Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chronic dyspepsia in Olympian 1

Pindar's First Olympian has several interesting motifs. This is about one of them: digestion. The ode begins with a banquet honoring Hieron, and swiftly moves to the somewhat less felicitous feast of Tantalos, though Pindar's version of events swerves from the grisly tales of other poets.

Pindar begins by protesting his own innocence - he would never dishonor a god:
For me it is impossible to call one of the blessed gods a glutton. I stand back from it.
The word for "glutton" is γαστρίμαργον, (gastro: stomach.)

At Hieron's feast, the assembled guests have the "sweetest thoughts" (γλυκυτάταις ἔθηκε φροντίσιν) thanks to the grace of Pisa and of Pherenikos, Hieron's horse. χάριςor grace, is a potent word that contains beauty, favor, and goodwill, as well as some show of kindness that gains gratitude, and thus can act as a charm, or influence.

As the charmed guests sing and toast Hieron at his feast, Pindar sings of that arch-feast to which Tantalos invited the gods, to reciprocate their grace:
If indeed the watchers of Olympus ever honored a mortal man, [55] that man was Tantalus. But he was not able to digest his great prosperity, and for his excess he seized overpowering ruin, which the Father hung over him: a mighty stone.

Pindar makes a punning joke. This raising up of Tantalos by the "watchers of Olympus" was a bit too rich for Tantalos, who couldn't keep it down. The word Pindar uses, καταπέσσω, is not a metaphor. It simply means "to digest." 

What Tantalos couldn't digest was the μέγαν ὄλβονthe great happiness that he was enjoying among the gods. According to one version of the tale, when they discovered he had cooked them up his son, Pelops, they were horrified - it was an indigestible thing (except for Demeter, who nibbled absentmindedly, hence the ivory shoulder).

Great happiness can be as indigestible as great horror, Pindar tells the happy peers of Hieron. Tantalos's error -- κόρῳ -- can mean satiety or surfeit --is perfectly consonant with the gastronomic figure. I have translated it as "excess" to underscore the ethical dimension.
A brief digression . . .
Why does Pindar here call the gods the "watchers of Olympus"? One possibility is that, as we know, they hold Olympus because Zeus defeated his father, Kronos, in a war after Kronos ate, or tried to eat, all his children. (This gastronomic predilection is a bit of a tradition.) The Olympians are always "watchers" because at any time some extraordinary monster, like Typhon, could rise and try to unseat them from their place in the sky. Perhaps Tantalos was trying to emulate Kronos? Or Zeus himself, who ate Metis ("cunning") because of a prophecy that her child would unseat him -- a devouring that led to the birth of Athena.
In any event, angered that Tantalos attempted to share the gods' ambrosia and nectar with mortals, Zeus hangs the stone over Tantalos. The man who found Olympian happiness indigestible now and forever lives beneath it. But the gastronomic imagery continues.

The scene shifts to the night that Pelops, alone, at the edge of the sea, called upon Poseidon:
θανεῖν δ᾽ οἷσιν ἀνάγκατί κέ τις ἀνώνυμον γῆρας ἐν σκότῳ καθήμενος ἕψοι μάταν
Since all men are compelled to die, why should anyone sit stewing an inglorious old age in the darkness, with no share of any fine deeds?
Translator Svarlien's "stewing" is precise. Pelops's word is ἕψοι - which describes the boiling and seething of meat. To Pelops, life itself is a matter of being cooked -- it's only a question of whether one stews in dark anonymity, or steps up:
As for me, on this contest
I will take my stand. 
In taking his stand, Pelops speaks and establishes a position. He posits a place from which the contest is on. ὑποκείσεται literally means to put or set under, and is related to hypothesis. Pelops "takes as given" the possibility that he can defeat Oenomaus with his former lover's help.

For Pelops that "stand" leads to "horses with untiring wings" and a golden chariot -- he has become an image of the sun. The shift from dark ocean's shore to blazing flight and triumph is quick in the telling. Pelops's race launches the games forever linked with his coming of age, his courage, his slaying of the evil father, and his marriage to Hippodameia. The rest, as we say, is history. Now it's Hieron's turn. No winged horse, but the radiant χάρις of Pherenikos. 
τὸ δ᾽ἔσχατον κορυφοῦται βασιλεῦσιμηκέτιπάπταινε πόρσιον
the peak of the farthest limit is for kings. Do not look
beyond that!
To be king is sweet, but
the good of the common day
is the best that comes to every mortal man.

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