6 February, 2020 • • 42.4ClassicsTranslations

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Pythian 2.21–41: Crucifixion


This series was born out of a lyric translation group, which meets fortnightly in the Classics department. The group is modelled loosely on an ancient symposion: each participant shares, in turn, a response to a single Greek text; others listen, comment, ask questions, and reflect. All are welcome, and the ‘translation’ may take any form, and any medium. (If interested, please write to xavier.buxton@classics.ox.ac.uk.)

In each Oxonian Review feature, we will present a number of the group’s responses, some literary, some visual, and some musical, all inspired by the same Greek original. We hope by this to expose the rich ambiguity not only of the ancient text, but of our own relation to it, and the fecundity of translation itself. A brief introduction will set the Greek poem in literary and historical context, and discuss the variant approaches of the translators.

The first feature of the series, ‘Pythian 2.21–41: Crucifixion’, presents an introduction to the text, and three responses by Imogen Whiteley, Leah Alpern and Nicolette D’Angelo to Pindar’s depiction of the cloudy myth of Ixion, reflecting the original’s dissonance of content and tone, its sanitised reception, and its cyclic, perpetual form.

– Oscar and Xavier


Pythian 2.21–41 tells the tale of Ixion, within an ode dedicated to Hieron of Syracuse, a victorious charioteer. The myth is simple: Ixion enjoys a godlike existence, until he forgets his place as a mortal, entering Hera’s bedchamber. In response, Zeus tricks him with a cloud in the form of the goddess, and subsequently fixes him to a spinning wheel for eternity. When Pound wrote of Pindar as ‘the prize wind-bag of all ages’, one wonders if he had specifically Pythian 2.21–41 in mind. In the structure, we find Aeolus’s wind-bag: like Odysseus, the audience is buffeted from the warnings of present-day Ixion, to his former Olympian lifestyle, to his prior spilling of ‘family blood’, to his ultimate sin, summarised three separate times, and punctuates this all with sporadic gnomic declarations. In these gnomes, we find Joyce’s inflated wind-bags: Pindar’s rhetoric (‘One must always measure all relative to oneself!’) often amounts to hot air. And in the content itself, we find a literal windbag, a cloud, with which Ixion has sex. More than just ‘has sex’, in fact—there is an assault, which Pindar’s crafted, pretty verse serves to conceal. This relationship between dark content and glossy tone is explored in Leah’s response, which reverses the falsehood of cloud-Hera, instead presenting Ixion as a ‘pseudo-man’ who tricks the goddess. We therefore see more clearly how Pindar identifies his crime as a failure not to know oneself (γνῶθι σεαυτόν), turning particular acts of violence into universal bromide via cloudy gnomic phrases. Prettying the grotesque is further explored in Nicolette’s, which reflects through its pantoum form both the cyclic structure of the original and the cyclic refraction of Ixion’s rape, laundered as ‘gluttony’, ’an attempt’, or ‘love’ in later reincarnations by Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare, as well as in recent translations of the passage itself. This cyclicism is also expressed clearly in Imogen’s visual response, which reacts not just to the light depiction of Ixion’s violent punishment in Pindar’s words, but also in the depictions on red-figure vases, contorting the perfect proportions of the Vitruvian man.

– Oscar Harrington-Shaw


– Imogen Whiteley


Ixion walks in circles, shuffling up dust,
mind whirring, his feet locked between the spokes.
At rest it’s a sturdy wooden thing he leans against,
on which to drum and rap his knuckles
while daydreaming of sticky sap.

Passing on the path was to risk
catching an eye, which dug into you
and reflected:

By Divine Grace he was born never-wanting.
One night, getting up from the warmth of fortune,
dusting off his blessings, he set off to start a fire.
And all the way he contrived, and Desire crossed his path—
cloudlike and smelling sweetly—
he looked on, eyes flickering like the embers of burnt charcoal.

She tugged him loose, she opened him wide;
in his great depths,
she played his strings and had her way with him—
Paratropoi, the man dissolved at his margins.

Disgusted by the taste, she spat him out
like fire, furious that he’d tried with her—
that pseudo-man!
Teeth gnashing
she snapped a fir tree
clear through
bending the young wood into a circle

A rope slipped onto the wrist
holds him together at the seams,
your reflection flickers in his black eyes

– Leah Alpern


False Vitruvius, Dante sits you with Gideon, calls
Your crime gluttony. Man
The measure of all things,
His half-measures didn’t avail us half. You are

Your crime. Gluttony? Men
Translate the verb, Ixion made an attempt
His half-measures didn’t avail us half. You are
Rather like a cloud,

Translate the verb. Ixion made an attempt
In the chamber of internal dialogue.
Rather like a cloud
When a woman (a goddess, even) says no

In the chamber of internal dialogue
What could be more fitting?
When a woman (a goddess, even) says no
Add a noun, Ixion fell in love

What could be more fitting
Than a wheel, which, spinning, spinning, forgets?
Add a noun — Ixion fell in love,
Even in a story about rape —

Then, a wheel, which, spinning, spinning, forgets.
False Vitruvius, Dante sits you with Gideon, calls you
(Even in a story about rape)
The measure of all things

– Nicolette D’Angelo


Leah Alpern is reading for an MSt in Classics at Wadham College, Xavier Buxton for a DPhil in Classics at Balliol College, Nicolette D’Angelo for an MPhil in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Oscar Harrington-Shaw for an MSt in Classics at Magdalen College, and Imogen Whiteley for an MSt in Greek and Roman History at Wadham College.