You are here

Subversion of the Homeric Simile in Pindar’s Victory Odes

Asya C. Sigelman

Bryn Mawr College

This paper offers a new approach to a small yet salient detail of Homeric intertext in Pindar’s victory odes: Pindar’s remarkable treatment of Homeric simile.

The simile, a staple of Homeric style, was popular among archaic lyric poets as different as Stesichorus and Simonides; across the meagre remains of Bacchylides’ epinicians we encounter no less than five Homeric-style similes, two of them (5.63-67 and 13.124-140) modeled on specific passages from the Iliad (Krummen 2000; Segal 1976).  By contrast, in the extensive surviving corpus of the victory odes of Pindar—a coeval and literary rival of Bacchylides—similes are almost completely absent.  On the rare occasions when Pindar has recourse to something resembling a Homeric simile (i.e., a comparison marked by a standard epic connective such as ἅτε, οἷον, ὡς ὅτε, ὡς, ὥσπερ, or ὥστε) the construction turns out, upon closer reading, to be a subversion of the simile formula—in fact, not a simile at all but rather a unique type of metaphor.  

Scholarly attention has hitherto been devoted either to the prominence of epic-style similes in other archaic poets such as Bacchylides (Most 2012; Fearn 2012), or to the prominence of metaphors in Pindar (Lattmann 2010; Patten 2009; Silk 2003; Steiner 1986; Duchemin 1955).  By contrast, this paper focuses on Pindar’s (mis)use of the simile and suggests that his emphatic eschewing and subverting of this popular epic trope is not accidental but rather a reflection of an inherent difference between Homeric and Pindaric poetic worldviews.

I begin with an overview of the practical effect of the Homeric simile with its appeal to the well-established and the familiar (Scott 2009; Bakker 2005; Ben-Porat 1992).  The epic simile draws an analogy between two scenes belonging to two different worlds, both of them familiar, pre-existing givens: the grim world of the Trojan War as handed down to the poet by the epic tradition is juxtaposed with the world of stable and predictable existence of mortal life in the context of natural elements and cosmic cycles.  Even in those (not infrequent) cases when a Homeric simile achieves a striking, unexpected effect, it does so by exploiting the audience’s expectations of the familiar. The sight of Achilles running after Hector (two familiar folkloric figures) was, the poet asserts, similar to the common sight of a falcon chasing a dove (Il. 22.139-144).    

Next, I examine passages from Pindar which, while purporting to be orthodox Homeric similes, in fact subvert the Homeric comparison. Consider, for example, the proem of Isthmian 6:

Θάλλοντος ἀνδρῶν ὡς ὅτε συμποσίου

δεύτερον κρατῆρα Μοισαίων μελέων

κίρναμεν Λάμπωνος εὐαέθλου γενεᾶς ὕπερ…

As when a drinking-party of men is flourishing, so we are mixing a second crater of the Muses’ songs on behalf of the prize-winning race of Lampon…

The connective ὡς ὅτε suggests that what we have here is a typical Homeric comparison: the poet is composing a second song for Lampon’s family just as revelers mix a second bowl of wine at a symposium. But a closer look reveals that, instead of placing side-by-side two preexisting, familiar entities, Pindar presents us with one, altogether novel, entity: the song is the newly-mixed draught in the poet’s crater.  This could be interpreted as straightforward metaphor, except that Pindar tantalizingly retains the ὡς ὅτε, thereby bringing out the contrast between his own brand-new creation and the simile which we expect to follow the connective. 

Through these and other examples, this paper will show that in deploying markers such as ὡς ὅτε to subvert the very concept of simile, Pindar challenges the Homeric perception of song as a given handed down by tradition and opens the door to a world different than anything encountered in epic song—a world where an ode is a road (and a drink, and a ship, and a polis); a poet is a charioteer (and a priest, and a wind, and an athlete); a chorus-leader is a crater full of resounding songs.

Session/Panel Title

Whose Homer?

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy