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Pindar in 1896 and the Poetics of the First Modern Olympiad

Stamatia Dova

Pindaric studies flourished in nineteenth century Europe, with the publication of new editions, translations, scholia and commentaries (Boeckh, Bury, Fennell, Heimer, Semitelos). During the same period, the movement for the revival of the Olympic games culminated in the foundation of the International Olympic Committee  (IOC) in 1894 and in the first International Olympic Games in 1896. By choosing Athens as the venue for the first modern Olympiad, the IOC seemed to encourage an ideology of continuity between ancient Greece and the sixty-four year old Greek state (Kitroeff, Lunzenfichter, Smith). Accordingly, IOC president Dimitrios Vikelas invited eminent Greek poet Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) to write the anthem for the 1896 Olympics. As he enlisted his compelling lyricism in the creation of a soon-to-become emblematic poem, Palamas drew inspiration from his own enthusiastic reception of Pindar. Contributing to the discussion of Pindar's European reception (Hamilton, Pontani), this paper contextualizes the 1896 Olympic anthem within the Olympic movement and Greek literary scene with the intention of shedding new light on the historical poetics and cultural politics of the first modern Olympiad.
 
Palamas' "Olympic Hymn," set in music by opera composer Spyridon Samaras (1861-1917) and later established as the official inaugural song of all Olympic games, initiated a dialogue between ancient and modern Olympism. This dialogue encompassed the Problematik of Pierre de Coubertin's Olympic vision (Callebat) while also pondering the role of Greek antiquity in the formation of modern Greek national identity (Hamilakis). For Palamas, the discourse on the repatriation of the Olympic games acquired an additional dimension: the debate over Greece's official language. Hotly contested among nineteenth-century scholarly circles in both Greece and the Hellenic diaspora, the "Language Question" sought to define the linguistic identity of the newly established Greek state as either puristic, drawing exclusively from ancient Greek, or demotic, centered on the spoken language of the Greek people (Beaton). 
 
Recent scholarship has revisited Palamas' reception (Garantoudis), poetic technique (Politis), and impact on educational policy (Andreiomenos) with special emphasis on his ability to negotiate the polarities between his literary production in demotic Greek and his administrative work at the University of Athens in puristic. A fervent proponent of demoticism, Palamas recognized the literary merits of modern Greek early on in his career and employed it successfully in his poetry. Both his award-winning composition "Hymn to Athena" (1889) and his 1894 translation of the Delphic Hymn to Apollo (Reinach, Solomon) voiced classical influences in brilliant demotic, foreshadowing his dynamic reception of Pindar in his translations of Olympian 2 and 14 into modern Greek (1896). Enriched with allusions to folk songs and episodes of modern Greek history, Palamas' renditions of the two epinicians encapsulate his authorial intention to turn Pindar's poetry into a hypertext of modern-era Greek heritage. Furthermore, the international attention enjoyed by his Olympic anthem allowed Palamas to make a literary statement on both national language and Pindaric reception. While making clear that ancient Greek was not the native tongue of twentieth century Greeks, this statement also acknowledged the power of intellectual kinship between authors of different times and cultures. This power, according to Palamas, made "Pindar a contemporary of Verhaeren," rendering as secondary, if not irrelevant, any and all questions of continuity and reception. 

 
Session/Panel Title:

Ancient Athletics and the Modern Olympics: History, Ideals, and Ideology

Session/Paper Number

80.4

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