Pindar's Mythmaking: The Fourth Pythian Ode

Pindar's Mythmaking: The Fourth Pythian Ode

by Charles Segal, Pindar

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Combining historical and philological method with contemporary literary analysis, this study of Pindar's longest and most elaborate victory ode, the Fourth Pythian, traces the underlying mythical patterns, implicit poetics, and processes of mythopoesis that animate his poetry.


Combining historical and philological method with contemporary literary analysis, this study of Pindar's longest and most elaborate victory ode, the Fourth Pythian, traces the underlying mythical patterns, implicit poetics, and processes of mythopoesis that animate his poetry.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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Pindar's Mythmaking

The Fourth Pythian Ode

By Charles Segal


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05473-5


Heroic Guile: The Craft of the Hero and the Art of the Poet

Pindar frequently associates craft (metis), clever skill (sophia), eros, drugs (pharmaka), and seductive persuasion (peitho) with the shifting, ambiguous side of the bard's daedalic craft. He is concerned to distinguish his poetry of praise and truth from the deceptive potential inherent in the poet's power to adorn men and things through his artful language. He often projects these poetic concerns upon the heroes of his myths. Like the poet himself, Jason, the principal hero of Pythian 4, must find his way between the helpful and the evil properties of guile, drugs, persuasion, and love. His success depends on neutralizing the dangers inherent in them; he has to use the gifts of Aphrodite and Medea without succumbing to their magic.

Both hero and poet follow a mythical pattern of which the most celebrated literary example is the tale of Odysseus, and particularly Odysseus confronting Circe and turning her witchcraft from harm to help. One of Jason's strengths throughout the ode is his ability to use or receive the "drugs" of language, love, and magic in a positive way (136f., 184f., 214ff., 233). When Pelias sends him on his mission of "taking away the wrath (menis) of those below" (158f.), he draws (perhaps unknowingly) on this power of healing mildness.

Like Odysseus, Jason has the ambiguity of a hero who uses metis rather than bia, craft rather than open force. Like Odysseus, he is a hero of the sea and its shifting movement rather than a hero of the land and face-to-face martial combat. He explicitly rejects an Achilles-like hand-to-hand passage at arms when he sets up the terms of his trial against Pelias: "It does not behoove us with bronze-piercing swords or with javelins to divide the great honor of our ancestors" (147f.; cf. Iliad 1.188ff.).

As in the Odyssey, sea, sex, and feminine wiles all go together. Jason's ability to make use of the wiles offered by Aphrodite and Medea is another aspect of his Odyssean heroism. The ode presents two kinds of drugs, the ambiguous pharmaka of Aphrodite and Medea on the one hand (cf. 213ff. and 233), the Olympian medicines of Apollo and the martial pharmakon of glory associated with Hera on the other (18 7). It is part of Pindar's strategy of healing that underlies this ode to identify the two forms of art and to incorporate the erotic wiles into the Apolline wisdom. Apollo's priestess is far from the sexual Medea, associated with seduction and magic: she is the "bee-woman" (60), a figure connected with chastity and purity. The god's Olympian healing and his priestess's upright speech (cf. 60) serve as foils to the magical drugs and devious wiles that the young hero must encounter on his journey and, like the poet, learn to use for his own ends.

To Pelias' propensity for tricky profit (kerdos dolion, 139), Jason opposes not merely the righteous behavior of themis, but also another kind of trickery. Pelias' crafty mind (pukinos thumos, 73), places him on the side of the ambiguous arts of metis (73). Yet Jason too has Medea's crafty guile (pukinan metin, 58) on his side. To counter Pelias' trickery, he has a skillfulness (sophia) of his own, the "good drug" and "wise words" of his gentle speech (136-38). Pindar emphasizes this "good" sophia by contrasting it at once with Pelias' guile, dolos, against which the hero utters a stern warning:


There are minds of mortals too quick to praise tricky gain before justice, though they come nonetheless to the harsh day of reckoning.

Jason's association with the "good" drug of mild speech also gives a positive and helpful cast to the enchantments and persuasive seduction of Aphrodite (epaoidai, peitho) with which she makes him skilled or clever (sophon, 217-19). Yet this love-magic of Aphrodite also has the morally dubious power of "taking away shame" from Medea (218) so that she helps him with her "drugs." Pelias would use a thievish spirit (klepton thumoi, 96); yet Jason will "steal away" Medea on the Argo (klepsen, 250). Jason slaughters the dragon not by force, but through crafty arts (technai).

The neutralization of guile operates also at the verbal level in the etymological associations of names, of which Pindar is fond. The skill of Jason / Iason, the "healer," is able to turn to good the craft and wiles of Medea / metis / medea. Healing Jason, who "drips mild converse," like a medicine, on his "soft voice" (136-38), counters the potential poisons of the female enchantress with good drugs that stem ultimately from the "most timely healer," Paean Apollo ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 270). In this healing function too, he proves his education from Chiron (102), famous for his healing arts (Pyth. 3.1ff.). Thus he can serve as a mythical model for King Arcesilaus, enjoined to "tend the festering wound by applying a soft hand" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 271).

Jason cites Chiron's teaching in attempting to restore the rights and honors of his own parents (tokeis, 110) and later solemnly invokes the Moirai as guardians of aidos, "respect," between kinsmen:


The Morai stand apart if any enmity comes among kinsmen to cover up the respect that should exist between them.

Yet later he himself would rob Medea of respect or shame toward her closest kin, her parents (tokeon aido, 218). The result is their "mingling sweet marriage shared together with one another" (223f.): [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. But this union seems to begin with one of its essential qualities lacking. In another Cyrenean ode, Pythian 9, Aphrodite "casts aidos on the sweet bed" of Apollo and the Nymph Cyrene, "fashioning a marriage mingled in sharing for the god and the daughter of Hypseus of the broad force" (12f.): [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In robbing Medea of her "shame towards her parents" (218), he behaves as a seducer rather than as a husband; but he does not, presumably, lose his own firmly implanted aidos (cf. 145 and 173). Again, his success seems to involve unheroic modes of action (seduction and "stealing," 250); but Pindar has kept the contradictions in the background.

Medea both uses and suffers the power of drugs (pharmaka). Her gift of pharmaka to protect Jason from the fire of Aeetes' bulls (221, 233) results from Aphrodite's "first" invention of the iynx (213-16), the love-charm whose supplicatory enchantments (epaoidai) she (Aphrodite) taught to clever (sophos) Jason in order that he might take away from Medea her shame towards her parents (217-19). Jason, soon to be helped by Medea's pharmaka against real fire, uses Aphrodite's erotic magic to set Medea "afire in her heart" (en phrasin kaiomenan, 219). Aphrodite gives him a cleverness, sophia, to overcome the sophia of Medea (217b, 219).

At the end of the myth Pindar resumes the theme of Jason's arts (technai, 249) and his exercise of guileful theft against the initial source of metis, Medea herself. The parallel clauses coordinate the stealing of Medea with the killing of the dragon. The dense phrasing of the next line also links the serpent slaying with the killing of Pelias:


With devices he killed the grey-eyed dragon of the scaly back, O Arcesilaus, and he stole away Medea with herself (willing), the killer of Pelias.

The stylistic device of jamming together these three events puts the heroic deed of the "godlike" Argonauts under the ambiguous sign of craft, art, deception, and thievery (metis, techne, dolos, kleptein).

Metis has been operative in Jason's life from the very beginning. His account of his origins contains the familiar folktale motif of the birth of the hero: ruse, disguise, or concealment protects the newborn from an evil father-figure, in this case his uncle, Pelias. Amid "fear," "concealment," and the cover of "night" the infant Jason escaped from the hybris and bia of the bad uncle (deisantes, krubda, nukti, 112-15). Years later, when the full-grown Jason arrives at Iolcus, Pelias responds with "thievery" and "fear": "Concealing fear in his heart, he addressed him" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 97f.). Pindar so orders his narrative that the deception practiced at Jason's birth follows directly upon Pelias' reception of the grown Jason in Iolcus, with another turn of the Bad Uncle's characteristic weapons of trickery back upon their originator.

Unlike Pelias, however, Jason can also use openness and gentleness. "Tell me clearly," he says to the citizens of Iolcus in looking for the house of his father (117b); and he declares his identity openly in the next line. It is characteristic of Jason's forthrightness that even before he knows for certain whom he is addressing he replies to Pelias' question about his identity with the honest, unflattering truth about his behavior (athemin Pelian, 109).

This presence of the various forms of metis on Jason's side can be seen as part of the poetic justice over which dike presides, a dynamic reversal which hoists Pelias with his own petard. Yet it also reaches more deeply into a fabric of ambiguity that Pindar recognizes within his own art.

The model for the rightful use of craft and drugs is the doctor's healing medicine, implied in the mildness which Jason "drips" upon his words in his temperate rejoinder to Pelias (136f.). Just after the myth of the founding of Cyrene, Pindar's transition to his own advice to Arcesilaus takes the form of a summary of Apollo's gifts to the ruling dynasty (259-63), including "upright counselling craft" (orthoboulon metin, 262). A few lines later he invokes Apollo Paian as the source of Arcesilaus' own capacity as a healer (270) and draws on the old Solonian metaphor of good rule as a healing medicine for the wounds or sores of the city. This metis too is not only balanced by themis, but is transformed into its positive, Apolline aspect.

Within Pythian 4, as elsewhere, Pindar calls his own poetry "skill" (sophia, 249, 295); and Aphrodite gives such a skill, with its full complement of ambiguity, to Jason when she "teaches him the supplicatory enchantments" of her love-magic (217f.; cf. 250). Among his Cyrenean fellow countrymen, who are endowed with the sophia that can appreciate the gifts of the poet (295), the hopefully restored Damophilus, schooled by Pindar, is to "lift the elaborately crafted lyre" (daidalea phoiminx, 296); and that adjective belongs to the same semantic field as metis. In Olympian 1 Pindar uses a form of daidallein to describe the dangers that inhere in the craft of poetry, its capacity to adorn deceptive tales with cunningly wrought and pretty, shifting lies (Ol. 1.29f.).

Pindar's sophia, like Jason's, is to be a healing communication between Damophilus and Arcesilaus (cf. 136-38 and 270f.; also 293). Damophilus' "daedalic lyre" in 296 appears in a context of healing a sickness and of Apollo's divinity (293f.). Pindar thus implies that this poetic skill and sophia, so closely identified with his own (299), exemplify the "good" craft, like the metis that defeats Pelias and wins Medea. The evil uses of metis, however, are projected upon Pelias. Just as Medea speaks both the inspired utterance of an "immortal mouth" (10f.) and "dense craft" (57), so Jason uses both Apolline healing skill (136f.) and thievish trickery (e.g., 250).

Apollo's oracle told that Pelias would die by an Aeolid's strength of "hands or by plottings not to be turned away" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 72). Force and guile are juxtaposed as alternative modes of action. The phrasing of 72, in keeping with oracular pronouncements, leaves the outcome ambiguous. In the sequel Pelias' doom does not in fact come by heroic force. The Aeolid in question (cf. 142f.); who has the heroic epithet agauos in 72, wins out by Odyssean "plottings": he "steals away" a woman who will be the killer of Pelias (250).

The "unbendable plots" that cause Pelias' death (72) belong to the same semantic field of metis as the "unloosable circle" of Aphrodite's iynx (alutos kuklos, 215). Both passages draw on the imagery of the "nets" and "entrapments" of metis characteristic of the language of love rather than war. The phrase of 72 reminds us too of the ambiguities of metis, as a form of heroic action. Instead of the straightforward movement of traditional heroism, akamptoi boulai suggest the devious entanglements of what Vernant and Detienne call "the circle and the bond," the infinitely encircling and enfolding nets that immobilize in a never-ending, untraversable, disorienting space.

Jason's second confrontation with Pelias also combines Odyssean and Iliadic heroic modes. He "drips mild converse upon his soft voice," but he also "lays a foundation of clever words" (136-38). His speech appears as a Medea-like ministration of drugs; but the architectural image also connects him with stability, civic life, and the firm, visible achievements that belong to successful males. This "foundation of skillful words" that Jason's healing speech lays down (krepid' sophon epeon, 138) uses an architectural image that Pindar often employs for his own art (e.g., krepid' aoidân, "foundation of songs," Pyth. 7.3; frag. 184 Bo. = 194 Sn.). The metaphor also prepares for the heroic act of reverent foundation on the voyage later and for the political responsibility and stability that distinguish a good ruler. The act of "founding" (ktizein) characterizes heroes and heroized kings. The Argonauts' first deed at sea is to "set up a holy temenos to Poseidon of the sea" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 204), with its altar's "newly built surface" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 206).

After the Argonaut myth, Pindar exhorts Arcesilaus to exercise the clemency that belongs to good kingship, "for to shake a city is easy, even for men of nought, but to settle it again in its place is difficult" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 273). We may recall too the image of the upright column that supports the lordly hall in the "wisdom of Oedipus" (267). The imagery of "uprightness," orthos, also characterizes Delphic prophecy in 60 and the wise counsel of the Cyrenean rulers in 262 (orthoboulon metin). There is perhaps a further connection between the uprightness of Jason's deeds and speech and the divine purposes of the oracles in the untranslatable echo between the monokrepis ("single-sandled," "with single base") in the oracular warning to Pelias in 75 and Jason's own krepis ("base," "foundation") of wise words in 138. The danger that Pelias expects to come in the tangible form of physical violence takes the gentler, but no less effective form, of a metaphorical "base" of words.

Jason's readiness to profit from metis and its ambiguous brood implies an ability to use metis to counter metis that is also relevant to Pindar's poetics. Generally Pindar is emphatic about choosing the straight over the crooked path. But on occasion he may accept — reluctantly, of course — the "tricky way of life" inherent in the changefulness of the human condition (dolios aion, Isth. 8.15f.). All metis requires special care on the user's part. The skills of the poet's verbal craft are ever prone to lead on to crooked paths (cf. Nem. 8.25-35) and encourage the dishonest "profit" to which such "skill is bound" (Pyth. 3.54). But, Pindar advises, "Even for the clever craftsman the guileless skill proves better" (sophia adolos, Ol. 7.53). Hence he needs the help of the gods, especially Zeus and Apollo, to keep his words and deeds on the "simple roads of life" (Nem. 8.36). The poet's words too have the power of medicinal healing (Nem. 4.1ff.) and need to be employed in righteous ways (cf. Pyth. 3. 52-58 and 63-67).


Excerpted from Pindar's Mythmaking by Charles Segal. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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