In a lost song (fr.282 Maehler) Pindar referred to colossal figure which controlled the flow of the Nile river, apparently by moving its feet, so as to make it proportionate (summetros) to the seasons. The aims of this paper are to establish what can be known about this little studied fragment (the only recent treatment is Lavecchia. 1999, which deals with a different aspect), and to situate it in its cultural and religious contexts.
Three sources survive for Pindar's Nile-controller. First, Flavius Philostratus (VA6.27) talks of: “. . . stories . . . which Pindar in his wisdom puts into verse about the daimon whom he sets over these springs to preserve the due proportions of the Nile”. This daimon is also mentioned by Philostratus Major in his Imagines (1.5.2). The third source is a scholion on Aratus, Phainomena 283 which refers to a “hundred fathom statue” (á¼‘κατοντορÏŒγυιον á¼€νδριÎ¬ντα), "from the movement of whose feet the Nile floods". Finally, the neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry considered Pindar's account of the Nile significant enough that he wrote a treatise about it, "On the Sources of the Nile in Pindar" (fr.421Smith).
Whether it was a colossal divine being (daimon) or an animated statue, Pindar's Nile-controller should probably be thought of as having been created by the gods by an act of providence, to ensure that the river flooded at the right time and to the correct extent. Pindar tells stories of divine providence elsewhere, e.g. the rooting down of the floating island of Delos (fr.33d Maehler), or the creation of the Third Temple at Delphi complete with singing Keledones (Paean 8, 65-8), and somewhere he invoked Zeus as "of surpassing skill" (aristotekhna, fr.59). At the same time, the idea of a statue controlling the Nile flow perhaps reflects knowledge of real monumental statues on the Nile, such as those at Abu Simbel, where Greek mercenaries left graffiti in the 6th century BC (cf. Bowra. 1964, 372). It is even possible the role attributed to the statue's feet has been influenced by Egyptian sources which talk of the Nile flowing under the feet of statues, as was suggested by Danielle Bonneau in her important study of ancient theories about the Nile-flood (1964, 229-30; for possible echoes of Egyptian religion in another Pindaric fragment [fr.201Maehler], see Derchain.1999).
Pindar's mythopoetic treatment of the Nile in fr.282 Maehler stands in complete contrast to the rational speculations attributed to early Greek intellectuals about the causes of the seasonal flooding of the Nile and the location of its sources (see Bonneau. 1964, 135-214). The historian Herodotus (Hist. 1.19-34; Lloyd. 1975-88, 2, 91-146) already looks back on a rich body of theory, starting with Thales of Miletus, who explained the flood as a result of the Etesian Winds. The attitudes of Greek intellectuals can be contrasted with views found in Egyptian sources, which attribute the river's flow to the agency of certain gods, among them the Nile-deity Hapi, the creator god Khnum, or Osiris. Later Greek writers, among them Plutarch, report authentically Egyptian ideas, e.g. that Nileflood is an "efflux of Osiris" (Plutarch, DIO36, 365b; 38, 366a). Pindar's explanation of the Nile-flow asdivinely-engineered is thus closer to the traditional Egyptian way of looking at the Nile than the contemporary Greek one.
Whatever the date of Pindar's song, it is likely that it postdates the earliest Ionian philosophers, offering a supernatural explanation for a phenomenon which they were already trying to explain in rational terms. It may thus be suggested that Pindar is composing with knowledge of Ionian science and, as it were, reasserting a religious view of the world in reaction to it. So too, while rational explanations for solar eclipses had been around since the early 6th century (e.g. Thales, ap. Herodotus, Hist.1.74), Pindar's response to the eclipse at Thebes in Paean 9 reasserts a strikingly religious mentality.