Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.38

Oretta Olivieri, Miti e culti tebani nella poesia di Pindaro. Filologia e critica, 89.   Pisa; Roma:  Fabrizio Serra editore, 2011.  Pp. 244.  ISBN 9788862274388.  € 76.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Emilio Suárez de la Torre, Universitat Pompeu Fabra (

This is an outstanding book, a brilliant product of the “Urbino School”. The methodology followed by Olivieri provides a rich combination of strict philological analysis of Pindar’s poems with a focus on the mythical and religious—including topography—environment of the poems in question. The relation of Pindaric poetry to Theban myths and rites is studied here through the role played in the poems by the main protagonists of local mythical and ritual traditions, along with others associated with them: the founding heroes (Cadmus, Amphion and Zethus), the local diviners (Teiresias and Amphiaraos), and Heracles, Dionysus and Apollo. Each starts with a good summary of the main versions of the myths, followed by a detailed analysis of their Pindaric treatment, underlining the peculiarities of these versions. As a general assessment of the work, it is no overstatement to claim that this is a substantial contribution to the interpretation of Pindar’s poems composed for a Theban context and to the perception of the Pindaric use of myth.

The first chapter, dedicated to the founding heroes (“Gli eroi fondatori”, pp.19-46), analyzes the references to Cadmus and the twins Amphion and Zethus. The selectivity of Pindar’s options in the choice of heroic references is patent in this case. Despite the abundant versions of Cadmeian mythology, Pindar focuses on very concrete aspects: the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia, the female descendants (in this case, Ino and Semele) and the destiny of Cadmus after his death, as well as some brief allusions to the Spartoi. Thus, Cadmus appears as a local hero, whose migration from the east has no importance. What is relevant is his “Thebanness” (“tebanicità”), consecrated by his wedding, and the fact that his daughters Ino and Semele became divinized and were incorporated into the local pantheon, as the monuments show. As for the twins Amphion and Zethus, they have in Pindar a secondary role. In fact, we find almost exclusively the name of Zethus, and always linked to that of Cadmus. However, some heroines related to the twins are mentioned in different occasions: these are Niobe and, more frequently, Dirce. The reason is that, despite the dark aspects of her myth, there is no mythical account of her, but only topographical mentions, because of the symbolic nature of the spring as part of the urban landscape of Thebes.

Chapter 2 deals with the local diviners (“Gli indovini”), Teiresias and Amphiaraus. Once again Olivieri shows that the peculiarities of Pindar’s treatment aim at an encomiastic display of local glories and traditions. The role of Teiresias in Oedipus’ story is omitted, whereas the diviner appears as the predictor of the forthcoming glory of Heracles when the hero strangles the serpents sent by Hera. Even the location of his observatory is modified to connect him with Zeus instead of Apollo. Olivieri puts forward the possibility that the death of Teiresias in Pindar was placed at the Tilphossa fountain, reinforcing the strong Theban symbolism of the seer. As for Amphiaraus, a Melampodid who was not of Theban origin, he is not only the exceptional warrior and seer sung by the epic cycle: Pindar concentrated mostly upon the episode of the seer’s disappearance, which allows him to enhance, once again, his links with the Theban territory. This impression is corroborated by the reference included in Pythian 8, 38-60, in the problematic passage of the prophetic revelation received by Pindar on the road to Delphi. Among the possible interpretations, Olivieri adheres to the opinion that Amphiaraus is the hero appearing in the epiphany. Thus, the argument of the appropriation of the hero by Thebes is reinforced and the terms used by Pindar (γείτων, κτεάνων φύλαξ ἐμῶν) are fully justified.1

Heracles is the subject of chapter 3 (“Eracle”, pp. 89-118). As expected in a Theban poet, Pindar makes frequent use of Heraclean mythology. As we have seen with the preceding heroes, he picks up the motifs that emphasize the Theban perspective. Thus, he refers to his birth and to the subsequent episodes. The evocation of the defeat and penalty inflicted on Antaeus by Heracles leads Olivieri to suggest that Isthmian 4 was performed at the Herakleion, and that the celebration by Pindar could have influenced later artistic representations of the episode. Not only Heracles, but also his genos is praised by Pindar, as is the case with Iolaos, companion of Heracles in several heroic deeds and venerated also at Thebes, where the Iolaeia were instituted in his honour, to commemorate his killing of Eurystheus and the rescue of Heracles’ sons. Related to Heracles, albeit for very different reasons, is also Erginus. In Paean 8, where the sequence of the first Delphic temples is explained, Erginus’ sons, Trophonius and Agamedes, are mentioned as the architects of the fourth temple. Olivieri argues that the lines of the paean in which the poet evokes Erginus’ consultation and his attack against Thebes allow us to believe that in Pindar the sequence of facts was the following: conflict with Heracles – consultation of the oracle – construction of the temple by his sons, once they had grown up. Finally, an interesting peculiarity of the Pindaric Heracles is that he is exonerated from the crime of having killed his children in a fit of madness: in Isthmian 4 (61-72b) the description of the rite conducted in honour of Heracles’ family 2 – Megara and the children – as well as the terms used to praise them reveals that for Pindar they died as adult warriors. This “correction” of the usual version of a myth is well known in Pindar.

The Theban Dionysus is the theme of chapter 4 (“Dioniso”, pp. 119-160). The discussion is displayed in nine sections: origins, the “Pindaric” Dionysus, 3 his birth at Thebes and the Dionysian places, the rites and cults of Semele, Dithyramb 2, Mater Megala and related cults, the katabasis of Heracles, and Dionysus and Heracles in Dithyramb 2. The profile of this Dionysus has of course many features of the panhellenic conception of this god, but once again Pindar’s selection and the orientation of myths deserves special attention. Theban origins and birth of Dionysus are repeatedly emphasized, along with a remarkable precision in the description of places and monuments linked to Dionysus’ birth. It is not by chance that Pindar focuses on the divinized aspect of Semele, giving a special light to the episodes of her union with Zeus, fulguration, and final apotheosis. However, the weight of the chapter rests on Dithyramb 2, for many reasons. Although the best preserved part belongs to the proem, there are plenty of allusions and descriptions, which are representative of some aspects of, so to say, the Pindaric vision of Theban Dionysism: local deities and external features of the celebration are masterfully combined in a piece that links the feast to the mythical past. Olivieri presents an accurate analysis of the particular Pindaric fusion of Demeter and Mater Megala, and of the Theban cults of these goddesses and Persephone in relation to Dionysus. No less important are her remarks on the katabasis of Heracles (frs. *249A, 249B, 81 E, 346), reasonably considered as a part of this dithyramb. Finally, Olivieri reflects on the couple Dionysus-Heracles in this dithyramb and observes the aspects they share inside the religious Theban context, as will be proved by the late assimilation of the feasts known as Dionys(e)ia and Herakleia.

The last and longest chapter (5, “Apollo: I culti tebani e i personaggi mitici apollinei, pp. 161-215) deals with Apollo and the Theban Apollonian “family”. The witness of Pindar is of paramount importance for the local cults of Apollo, because he is often a unique source of information -- with the limitations of a poetic text. There is a real Theban Apollonian mythology, with exclusive traditions, as much in the versions of myths as in the creation of a cultic network supported by local myths dealing with this Apollonian family. The leading mythical characters of these stories are the nymph Melia and her sons, by Zeus, Ismenus and Tenerus, as well as Melia’s brother, Caanthus. Pindar is the only author, however, who considers Ptoios as a son of Apollo, by Athamas’ daughter, Zeuxippe (fr. 51 c). Apollo receives in Thebes the epithets of Ismenius, whose sanctuary is the Ismenion, and Ptoios, with a sanctuary not far from Thebes. The cult of the Ismenion provides the context of a variety of interesting Pindaric songs. Some of them were composed for the daphnephoria, a rite for which only these Pindaric poems are preserved. Thus, for instance, the Daphnephorikon for Agasicles (Parth. 2 = fr. 94b) becomes an important witness for the rite and a noteworthy example of the genre of the partheneion. Olivieri comments also on frs. 94c, 94a, 104b, and argues that Paean 1 (fr. 52a) could have been composed for a dahpnephoria. The other local rite for which some songs have been composed is the tripodephoria to the Ismenion. They are: the Paean for Zeus Dodoneus (frs. 57-60), Paean fr. 66, and Paean 9, motivated by the extraordinary event of an eclipse. As for the sanctuary of Ptoion, Olivieri offers a detailed analysis of frs. 51A-D, which are part of a hymn to Apollo Ptoios that develops the foundation myth, and she comments also on Paean 7, with the myth of Tenerus.

I fear that this summary does not provide an accurate idea of the many qualities of this book, which includes plenty of valuable comments and deserves a careful reading. Some proposals may appear dubious or risky, but it has a consistent and rigorous methodology, and is an important contribution to the knowledge of the Theban roots of many Pindaric songs as well as a useful tool for a better understanding of the interaction between myth, rite and poetry in Ancient Greece.4


1.   To be added to the bibliography on Amphiaraus: Chiara Terranova, “Gli oracoli e il muthos nella Grecia di IV e III secolo a. C. Studi sull’antico culto di Amphiaraos ad Oropos”, SMSR 74 (2008) 159-192; “La religione come elemento unificante nei rapporti tra popoli e culture: alcune osservazioni su tre aspetti del mito e del culto anfiareo”, in IX EASR Annual Conference and IAHR Special Conference -- Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia, Università degli Studi di Messina (14-17 settembre 2009), forthcoming; “Il mito di Amphiaraos in età omerica fra costruzione e destrutturazione”, QUCC 2012 (forthcoming).
2.   Olivieri hypothesizes—in my opinion, very reasonably—that the performance of Isthmian 4 took place during the Herakleia.
3.   A reference to A. Bernabé, "Nacimientos y muertes de Dioniso en los mitos órficos", in C. Sánchez y P. Cabrera (eds.) En los límites de Dioniso, Murcia 1998, págs. 28-39, would have been pertinent here.
4.   The bibliography is impressive and rigorously used. Some other possible additions are: p. 98, n. 72, on the “re-performance” of Pindar’s songs (but in a different regional context): A. Morrison, Performance and Audience in Pindar’s Sicilian Victory Odes, University of London, Institute of Classical Studies, 2007; p. 132, n. 76, on the septerion: E. Suárez de la Torre, “Observaciones sobre los rituales délficos eneaetéricos”, Corolla Complutensis (Homenaje al Profesor José S. Lasso de la Vega) , Madrid 1998, pp. 469-482. Missprints are very few: the edition is carefully printed. Note, however: p. 37, line 75 of Ol. 2, the dot after βουλαῖς must be removed; p. 87, n. 203: instead of Vallodolid, read Valladolid; p. 187, l. 27, instead of ἱερασπόλος read ἱεραπόλος.

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