BMCR 2021.07.27

Myth, locality, and identity in Pindar’s Sicilian Odes

, Myth, locality, and identity in Pindar's Sicilian Odes. Greeks Overseas. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 312. ISBN 9780190910310 $85.00.


Lewis’ Myth, Locality, and Identity in Pindar’s Sicilian Odes provides a new lens for the analysis of the mythological narratives in Pindar’s poetry for Sicilian Greek victors, putting her in good company with several authors of recent monographs on epinician, especially in the Greek west.[1] Through her analysis of several odes, Lewis not only engages with Pindar’s use of myth but also sheds light on political and social change in 5th-century Sicily. Her consideration of the poems in their historical context, especially with respect to performance (including the audience) and the physical landscape, successfully shows how these poems reinforced the political goals of those who commissioned them while creating a sense of community and identity for those listening.

In the introduction, Lewis considers the previous scholarship on Pindar’s use of myth and his approach to Sicily, situating her work as part of a new historicist approach. In a similar vein, Lewis highlights the influence of Cultural Poetics on her work and the idea of texts as “sites of contestation” that play a role in the creation of culture and ideologies. This approach is particularly well-suited to 5th-century Sicily, where political and social upheaval, including the forced migration of peoples to new cities, resulted in a time of contested culture and the creation of new and ever-shifting ideologies. Rather than use local heroes (as he does in other poems), in the Sicilian odes Pindar focuses on regional or Panhellenic mythological figures who are then localized in the Sicilian landscape. This idea of “locality” is also explained in the introduction as more than just topography: it is “a collection of local aspects that, in the first place, are understood and accepted by the members of the local community as belonging to and representative of it, and that, on the other hand, are recognizable to people outside of the community” (16). The spaces where local and panhellenic mythical landscapes intersect are prime places for this construction of identities: civic, local, ethnic, and pan-Mediterranean.

The first chapter brings the reader to Syracuse and discusses the myth of the nymph Arethusa, who inhabits the island of Ortygia and is associated with the goddess Artemis in both Pindar’s poetry (especially Nemean 1) and in the material record. According to Lewis, Arethusa and her eponymous spring are an ideal image which Pindar and the Deinomenids use to put Sicily on the map since the river Alpheos, which flows through the Peloponnese and importantly, past Olympia, was also considered the source of the spring in Syracuse, and so served to connect the Sicilian city to the larger Hellenic world. This association allegedly dates back to the Syracuse’s foundation oracle, as cited in Pausanias, and there are earlier hints of the tradition in Ibycus. The myth, as others have argued, resonates with the original foundation of the city and its relationship with the native Sikels. Lewis demonstrates how the narrative could have had a similar resonance in the 5th century with Gelon’s “refoundation” of Syracuse, which mingled new peoples and groups together in the same way that the river Alpheos mixed with and combined with the local Syracusan spring Arethusa. This metaphor of mixing is commonly used by ancient sources (not only Pindar but also Thucydides, Diodorus) to describe Sicilian populations.

The connection between the nymph, spring, and local identity is reinforced by Syracusan coins from the late 6th and early 5th centuries, which prominently feature Arethusa (or perhaps Artemis). Ortygia is also associated with the goddess Artemis (likely with her epithets Potamia/Alpheioa, connecting her again to this sacred landscape) through votive deposits dating to the 7th c. BCE. While there is evidence that Artemis was widely worshipped throughout Sicily and Southern Italy in the late 5th and 4th centuries, the 7th-century material from Ortygia allows Lewis to argue that the cult of Artemis is “uniquely Syracusan” while simultaneously providing a connection back to its mother city, Corinth, from where the cult was originally imported (44). This focus on the earlier, often archaeological, evidence for local myths and practices is a strength of the book, since it allows Lewis to consistently demonstrate how Pindar is fitting into (or cleverly subverting) an existing narrative as we understand it through material culture.

Demeter and Persephone (Kore), central figures in Sicilian cult, are the subject of the second chapter. Lewis argues that the story of the rape of Persephone was localized in Sicily by at least the 5th century BCE and rightly pushes back against the idea of these stories as clear inventions by a specific author at a particular moment in time. Lewis shows how Pindar’s poetry emphasizes the territorial expansion of the Syracuse and its relationship to the rest of the island through these goddesses who were widely worshipped throughout Sicily. The Deinomenid ancestral priesthood of Demeter allows them to capitalize on this connection and promotes the conflation of Sicily and Syracuse under their rule.

This chapter feels disjointed at times, perhaps the result of the transition from a dissertation to a monograph; for example, an introduction to the use of Diodorus as a source begins on p.105 when he had been a main source throughout the previous chapters. The sections on Herakles’ role in the story of Kore is also less clear, and some smaller pieces of evidence are less convincing, such as the use of a very fragmentary Attic vase found at Locri in southern Italy as indication for the awareness of the mythical connection between Herakles and Kore at Syracuse in the 6th century. Herakles appears throughout the chapter, but the idea of him as a mediator between Greek and non-Greek (98), especially in the interior of the island, is only explored with reference to Diodorus, leaving us wondering more about any evidence for a non-Greek perspective.

The third chapter moves us to Aitna and Pindar’s Pythian 1. The main contribution of this chapter is the decoupling of the identity of the city and its citizens from that of its ruler/founder, Hieron. While these often overlap, her close reading of the text effectively shows how Pindar’s focus on the physical and mythical landscape of Aitna allows for an articulation of identity which persists after the death of Hieron. The mythology of the landscape naturally centers on Mt. Aitna, and Lewis shows the civic connection to the volcano through Zeus Aitnaios, who is depicted on coinage and associated with Hieron himself. In addition, in Pythian 1, Pindar localizes the mythic figure Typho as imprisoned underneath Mt. Aitna. Pythian 1 also provides a Dorian identity for the new colony, which “legitimizes Hieron’s new political system and creates ethnic solidarity as one component of the social cohesion promoted by the performance of the ode” (177). This chapter deftly considers the impact of a performance Pythian 1 at Aitna, where personification of the landscape would create meaning and a deeper history for those who live within it as well as “for a listener in a distant land,” for whom it provided an origin story to tie a Sicilian city into the rest of the Greek mythological world at various levels (150).

Chapter 4 centers on the relationship between the river Akragas, the city Akragas, and its tyrant Theron, with a particular focus on Olympian 2. Lewis argues that the differences in the way Pindar commemorates both city and victor in poems for Emmenids compared to Deinomenids result from the nature of their differing status and political situations in their cities. For Theron, a native Akragantine, Pindar uses a mythology that stresses the continuity of the civic landscape. This emphasis on locality is perhaps also seen in differences in the location of building projects—large investment in Akragas (such as the Olympeion) compared to Syracusan constructions at Olympia and Delphi. Lewis connects the civic iconography of the crab on Akragantine coins to the river Akragas, a feature highlighted in Pythian 6 and 12, which were both composed before Theron came to power. The subsequent emphasis on the river in Olympian 12 connects the tyrant to a pre-existing symbol of the city—serving to highlight Theron’s similar consistency and thus legitimizing Emmenid rule. A particularly convincing section highlights the lack of named founders for Akragas and argues that Pindar then has the freedom to place the ancestors of Theron into these legendary roles while simultaneously constructing a Panhellenic heroic genealogy for the family (203).

The conclusion serves as more a coda—a test of the ideas throughout on two other odes for Sicilians from cities other than the three main communities explored throughout the book and not for a ruler or someone closely associated with the ruling families. While these two examples shed light onto Pindar’s methods and do illuminate the impact of the rest of the book, they would be better suited to their own chapter; the thorny details of dating (for Olympian 12) and authorship (for Olympian 5) are too complex for a brief concluding section. The possibility that Olympian 4 (and 5) were performed in a city with a much more diverse population also prompts more questions: Does a similar focus on identity and civic identity for this later poem, not written under Deinomenid control, indicate that the non-Greek residents of other cities might have had a similar reaction to these poems? Do they feel like part of the civic fabric? While the links between chapters are clearly stated, and summaries of major ideas are peppered throughout, a true conclusion would help leave the reader with a better idea of the book as a whole.

A few small errors, such as the confusion of the victor celebrated in Olympian 10 and 11 (6), do not prevent this book from making an effective argument. Every page contains an original insight into Pindar’s poetry, or the politics of Greek Sicily, or the nature of Greek ritual and myth, or the formation of group identities, making it required reading for scholars in any of these fields.


[1] Foster, M. (2017) The Seer and the City: Religion, Politics, and Colonial Ideology. University of California.
Morgan, K. (2015) Pindar and the Construction of Syracusan Monarchy in the Fifth Century B.C. Oxford.
Nicholson, N. (2015) The Poetics of Victory in the Greek West. Oxford.