Pythian 3: An ode by Pindar which has resonance today in the midst of a global pandemic.
A Roman copy of the Greek 5th century bust, at Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples
Pythian 3 was written in the 5th century BC by the Greek lyric poet Pindar. The poem is dedicated to Hieron, Pindar’s patron and the ruler of Syracuse. Pindar typically wrote epinicians, or ‘victory odes’, which commemorated a particular athletic victory, often as a pretext for praising a successful individual’s more general achievements. Interestingly, this ode makes only a passing reference to a previous charioteering victory by Hieron in a single-horse race; for the rest of the poem, Pindar primarily focuses on Hieron’s illness, providing consolation and reflecting generally on human misfortune, with reference to Greek mythological traditions and the role of Pindar’s own poetic craft in lending a voice to this experience. Though this poem was written within a very different context to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, there is familiarity in the way that it captures the sense of indignation and impotence humans feel on witnessing sickness and suffering. It speaks to the painfulness of being reminded of how vulnerable our lives are to chance fluctuations in circumstance.
The opening lines of the poem are particularly powerful. It is as though the poetic voice cannot stop itself from desperately wishing for Chiron, the mythical centaur-healer, to return and save people from their afflictions; but this thought is interrupted with the reminder that this is a common and ineffectual plea - as a poet, does Pindar not have something more profound to offer than this? He comments that this prayer would not be fitting for him, and yet continues with it anyway in a kind of praeteritio (the rhetorical technique of alluding to something by seeming to disregard it).
As the poem develops, it oscillates between heartfelt conditionals, willing Chiron to work his magic and save humans from their ‘feverish diseases’ and physical afflictions, and hard-headed, proverbial truths about the human condition; these are illustrated by myths, arguing that we should not seek to be immortal or control our destinies. In voicing wishes in such a way - just as we might talk of wanting to ‘wave a magic wand’ and simply get rid of the coronavirus - the poem offers empathy and validation for the sense of injustice that is felt in situations of suffering.
By devoting space to the description of Chiron as a miracle-doctor, the poem seems to imply that this outpouring ought not to be suppressed; it is not trivial, but a legitimate and instinctive response to sickness and the realisation of our mortality. It suggests that setting out rationalistic outlooks on the human experience is insufficient alone in aiding processes of consolation and acceptance - the expression of a non-rational response fuelled by emotion is also crucial. There is even a sense in which this kind of verbal catharsis itself takes on the therapeutic quality of Chiron’s epaoidais (which can mean ‘songs’ but may also carry the idea of ‘spells’ or ‘incantations’).
Pythian 3 offers resilience and agency in the face of uncontrollable fate, alongside a sympathetic treatment of familiar grief. Two phrases stand out in particular: ἔμπρακτον ἄντλει μαχανάν (‘drain to the dregs the arts within your power’) and κατ᾽ἐμὰν θεραπεύων μαχανάν (‘tending to [whatever my fortune is] to the best of my ability’). In both, we are reminded that the best (and indeed only) thing we have in the face of these kinds of misfortune is μαχανάν, which refers to human skill, art, contrivance and creativity; in other words, the available means and talents which are specific to us as individuals. The wonderful Chiron may be out of reach, but we ourselves can channel his active, remedial approach (θεραπεύων). Humans may be - to use Pindar’s analogy - buffeted by ever-changing winds of fortune, but this need not make us passive; our unique skill-sets, qualities, and abilities equip us to find new ways (whether medical, technological, mental, artistic, or indeed literary) to alleviate suffering and make the best of undesirable situations.
Pythian 3.1-5, 47-53, 59-67, 104-9
‘I wish that Chiron, son of Philyra -
If it were right for my tongue to utter this cliched prayer -
Were alive, though he’s departed,
The wide-reigning son of Uranus’ son Cronus,
And that he were ruling the glens of Pelion, the wild creature
Benevolent to men.
And all those who came, chronically afflicted with inborn sores,
Or limbs wounded with grey bronze
Or a stone slung from afar,
Bodies ravaged either by sweltering fever or wintery chills,
He released and set them free from all their different pains,
Treating some with easing spells,
Some with soothing draughts, or applying ointments all over their limbs,
And others he set right with surgery.
We must seek from the gods what is suitable for mortal minds,
Knowing what is at our feet, and what kind of lo