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“The Deep-Voiced Lord of Thunder”: Thunder and the Poetic Voice in Pindar

Owen Goslin

Recent scholarship has elucidated the fine distinctions between words for voice in Greek, and the significance of this lexicon for understanding poetic inspiration in early Greek poetry (Ford 1992, Leclerc 1993, Lachenaud 2013). One neglected area of study, however, is the distinctive sound of Zeus’ thunder and its relationship to Greek notions of the voice and poetic authority. To what extent do Greek poets conceive of thunder – the disembodied and yet inimitable sound of Zeus – as a voice? And what role does this sublime sound play in poetic self-fashioning? Thunder has a special relevance for the epinician poet, since the thunderclap often appears as a sign that confers victory in early Greek poetry (Pucci 1996). In this paper I will argue that Pindar explores the relationship between thunder and the poetic voice in two keys ways that differ from his poetic predecessors: (1) in the way that he likens thunder to a voice, and (2) in the way that he appropriates the resonant qualities of thunder to song itself. Thus my paper complements recent studies that have begun to examine how Greek poetry conceived of the poetic voice as part of a larger spectrum of sounds in nature (e.g. Porter 2010, 378-83).

My argument begins with the formulaic epithet found in dactylic hexameter: euruopa Zeus. While the epithet’s meaning was disputed even in antiquity, its etymology points to a compound of euru (“wide”) and *ops (“voice”) that alludes to the volume and scope of Zeus’ voice (Chantraine 1980). The most commonly accepted explanation of the epithet, in its vocal sense, is that it refers to the sound of Zeus’ thunderbolt, since it is both the locus of his power and the means by which Zeus most often communicates with mortals (Montiglio 2000, 72). Pindar alludes to this epithet, but assimilates it to his own poetics by coining a new compound epithet for Zeus: “the deep-voiced (baruopa) lord of thunder” (P. 6.24). This hapax legomenon is appropriate to the distinctive timbre of many Pindaric odes, since baru- compounds describing loud and resonant sounds are characteristic of his poetry (Kaimio 1977, 153). The vocal nature of thunder is elaborated more explicitly in other passages: in places Pindar conflates thunder and the speaking voice of Zeus (cf. brontas aision phthegma, P. 4.198), while he also equates the victory ode itself to the thunderbolt, as twin emblems of victory (O. 10.76-84; Burgess 1990, 278).

I bring these insights to bear on a close reading of Pythian 1.1-28, where Pindar develops at greatest length the interrelationship of song and thunder. This celebrated passage describes the effect of Apollo’s lyre, which brings peace to Olympus while striking fear in the enemies of Zeus. Although the lyre’s music is said to “quench even the warring thunderbolt (keraunos, 5),” I argue against the interpretation that regards the thunderbolt as therefore “antithetic to the notion of musical order” (Burton 1962, 92). As other critics have noted, Pindar characterizes the lyre and the song of the Muses in terms that suggest the warlike qualities of its sound (Race 1986, 38; Brillante 1992). I suggest, however, that the lyre and song take on some of the qualities of the thunderbolt, through the inclusion of several words (e.g. elelizomena, 4) and images (e.g. kêla, 12) that are commonly used elsewhere of thunder, and by the choice of Typhos as the mythological exemplum. The violence of Zeus’ thunderbolt is sublimated, but reflected in the resonant qualities of the Muses’ song, which continues to oppress the enemies of Zeus. Through this sublimation, Pindar emphasizes the materiality of song and its ability to shape the world in accordance with Zeus’ will. As my close reading demonstrates, intensities of sound are heard as song when backed by the thunderbolt of Zeus, but as mere noise when produced by enemies of Olympus such as Typhos.

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Voice and Sound in Classical Greece

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