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Which Path Will You Follow? Homer’s Universe and Pindar’s Afterlife

George Alexander Gazis

Durham University

The Second Olympian is one of the most well-known and, by common consent, problematic Odes of the Pindaric corpus. Pindar’s description of man’s possible fates after death upsets the earlier Homeric model of a common and singular afterlife, and creates problems on a theoretical level, while further giving rise to several “theological” and linguistic ambiguities.Scholars have proposed several interpretations of the passage, varying from assigning ignorance to the poet, or simply a polemic stance towards Homer (Solmsen 1982; Nisetich 1988), to identifying specific elements of Orphic (Bowra 1964) or Pythagorean (Demand 1975; Edmunds 2009, Trepanier 2017) doctrines in the Ode.

In this paper, I want to offer a disruptive interpretation of the underworld narrative of Olympian 2, by moving away from the established approach that seeks to separate and define specific religious/cultic beliefs, and looking instead at the mythic tradition which Pindar exploits in order to paint an image of the afterlife which is as diverse as it is familiar. I argue specifically, that the poet makes use of the old Homeric tripartite division of the universe (sky, earth, underworld, cf. Il. 15.185-99), to create an afterlife that parallels that very structure, and in which the souls follow a symbolic path of ascension from mortal nature to divine exaltation. The afterlife is visualised as a three levelled construct where the lower level is reserved for the impious, the in-between level for the pious as an idealised earthly existence free from toil and suffering, whereas the upper level, can be found following the path of Zeus next to the tower of Cronos and offers essentially a deification of the soul on the Isle of the Blessed (O. 2.65-80). This model, if superimposed upon the Homeric division of the cosmos would reflect precisely the geographical elements of the underworld, the earth and heaven, with the last level, representing a plain of existence in the sky. This interpretation finds support in a comment by Aristotle regarding the alleged Pythagorean belief of the sun being conceived as the “tower of Zeus” (Fr.204, 10), thus placing Pindar’s Isle of the Blessed beyond the constraints of the earth and firmly within a visualised celestial realm.

That some form of Sicilian or, more specifically, Acragantian afterlife cult could be concealed within the narrative is very probable and supported by reliable external evidence (most notably Empedocles’ Katharmoi, cf. Griffith 1991; Currie 2005, 233). I argue however that the description with which Pindar presents his audience has, except from some minor elements, very little to do with any concrete doctrine. Whether this is done intentionally or as a result of genuine ignorance is a question that has to, inevitably, remain open. What can however, be proved, I argue, is that Pindar’s approach to the concept of distinct afterlives remains, within its peculiarity, as traditional as ever.

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Early Greek Poetry

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