Avid for Victory

On Pindar, Aesthetics, Breeding, and Why the Greeks Celebrated Athletes

“Phylacidas! Phylacidas!” Slaves whispered the boy’s name in the halls and set to work; the shouts and cymbal crashes outside were growing louder as the fighter and his retinue snaked their way up the hillside toward the terraces surrounding the palace. Molten gold from the sun poured over the olive-clothed rock faces in an undulating dapple of light, scouring away the dreadful memory of the eclipse a few months prior. The famous brother Pytheas, his mother’s brother Euthymeus, his maternal grandfather Themistius, all crowned fighters, and the rest of the clansmen took their places on couches in the andron, the men’s dining room.

Thighbones of the oxen wrapped in fat offered greasy smoke to grandfather Kleonikos’ urn; the richly carved krater brimmed with dark wine. Phylacidas stepped back into the house covered in a glory that shone through his simple linen garments. He was different now. His hair was longer since the voyage across the strait and back and the coiled muscles of his arms gleamed with oil after long exertions; his face had the darkening shadow of a youthful beard and bore the enigmatic, closed smile of those touched by a god. Now Phylacidas was a champion of the pankration, the most brutal fighting sport in his world. His changed form demanded song before he took his place in his father’s house.

The family’s trainer, Menander from Athens, the expert builder of athletes, was standing behind Phylacidas when a group of naked boys filed into the andron. The chorus stamped the stone floors with their feet in a rhythm, bending low and raising up their knees, chanting verses about all the great warriors from the founding nobles of the island, the Aeacids, in a poem that would become known as Pindar’s fifth Isthmian ode. We are in Lampon’s house, on the island of Aegina, 478 years before Christ. Two years ago, the Persian hordes were burnt and drowned under the teeming sea at Salamis, though the aliens still defile Greek soil with their presence. Herodotus has not yet been born.

The poem begins in due reverence of Theia, mother of the sun, of the golden light that reveals the glory of “ships which battle on the sea” and “horses harnessed to chariots.” It is a moment of overwhelming glory for this race of gifted fighters, radiating with a godlike pride that threatens danger. Pindar feels that he must caution Phylacidas, lest he arouse the Olympians’ envy:

But men’s prowess is decided by the gods;
truly, two things only shepherd life to its sweetest perfection:
if a man is blessed with flourishing prosperity,
and if he enjoys a noble reputation. Do not seek to become Zeus;
if a share of these blessings comes to you, you possess everything.

Having done with the initial invocation to the god and the warning, which is its own kind of praise, the boys sing about the deeds of heroes and their cults, and the Aeacid warriors who fought on the plain of Troy, twice sacking the city, once with Heracles and later with the sons of Atreus. Phylacidas himself, as an individual, is not described, nor does Pindar recount his specific victories at the Isthmian Games: those details are merely contingent, flickering shadows. What matters to Pindar is the pattern of Zeus’ favor, how the sky-father decorates a family with glory, weaving a fabric of shining human beings across time and space, choosing fit occasions to let their inner natures burst forth in displays of magnificent cruelty. This is what the Aeginetans worshipped, and this is what Nietzsche must have meant in The Birth of Tragedy when he wrote of “art as the joyful hope that the spell of individuation can be broken, as a presentiment of a restored oneness.”

Reaching its climax, the song rose to a pitch of bloody boasts about the Trojan War:

Tell me, who were Cycnus’ killers, and who Hector’s?
Memnon’s too, the Ethiopians’ fearless bronze-armored chieftain?
Who wounded noble Telephus with his spear by Caicus’ banks?
My mouth proclaims Aegina, famous island, as their fatherland…

Every victory recalls others, balances against them, reflects their light like a brazen spearpoint in a deep chamber piled with weapons. Pindar unspools a list of the Aeacids’ victims as the lyre drones on and hearts beat faster in the men’s chests. The wine and the names of the fallen bring a flush to their faces. It is time for another warning: “But stop, drench that boast in silence!” Pindar brings them back to Lampon’s house as the chorus turns to the older brother Pytheas and thanks him for his help “setting Phylacidas’ blows on a straight course.” As the song fades, the last verses instruct the audience to “take up a crown for him, bring him a headband of fine wool.”

This was not the first of Pindar’s songs for the sons of Lampon, Phylacidas and Pytheas, but the third. Five years earlier, the poet from Thebes had written a song for a youthful Pytheas after he won a crown of wild celery at the Nemean Games for his pankration victory, a win also memorialized by the poet Bacchylides, who celebrated Pytheas’ “exceedingly violent all- fighting strength.” Pindar’s first song for the family opened with a reference to the newly renovated Temple of Aphaia at the highest point on Aegina: “I am no sculptor, to create images which stand motionless on their base. No, sweet song, you must go forth from Aegina on every ship…” The temple and the sculptures on its pediment, the triangular facade at the top of the building’s face, above the columns, had been the subject of some controversy.

A whole composition of figures had been created in the 490s BC for the new temple, which had burned, but then were taken down, moved into a courtyard, and replaced with a different set of sculptures; twenty-two warriors and two likenesses of Athena, one in the center of each pediment. Aphaia herself, the goddess living inside the temple, was the nymph raped by Zeus who gave birth to Aiakos, the founder of Aegina’s princely line. The standing warriors are Aeginetan heroes of the Trojan War, and the composition, which is still preserved in the Glyptothek of Munich, alternates between the living victors and the fallen, dying bodies of their foes. The Trojan Laomedon is seen lying and staring down into the earth as he props himself up with the shield still strapped to his left arm. The god Heracles crouches in the act of pulling tight a bowstring, the extensor muscles in his forearm visibly rippling. Another reclining Trojan grasps the shaft of Teucros’ arrow protruding from his chest.

Athena casts her serene gaze directly outward from the middle of the murdering and tumbling figures; she is flanked by two Greek lords in active poses, the muscles of their calves and trunks well-defined. The men, the glorious and the dying, are fashioned in a late archaic style contemporary with Pindar: we see a carefully orchestrated arrangement of violent forms, with the type emphasized over the person, the lineage over the individual, every piercing spear thrust set in its place in an eternal frieze revealing what the Aigenatans are, the only thing that mattered to them.

Later in Pindar’s Nemean ode for Pytheas, he writes that Pytheas’ crown fulfilled the prayer of the ancient Aeacids Peleus, Telamon, and Phocus. Pindar’s verbal art is finely wrought, sometimes almost losing itself in the telling of a myth within a myth before abruptly switching to a direct address of the dedicatee in the present. In Nemean 5, he places a myth about the triumph of fate and Zeus’ intention over the guiles of women in the mouths of the Muses singing a hymn at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles: “Inborn Destiny [potmos… suggenēs] determines the outcome of every deed.” There is something mysterious standing behind Pindar’s athletes which is not fully described by either the favor of the gods or by the lineages of their ancestors — it is an ‘inborn destiny’ as Anthony Verity translates the phrase, or “the fortune that is born along with a man” in Diane Svarlien’s words. Most of all Pindar is keen to show how his victors are exemplary specimens of a divinely favored race: the beautiful stereotyped kouros sculptures striding forth and sung in words. But what is this inborn destiny, and where does it reside? In the blood of the Aeacids or in the heavens, in the spindle and scissors of capricious Fates?

Anne Pippin Burnett wrote that Pindar’s “mythic glimpses are central because they invest an ephemeral triumph with permanence, while they also bring an audience of ordinary guests into a state of revelatory wonder.” Indeed Pindar’s athletes do not resemble discrete points or even nodes in a network but rather lines or threads woven together in a mesh of mythical and genealogical connections, blazing out when the gods intervene, connected by prayers, prophecies, and sacrifices that bind blood across past, present, and future.

Decades after his songs for the sons of Lampon, Pindar was still writing about this ‘inborn destiny’, and the variable fates of Aegina’s athletic families gave him occasion to tease out more of its nature. In his sixth Nemean ode, for Alcimidas of Aegina, winner in the boys’ wrestling, a member of the Bassidae, “a family famed of old,” Pindar had to explain why Alcimidas was such a strong fighter even though his father had failed to win at any of the Panhellenic games:

And now Alcimidas gives us the proof to see
how inborn talents [to suggenēs] resemble crop-yielding fields,
which by turns yield men an abundant livelihood from the ground
and then again lie fallow and so gain strength.

Here it is clear that the “inborn talents” stand in their being independently from the bodies of the Bassidae, concealing and revealing themselves according to a slower, natural rhythm. But what are these “inborn talents?” The Greek phrase is rendered as “one’s hereditary nature” by Slater, simply as “race” by Maurice Bowra, softened to “kinship” by Burnett, but perhaps most literally captured by the substantive adjectival phrase “the connatural.”

As I studied Pindar in the sweltering summer of 2023, whatever it was that he meant by to suggenēs seemed to me the mystery of mysteries, a vital life force bubbling up in the blood or a fierce animal that periodically emerged from its den in the Psalychiadae, Lampon’s clan. Perhaps it is even life itself, if such a thing can be named. It struck me that the collective nouns Pindar used for these families resembled the names we would use for a genus of beetles or trees: the people are examples of a kind, only partially and incidentally individuated. Gisela Richter wrote in her handbook of Greek art that its intrinsic qualities included “the feeling for the typical [in the sense of ‘type’] and the permanent rather than the accidental,” and it seemed that the connatural was part of what distinguished one clan from another, their defining traits, even if at times it showed itself more strongly in one man than another.

***

There is a poignant autumnal light that pervades Pindar’s songs: in the first part of the fifth century before Christ, the archaic age with its tyrants and their courts was coming to an end. The predatory, domineering clans were increasingly viewed with suspicion and jealousy. Athens had rallied the city-states into its Delian League to defeat the Persians, and now its characteristic mode of governance, democracy, was becoming pre-eminent. Rugged Aegina — no friend to horsemen or charioteers — was ruled by an aristocracy of wealthy traders and its coins, scattered across the Aegean, were stamped with dolphins. The island set itself against Athens.

The Aigenetans were Dorians, anyway, a different kind of Greek. After the raiders and city-sackers burned the Mycenaean citadels one by one at the end of the Bronze Age, only a mute peasantry was left, a Neolithic serf race lost to time. The Dorians came from the northwest, through the Peloponnese and into Crete, and then other islands. They spoke a harsh dialect and only viewed the nobles of their own tribe as real people: from the Dorians would grow the Spartans, Cretans Argives, and Aeginetans. In 1824, Karl Ottfried Müller published Die Dorier in two volumes, describing this determined race thusly: they had a “blunt and harsh deportment”; valued “independence and seclusion”; “a calm and steady courage was the natural quality of the Dorian.” If the Ionian Athenians were curious cataloguers of human biodiversity, the Dorians felt a “strong desire to disconnect with foreigners” and “little inclination to admit the customs of others.” The thin superstratum of Dorian rulers meant that their constitutions always privileged the aristocracy, and this put them in natural conflict with democracies, which they resisted as long as they could.

Yet poetry was changing, too. Sappho and Alcman sang their intimate verses in the chambers of isolated aristocratic houses; as those families grew in wealth and honor, courtiers and poets gathered about their thrones. The choral poetry of Pindar and Bacchylides was expensive to commission and perform and it addressed questions of history and politics, not just private yearnings. Choral unison itself embodied the clannish, aristocratic ethos of many voices speaking as one, telling an intricate tale that unrolled like a scroll from beyond time. The democrats added voices responding to the chorus, and this became drama, performed not just for a court but for a public of citizens. As Aeschylus, and Sophocles revised the old myths and added the second and third actors, the chorus receded in importance. Euripides’ liars and schemers argue and hold debates; the poetry is less song and more like political talk. Eventually the chorus is removed altogether and only talk remains: these are Plato’s dialogues, which examine the limits of rhetoric and reason but banish the gods.

Countervailing forces were at work on the Greek human material in the sixth and fifth centuries. On the one hand, democracy, rhetoric, and suffrage were leveling distinctions, equalizing the peaks and valleys of individual excellence and subjecting claims to divine favor to a kind of skeptical Socratic solvent. On the other hand, Greeks carried in their breasts a fervent desire to win over their peers, to be the best, and institutions — Pindar wrote for athletes who won the Olympic, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games — and even Athens’ dramatic contests separated the best out from the masses and marked them for distinction and honors. The Greeks were evolving in a bimodal way, diverging as the elites, caring only for what was beautiful and strong, devoted themselves to an idealized vision of what humanity could be, or perhaps what it already was on another plane just out of sight.

The development of Greek sculpture seems to contradict the evolution of drama in that we see the Greeks struggling to carve ever-more perfect specimens out of marble, to realize in stone their minds’ ideal. This could be related to how sculptures were commissioned and enjoyed: perhaps the wealthy patrons who filled their houses with these beautiful human forms had different aesthetic priorities and higher, more exacting visions than the thousands who filled the seats of the theaters. The few struggled to uplift their flesh, to carve it into perfection and shine brighter than the others, even as the many, covetous democratic backbiters tore down and exiled their betters, addicted to theatrical spectacles of cursed elites succumbing to their own sins. Gregory Nagy wrote about “the detribalization of the polis: the emerging institution of the polis discourages, often by way of legislation, the glorification of aristocratic individual or individual families,” specifically with regard to funerary praise poetry.

The summer that I studied Pindar was supposed to be one of the hottest on record. Since I was ‘working from home,’ I devoted myself to lifting weights and laying in the sun reading poetry in between calls, cultivating a kind of postmodern aristocratic otium of my own. I had been lifting weights almost every day for a year, and the muscles in my arms started to feel like bundled, swollen cords; long-hidden veins came to the surface; my thighs hardened into new shapes. I was training my daughter, too, and feeding her whole milk and fish. She had always been tall, but now she was growing so tall that her doctors x-rayed the growth plates in her hands to rule out any hormonal defects. She was fine; no, she was flowering. We played soccer every day that summer after I picked her up from school, and I made her run two-minute drills at the end of each session, getting her used to trapping and passing on the move, when she was out of breath. “Get there! Get there!” I ordered her. She ran time trials up the hill in our backyard carrying a twenty-five-pound kettlebell. Once, she threw up after a workout, but I blamed this on a hamburger her grandmother had given her without my permission.

Warm rain showers came frequently but the heat always returned, boiling steam from the grass. Four times a week we went across town to a sprawling athletic complex so she could play with her academy team. Standing with the other private school parents of my city, watching our flesh compete in sweltering, steaming heat, I couldn’t help but think of Pindar, of the contest, of the never-ending struggle to raise the beautiful few out of the fetid, stagnant obesity of the many. We were observing our children striving against each other, urging them on, inculcating a competitiveness and a desire to win. There were moments when her cheeks were flushed with effort and I saw her blue eyes — my blue eyes, my grandmother’s blue eyes — and I couldn’t tell a difference between us as we glistened in our sweat under the sun. Before her first start as goalkeeper, I told her to be brutal, not to give the shooter a chance. Knock them down. She trampled the diminutive Guatemalan strikers arrayed against her, earning a dozen saves. After the match, we embraced and I loved her more than ever.

Phrases from Pindar still rang in my ears and unraveling the secret of to suggenēs still consumed much of my waking life. Bronze Age Pervert had written in Bronze Age Mindset that “life has a thing inside it that reaches beyond itself. This is intergalactic worm, I can’t say here, you must wait.” After lifting for much of my mornings, I ate raw eggs, desiccated cow organs, and rubbed beef tallow on my face. At night, I took glycine and searched the vitalist philosophies of the nineteenth century for answers. The mist from my eyes was lifting. The French had conceived of a will that pushes against the world, but Schopenhauer went further, in a direction that challenged and perplexed his readers, driving some of them to despair.

For Schopenhauer, the entire phenomenal world — physical processes like gravity, combustion, the formation of crystals, but also the growth of plants, the motion of animals, the lives of humans — are just refractions of the Will. He says that in order to understand the fundamental nature of reality, one has to look inside oneself: the experience we have of our own bodies, from the inside, is akin to the inner nature of everything else in our world. This will exists outside of time, space, and causality because those are only the forms by which phenomena appear to our understanding. The different kinds of beings are just “objective gradations of the will” — that is, they’re rendered into objects with different qualities by our perception, but they’re all animated by the same thing, all being pushed from within by the same blind, striving, aimless drive. “The organism is the mere visibility of the will,” Schopenhauer wrote in the second book of the first volume of The World as Will and Representation.

Although Schopenhauer taught the unity of the Will powering the phenomena of the world, he knew that endless strife was the fate of all things. His vision was of a constant, frenzied struggle for survival, of Platonic Ideas pushing themselves into the material plane through an endless succession of bodies, the more perfect consuming the lesser and differentiating themselves into finer forms: “the will must live on itself, since nothing exists besides it, and it is a hungry will.” He shares with Pindar a deep understanding of the species and exemplum: “These Ideas present themselves in innumerable individuals and in isolated details, and are related to them as the archetype to its copies. The plurality of such individuals can be conceived only through time and space, their arising and passing away through causality.”

Schopenhauer’s philosophy is called “pessimistic” because he concludes that the wise one must learn to negate his will, his striving that can never be satisfied, through aesthetic contemplation and spiritual transcendence, landing on a kind of Indian mysticism. Later interpreters of Schopenhauer’s vitalism, particularly Nietzsche, thought that entering into the struggle with an unflinching gaze might be the only way that humanity could produce the geniuses that could redeem it, that could in the end justify the limitless monstrosity of toil and suffering of which the human is only thinnest sensory appendage. “Every grade of the will’s objectification fights for the matter, the space, and the time of another,” Schopenhauer lamented tragically, and Nietzsche affirmed joyously.

At the end of the summer, I returned to my alma mater with my father to watch the annual alumni rugby match — he had played prop there a half-century before, and I played flanker for the same club after him. It was a thrilling experience to see this contest again with him: the young men stretching like strong horses before their game, the noise of their deep voices rippling through the gathered team. There were only a few women there, smiling easily with wet eyes, driven into a state of giddiness. We were all there to see a will show itself, to see what would shine on the field before us, to see who would stand out from the rest. I thought about strife and what words I could say that would save their deeds from obscurity, the vicious rucking of the old boys, the swift-footed students running from them.

Pindar ended his third Nemean ode, for Timodeus of Acharnae, winner in the men’s pankration, this time an Attic fighter, with images that mix blood and light, struggle and rest, music and death:

I send you this honey blended with white milk, as you see,
crowned with stirred dew, a draught of song
attended by the breath of Aeolian pipes, late though it is.
The eagle is swift among birds, and swooping from afar
seizes in its claws its blood-spattered prey,
while chattering jackdaws keep to the lower air.
But for you now, through the favor of fair-throned Cleo,

and by virtue of your spirit, avid for victory,
the light shines out from Nemea and Epidaurus and Megara.

The contest and Pindar’s words nourished me. I saw new races of men springing from the loins of the athletes, I saw that we were just the fingertips of the great goddess Truth reaching into our reality, gesturing in a primordial liturgy, the churning spawn of new peoples just a flick of her ever-flowing hands rippling through the manifold. I saw how a tribe is forged from raw human matter. A peculiar sensation came over me, a sweet-smelling blood-spattered Greek happiness, as I watched the forms of the rugby players collide again and again.

Charles Wing-Uexküll is a writer and ex-academic.

Read also: Bodily Noesis, by Michael Millerman


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