Ancient Greek heroes, athletes, poetry Part III: Essay 6: The epinician or epinikion: singing the athlete’s victory

2022.11.21 | By Gregory Nagy

Essay 6. The epinician or epinikion: singing the athlete’s victory

6§0. There was an ancient Greek poetic tradition, historically attested, that concentrated specifically on athleticism, It was a kind of songmaking that coordinated the ritualized experiences of athletes with the mythical experiences of heroes. Modern literary historians commonly define this kind of song—this kind of “lyric poetry”—as the victory ode, one of many different forms of “lyric.” Definitions aside, I prefer to think of this form of songmaking as epinician, and I model my use of this word on what I read in the attested “epinician” songs composed by the poets Pindar and Bacchylides, who both flourished in the first half of the fifth century BCE. To cite the words of Pindar himself, victory odes are epinīkioi aoidai, or ‘epinician songs’ (Nemean 4.78, ἐπινικίοισιν ἀοιδαῖς). On the basis of such poetic self-references, I prefer to think of the victory ode as the epinīkion, or, more simply, as the epinician.

6§1. The neuter noun epinīkion is a “substantive” use of the adjective epinīkios, and I translate both noun and adjective as epinician. These words are derived from a combination of the prefix epi‑ with an adjectival form of the noun nīkē, meaning ‘victory’. As we have seen in Essay 5, when this same form epi is used as a preposition in combination with the dative case of a noun or a pronoun referring to a dead person who is being honored at an athletic competition, it has the specialized sense of ‘in compensation for’, with reference to the death of that given person. But this specialized use of the preposition epi combined with the dative in the sense of ‘in compensation for’ extends beyond references to a death that has to be compensated. As we will now see, it can be argued that the same sense of ‘in compensation for’ can refer to a celebration of a victory, and that this celebration notionally compensates for the ordeal that went into the winning of the victory.

6§2. There are numerous attestations of the preposition epi combined with the dative of nīkē ‘victory’ (so, ἐπὶ + νίκῃ) in contexts relating to public celebrations held in compensation for individual victories in athletic events (for example, Pausanias 5.21.4, 6.13.11, 6.15.2, 6.20.19, 10.7.8) or for collective victories in war (6.2.8, 10.11.5). Of particular interest is a reference made by Plutarch (Life of Demosthenes 1.1.) to an epinician song composed for a public celebration of Alcibiades in compensation for his sponsoring victorious chariot teams at the Olympics: Ὁ μὲν γράψας τὸ ἐπὶ τῇ νίκῃ τῆς Ὀλυμπίασιν ἱπποδρομίας εἰς Ἀλκιβιάδην ἐγκώμιον, εἴτ’ Εὐριπίδης ὡς ὁ πολὺς κρατεῖ λόγος, εἴθ’ ἕτερός τις ἦν ‘the person who wrote the encomium [en-kōmion] for Alcibiades in-compensation-for [epi] his victory [nīkē] in the chariot racing at the Olympics, whether that person was Euripides, which is what most people say, or someone else …’. (I will have more to say later about the use of the word en-kōmion ‘encomium’ with reference to the epinician.) Also of interest is the ritual shout epi nīkēi (ἐπὶ νίκῃ) as attested in poetry dating back to the classical period (Aristophanes Lysistrata 1278, Women at the Assembly 1182; we may compare also Aeschylus Libation Bearers 868).

6§3. The linguistic evidence of such attestations, we should note, does not require us to interpret the adjective epi-nīkios only in the specialized sense of ‘compensating for the victory’. We may also interpret epi-nīkios in the more general sense of ‘marking the occasion of the victory’. Still, this linguistic evidence does show that there was a built-in idea of compensation in the semantics of epi-nīkios. So, such attestations of the preposition epi combined with the dative of nīkē ‘victory’ weaken the argument (made by Rodin 2009:315, disputing Nagy 1990a:142 at 5§12) that the adjective epi-nīkios does not express the idea of compensation. And these same attestations strengthen the argument that epinician song serves the function of compensating for victories won by athletes (as we will see later, Rodin p. 315n71 offers a different explanation).

6§4. In terms of the underlying meaning of the adjective epi-nīkios ‘epinician’, I offer this working definition of the expression epinīkioi aoidai ‘epinician songs’ as used by Pindar (again, Nemean 4.78 ἐπινικίοισιν ἀοιδαῖς): an epinician song compensates for the competition of the athlete whose competitive ordeal leads to victory, just as the ordeal of the athlete compensates for the prototypical ordeal of the hero as he struggles to achieve victory over death itself. This definition is based on an extended analysis of the relevant wording used in the songs of Pindar and Bacchylides in referring to their medium of songmaking in the contexts of their epinicians or victory odes (Nagy 1990a:140-142 at 5§§8–11). Here I sum up the essentials of that analysis:

In the end, of course, all heroes must die, just as all mortals must die, and so the prototypical struggle with death is ultimately lost. But this struggle is then taken up anew, year after year, in the seasonally recurring competitions of athletes at festivals. These ritual events of athletic competition, linked as they are with mythical events of heroic regeneration as in the case of the infant hero Pelops, dramatize the ultimate victory of life over death. And a notionally eternal series of such victories in the course of seasonally recurring athletic ordeals can then compensate for the one-time heroic ordeal of a death that is primordial and therefore larger than life. In these terms, then, an epinician song is required as a compensation for each one of these seasonally recurring athletic victories. And, as we can see from the actual wording of epinician songs composed by Pindar and Bacchylides, the effort that it takes to compose and to perform such a song is imagined as a ritualized ordeal in its own right—an ordeal that becomes the last link in a sacred chain of compensation that goes all the way back to the idea of a first ordeal, which is a primordial heroic struggle with death.

6§5. Having explained the epinician song or victory ode as a ritualized compensation for the victory of the athlete, I note that there have been other explanations offered. Here is an example (Rodin 2009:315n71): “A different explanation for the use of the vocabulary of recompense in the epinīkia is advanced in Kurke (1991:108-116): inasmuch as apoina [this Greek word refers to a set of compensatory gestures conceptualized as a unitary system] ‘protects the community from the threat of a destructive past,’ Pindar’s use of this concept serves to ‘depict the whole community’s well-being as contingent on the smooth workings of aristocratic exchange’ [Kurke p. 108].”

6§6. As a genre, epinician song was a complex form, and there is good reason to think that this form had to keep on adapting itself to the historical vicissitudes of the first half of the fifth century, which was the era when poets like Pindar and Bacchylides were composing their songs for public performances in a wide variety of political situations (Kurke 1991:1, 134). Still, the simple fact remains that the basic form of epinician song was at its core deeply conservative (Currie 2005:18).

6§7. Granted, epinician song cannot be described as the most ancient attested form of Greek poetry. That kind of description applies only to the epic poetry of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, the formation of which can be dated as far back as the eighth century BCE. But the epinician, as a form, is remarkably ancient nonetheless. In fact, the actual form of epinician “lyric poetry” can be considered to be in some ways more ancient than the corresponding form of epic poetry when we apply the methods of comparative linguistics in analyzing the relevant poetic diction and meter (Nagy 1990a:416-418 at 14§§5–9). And the wording of epinician song even claims that it is more ancient than epic. In Pindar’s Nemean 8 (50-52), for example, where the epinician “lyric poem” celebrates the prototypical athletic feats of the heroes known as the Seven against Thebes, the claim is made that the poetic medium for celebrating these feats was even more ancient than the poetic medium for celebrating the prototypical martial feats of these same heroes. Just as the athletic feats happened earlier than the martial feats in the case of the myths about the Seven against Thebes, so also the epinician poetic medium for celebrating the athletic feats was supposedly more ancient than the epic poetic medium for celebrating the martial feats (as attested in the surviving fragments of the epic Thebaid). In the logic of the poetry here, the victory ode of Pindar claims that its epinician “lyric poetry” was praising heroes even before the events recorded by epic poetry (Nagy 1990a:192-194 at 6§§84–87, 1979/1999:227-228 at 12§7). Here is the actual wording:

ἦν γε μὰν ἐπικώμιος ὕμνος | δὴ πάλαι καὶ πρὶν γενέσθαι | τὰν Ἀδράστου τάν τε Καδμείων ἔριν.

But the epi-kōmios humnos has been in existence since ancient times. It was there even before the war between Adrastos and the Thebans ever happened.

Pindar Nemean 8.48-50

The adjective epi-kōmios here, combined with the noun humnos ‘song’, refers to epinician singing, that is, to a form of song that is sung and danced in a victory revel or kōmos, and such a description is relevant to the fact that Pindar’s epinician songs conventionally refer to their own occasion of performance as a kōmos ‘victory revel’ (Nagy 1990a:142 at 5§11). Accordingly, we may translate epi-kōmios humnos here as ‘the song marking the occasion of a kōmos’.

6§8. The prefix epi‑ in the adjective epi-kōmios seems at first to be semantically less specialized than the corresponding prefix epi‑ in the adjective epi-nīkios. In the case of epi-nīkios, as we have seen, epi‑ has the specialized sense of ‘compensating for’; in the case of epi-kōmios, on the other hand, epi‑ seems at first to have only the more general sense of ‘marking the occasion of’. But the general sense of epi‑ is not excluded in the meaning of epi-nīkios, either. As I have already noted, this adjective epi-nīkios can be interpreted not only in the specialized sense of ‘compensating for the victory’ but also in the more general sense of ‘marking the occasion of the victory’. Conversely, as I now also note, the specialized sense of epi‑ is in fact included in the general sense of epi-kōmios, which can be interpreted not only in the general sense of ‘marking the occasion of a victory revel’ but also in the more specialized sense of ‘compensating for a victory revel’, since the reveling that takes place at a kōmos presupposes a victory. By implication, then, every new kōmos will compensate for every previous kōmos. In the passage just quoted from Pindar’s Nemean 8, the epinician song is claiming to be the same thing as a prototypical epinician song that keeps on renewing itself every time it celebrates athletic victories won at the seasonally recurring Nemean Games. As I noted earlier, myth has it that these Nemean Games were begun in the heroic age by the Seven against Thebes in compensation for the death, by snakebite, of the infant hero Arkhemoros. And, as I also noted earlier when I first considered this same epinician song of Pindar, the antidote for the prototypical snakebite is imagined metaphorically as the singing of ep-aoidai ‘incantations’ (Nemean 8.49). In terms of such a metaphor, these ‘incantations’ are a succession of self-renewing epinician songs (‑aoidai) that compensate (preverb ep‑) for that prototypical snakebite, counteracting its venom of death by celebrating athletic victories that are won every two years, into eternity, at the seasonally recurring Nemean Games (Nemean 49-53). By implication, the genre of epinician songmaking is a form that will keep renewing itself forever by eternally compensating for previous forms of itself.

6§9. The adjective epi-kōmios ‘marking the occasion of a kōmos’, which refers to the prototypical form of epinician song in Pindar’s Nemean 8, is related to the adjective en-kōmios, to be translated as ‘having its occasion in a kōmos’ or ‘taking place in a kōmos’, which can likewise refer to epinician songmaking. Here is an example we find in another epinician song, Pindar’s Olympian 2 (47): ἐγκωμίων τε μελέων λυρᾶν τε τυγχανέμεν ‘to win [tunkhanein] melodies [melea] that are en-kōmia, sung to the tune of the lyre’. So these melea ‘melodies’, described by the adjective en-kōmia ‘taking place in a kōmos’, are epinician melodies. In the wording of this kind of songmaking, the primary prize for the athlete to win must be the epinician song itself. A derivative of the adjective en-kōmios ‘having its occasion in a kōmos’ is the noun en-kōmion ‘encomium’, which as we have already seen can also refer to the epinician, as in the case of a song celebrating the chariot victories of Alcibiades.

6§10. Another striking example of the epinician as a prototypical song is a mythical encomium sung to Hēraklēs himself on the occasion of that hero’s athletic victories at a prototypical scene of Olympic celebration—an encomium re-enacted in the poetry of Archilochus (F 324). And this encomiastic re-enactment is recognized as the wording of Archilochus in the poetry of Pindar at the beginning of his Olympian 9: τὸ μὲν Ἀρχιλόχου μέλος φωνᾶεν Ὀλυμπίᾳ ‘the song of Archilochus, sounding forth at Olympia’. So the prototypical athlete celebrated for his victories at the prototypical Olympics was the notional founder of this Panhellenic festival, Hēraklēs.

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