympic Sports Agent

Pindar was an ancient Greek poet who specialized in writing epinikia, victoy odes in honor of Olympic crown winners.
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Pindar was an ancient Greek poet who specialized in writing epinikia, victoy odes in honor of Olympic crown winners.

John Williams composed the "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" for the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. The practice of celebrating sportsmanship through music and verse is almost as old as the games themselves, going all the way back to ancient Greece.

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Here’s an excerpt of a victory ode composed by the Greek poet Pindar, imagining what the very first Olympiad might have been like…

Then the lovely light Of the moon’s beautiful face Lit up the evening, And all the sanctuary rang with singing amid festive joy In the fashion of victory celebration

The scholar Michael Schmidt, in the book The First Poets, calls Pindar “the most careful architect that poetry has ever had.” Pindar was active around fifth century BCE and was the master of victory odes, or epinikia, which honored athletes and Olympic crown winners. He most likely wrote these songs on the lyre or the aulos, ancient pipes with double-reeds like oboes. 45 of these victory songs survive today; the first written for a winner of the 400-yard dash and last for a wrestling champion. It seems that Pindar was one of the first artists to see a way of cashing-in on the “cult of sportsmanship” that sprung up in Greek society.

Scholars suggest that what began as spontaneous dancing and verse given by the victorious athlete soon morphed into the practice of hiring a poet to create a song and dance to commemorate their accomplishments. Pindar was like an early sports agent, singing the praises of the latest Olympic superstar for a reasonable fee.

Actually, Pindar expressed that his artist’s heart was troubled by charging for these odes. He wrote…

Soft voiced songs with their faces silvered over being sold From the hand of honey-voiced Terpsichore

In this excerpt, Pindar is calling his songs harlots and the muse, Terpsichore, their madam. It’s an unfair metaphor, because in these works Pindar is using so much craft and clever wordplay to depict a culture and a way of life. He would pile images together to evoke emotion, and like Shakespeare, would either borrow words from ancient dialects and tongues or create new ones if the use suited the poetry.

The victory ode, or epinikia, was a short-lived genre of poetry. Very few poets could actually pull it off and the demand seemed to all but disappear after Pindar’s death. However, his catalogue of odes has continued to fascinate readers for millennia. His influence is felt in the Early-Modern period of French and English writers and the German Romantics of the 19th century. Imagine victory songs that last for 2500 years.

Learn more about Pindar in Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

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