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Seeing the Trees: Reading Pindar in the Anthropocene

Kyle Sanders

Sewanee: The University of the South

Seeing the Trees: Reading Pindar in the Anthropocene

                From leaf-shedding similes to the orchard of Laertes, trees have always been appreciated as a richly symbolic field in ancient literature (Henderson, Gowers). Within Pindar’s epinikia, critics have described tree metaphors as a deep associative network (Segal, Calame) or even a “master symbol” in which victor, clan, poet, and broader community are figured (Carne-Ross). By virtue of their inherent versatility (many parts, species, and senses to appreciate), trees are useful poetic material for the occasional songs Pindar wrote.

                At the same time, environmental histories of the ancient world have long emphasized the exploitative relationship between humans and trees (Amigues, Hughes, Thommen). Thus Plato in the Critias famously laments the deforestation of Attica. Likewise, to the limited extent that critics have articulated an ecological perspective in Pindar’s poetry, the conversation has centered around how myths about the natural world validate narratives of colonial violence (e.g., Dougherty on Pythian 9) and “Euro-masculinism” (Eckerman on Olympian 7).

                By contrast, this paper argues that “exploitation,” is not a sufficient framework to describe Pindar’s environmental ethic. For example, in Pythian 4, the poet deploys a riddle about the harvest of an oak tree to address a political crisis in Cyrene (q.v. Lattman). By posing the question of the intrinsic versus instrumental value of a tree, the riddle invites to conversation various disputing parties. In order to solve the riddle, and mend the social fabric, the text asks the audience to empathize with a non-human species. 

                Likewise, the poetic speaker of Olympian 3 somewhat anachronistically projects deforestation into the legendary past; Heracles confronts the nakedness of the Olympian landscape as a kind of cosmic injustice. The hero’s peaceful negotiation for the olive trees of the Hyperboreans, likely a Pindaric innovation (Köhnken, Pavlou), engenders a site of memory and a lasting social good for humans. At the same time, the trees reap the rewards of protection and local veneration, which the text conditions via Heracles’ reaction.

                In sum, rather than focus on nebulous concepts such as “environment” or the natural world, this paper investigates how the Pindaric text encodes in discrete episodes on a small scale the interactions between two species, humans and trees.  Accordingly, I show that the human-tree relationships in offer sites of inter-species cooperation and problem-solving.

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