You are here

One γένος or Two? Embracing Paradox in Pindar’s Nemean 6.1

Peter Moench

University of Virginia

The famous opening sentence of Nem. 6 is fraught with controversy and yet critical for an understanding of the distinctive cosmology Pindar proposes in the ode: Ἓν ἀνδρῶν, ἓν θεῶν γένος (1). Does this mean “there is one genos of men, another of the gods,” or just the opposite, “the genos of men and gods is one (and the same)”? While each reading has its advocates, most commentators have opted for the latter (cf. Lourenço [2011], Henry [2005], Gerber [1999], Fränkel [1975], Fehling [1969], Farnell [1932], Fennell [1899], Bury [1890], and the scholia). In my paper I challenge the majority view, arguing that Pindar opens his ode by denying the kinship of gods and men (for this position cf. Hummel [1993], Des Places [1964], Bundy [1962], Kloch-Kornitz [1961], Mezger [1880]). At the same time, I will suggest that, while Pindar begins with the claim of separate genē, the thrust of the proem as a whole is not to answer the question of whether humans are related to the gods, but to problematize it. I am thus in agreement with Lourenço (2011) that we can see Pindar the “poet-thinker” at work in the opening of Nem. 6, but where he argues that Pindar claims a common ancestry for men and gods in the poem’s first words and thereby refutes the “anthropology” of the Iliad (which stresses the distinctness and inferiority of men in comparison to the gods), I propose that Pindar’s thought and engagement with poetic tradition is more complex: by paradoxically both insisting that men and gods constitute separate species (genē) and affirming a common ancestry (“but we both breathe from a single mother,” ἐκ μιᾶς δὲ πνέομεν | ματρὸς ἀμφότεροι, 6.1-2), Pindar presents humanity’s place in the cosmos as fundamentally ambivalent.

Since opponents of the separate genē reading have placed the most weight on linguistic argument, I begin by briefly reviewing their claim that Greek usage would require ἕτερον (rather than ἕν) or a μέν/δέ construction to express the thought that the genē of men and gods are distinct. I argue to the contrary that reading the text disjunctively is perfectly plausible linguistically, without the need for any words explicitly denoting contrast. The true difficulty presented by the separate genē reading, then, is not linguistic but conceptual, in as much as it is immediately contradicted by the following clause: “we both breathe from the same mother” (6.1-2).  How can men and gods belong to separate genē – a classification based on birth – and yet share a common mother? The combination presents a paradox. However, I will contend that, far from counting against this reading, the paradox is in fact integral to the argument of the proem as a whole. As he continues to elaborate this initial paradox in the lines that follow (which all commentators admit oscillate swiftly back-and-forth between human-divine difference and similarity), Pindar presents a vision of the relation of gods and men that departs strikingly from the evolutionary model represented in the earlier tradition of Greek epic. There, a greater intimacy between men and gods – rooted in close kinship ties – is located in the heroic past, while a subsequent process of separation leads to humanity’s contemporary remove (for this mythological chronology see Clay [1989], [2003]). In contrast to this orderly progression, Nem. 6 presents human life as defined by simultaneous contradictory forces: both a centrifugal, push away from and a centripetal, pull toward the divine. Both intimacy and distance are thus equally a part of contemporary human existence: in exceptional moments of achievement – the subject of the epinician poet – an individual can appear godlike; but Pindar is equally cognizant of the unforgiving limits that ensure that success is always shadowed by failure and that no outcome is certain for mortals. The alternating fortunes of the family of Alkimidas, the victor of Nem. 6, bear out this general rule.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Language

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy