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Χάρις in the Epinician Odes of Pindar and Bacchylides

Chris Eckerman

Scholars generally assume that χάρις, in epinician poetry, has a broad semantic range that includes splendor, glory, charm, favor, ode, grace, gratitude, and service (cf., e.g., Cairns, 2010:passim, Nicholson 2005:passim, MacLachlan 1993:87-123, Kurke 1991:85-239, and the lexicographers: Slater 1969 and Gerber 1984 s.v. χάρις). Some scholars have begun to show, however, that, in Greek literature, χάρις regularly denotes ‘requital,’ the counter-gift offered within a context of reciprocity (e.g. Wagner-Hasel 2013:164-5, Scheid-Tissinier 1994:35-6, 258-9). Following these recent findings, I suggest here that epinician χάρις refers to the requital offered in response to a benefaction (at O. 1. 75, for example, Pelops expects Poseidon to offer him ‘requital’ for the sexual favors that he granted Poseidon previously). I show that Pindar and Bacchylides use χάρις in two ways: χάρις either denotes requital as an abstract noun (regularly understood as an instantiated phenomenon (as in the example noted above, O. 1.75)) or it works metaphorically (usually denoting epinician song crafted in response to a perceived or constructed obligation to praise an achievement, as at B 3.92).

Throughout epinician poetry, χάρις refers to various requitals that are engendered in response to a gift. For example, at P. 1.33-4, a sailor feels χάρις for receiving a favorable wind. At I. 6. 49-54, χάρις is described as a response by the gods in fulfillment of a prayer. At P. 4. 275, χάρις refers to the return to order after a period of instability. χάρις, then, fulfills numerous roles as an act of requital for various benefactions in epinician poetry.  

Previous suggestions for the meaning of χάρις in epinician poetry, then, do not fully address the anthropological and socio-economic context of χάρις. Grace is not an adequate translation for χάρις, since grace is a one-way bequest, lavished by a benefactor upon a recipient, whereas χάρις references the fulfillment of a bond of reciprocity. Moreover, gratitude does not denote the requital for the good received, but rather the emotion that may or may not generate χάρις. Furthermore, aesthetic translations such as beauty, splendor, or charm for χάρις in epinician poetry are incorrect, and we can see that they are incorrect because, by replacing aesthetic translations with requital in the contexts in which χάρις is used, the respective passages make greater sense.

In this talk, then, I argue in favor of tightening the semantics of χάρις in epinician poetry and I explain the interpretive rewards that are to be gained by doing so. In fact, understanding the semantics of χάρις in epinician poetry allows me to show that we have previously misunderstood two passages of Pindar’s Greek: at I. 2.21, it is now clear that the Athenians’ κλειναῖς καρίτεσσιν ‘glorious requitals’ must be Panathenaic vases. The phrase occurs in a victory catalogue that mentions the rewards won at various competitions: Dorian parsley (l.15) at the Isthmos, splendor (l. 18) at Delphi, and now Panathenaic vases at Athens (l.19). Furthermore, it is now clear that we have punctuated a verse of P. 5 incorrectly. At l. 45, there should be a period after Ἀλεχιβιάδα. The σὲ δ’ that follows marks a change of subject from Karrhotos to Arkesilas, and this is clear because the fair-haired ‘Graces’ are setting Arkesilas on fire during the performance of this ode; Pindar and Bacchylides regularly construct their obligation to praise their patrons through the khreos-motif, and this passage provides an example of that motif. The purpose of this paper, then, is not to emaciate the power of Pindar’s and Bacchylides’ striking imagery, by stripping χάρις of the supposed multiple denotations that contemporary scholars see in this word. Rather, while using ‘requital’ as the fundamental denotation for χάρις, we see that Pindar and Bacchylides use χάρις in new and exciting manners, in their rhetorically and ideologically driven poems.

Session/Panel Title

Poetics, Politics, and Religion in Greek Lyric and Epinician

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