trans. F. J. Nisetich, Pindar's Victory Songs (Johns Hopkins, 1980) pp. 174-88
Pythian 4 is the longest of Pindar's odes. Most of its extra length is due to the expansion of the mythical section, in which Pindar tells the story of Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece. The ode is unique also in its clearly political purpose. It praises Arkesilas IV, but it also addresses an appeal to him on behalf of an exiled Kyranaian.
Arkesilas IV, king of Kyrana (Cyrene), a Greek city in North Africa, traced his ancestry back eight generations to the founder of the city, Battos I, who, on the urging of the Delphic Oracle, had led a colony from the island of Thera to Kyrana. Battos had consulted the oracle in hopes of finding a cure for his speech defect (the name Battos means "Stammerer"), but Apollo had taken the occasion to hail him as future king of Kyrana.
According to Pindar, the prophecy made to Battos at Delphi repeats a prophecy made seventeen generations earlier by Medea. Medea and the sailors of the Argo, on their way home from Kolchis with the Golden Fleece aboard, had reached the site of the future city of Kyrana in Libya; from there they sailed to Thera, called at that time Kallista Island. It was on Thera that Medea delivered the prophecy that Pindar quotes in the first three triads of the ode. Among those who heard it was a certain Euphamos, destined to be an ancestor of the people of Thera, future settlers of Kyrana. Euphamos' original home was Tainaros. Medea, in her prophecy, explains how it came about that his descendants colonized Kyrana not from Tainaros but from Thera.
At the end of the third triad, Pindar declares his intention to tell the myth of the Argo. The remote genealogical connection between Euphamos, one of the original Argonauts, and Arkesilas, present king of Kyrana, justifies the choice of this particular myth.
In the background is the story of Phrixos and Helle, the children of King Athamas by his first wife, Nephele. His second wife, Ino, conceived a deadly hatred for her stepchildren and plotted to destroy them. A golden ram appeared, the gift of Hermes to Nephele. On its back the children rode through the sky, escaping the cruelty of their stepmother. But Helle slipped and fell on the way, drowning in the sea that afterward bore her name the Hellespont. Phrixos arrived safely in Kolchis, on the shores of the Black Sea. Here, in thanks for his safe passage, he sacrificed the ram and dedicated its golden fleece to Zeus. Aietas, king of Kolchis, son of Helios and father of Medea, placed the fleece in a grove sacred to Ares the god of war. There it remained, guarded by a terrible dragon, until Jason came aboard the Argo to fetch it home.
The greater part of the mythical narrative of the ode is taken up with the quarrel between Jason and his older second cousin, Pelias, usurper of the throne of lolkos from Jason's father Aison. The fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh triads dramatize this conflict. At the beginning of the eighth, Jason accepts Pelias' treacherous invitation to go in quest of the Golden Fleece. Triad 8 contains a list of the heroes who responded to his summons and sailed with him. In triad 9, they embark. Triad 10 brings them to Kolchis, where Jason must face the ordeals imposed on him by Aietas. These he could not pass without the help of Medea, whose passion for Jason leads her to betray her father. Aphrodite plays her part in this: she brings from Olympos for the first time the love charm described in the preface to Pythian 2, the iunx or wryneck, which helps Jason seduce the exotic princess. At the end of triad 10, Jason passes the first ordeal imposed by Aietas. In triad 11, Pindar breaks off just as Jason is about to confront the formidable dragon guarding the Golden Fleece. Pindar then rapidly enumerates certain important moments in the rest of the story, particularly the sojourn of the Argonauts among the Lemnian women, for it is here that Euphamos consummates the union from which his Theraian descendants will spring. Once we have reached this episode in the story, we have returned to the point where it began: here, in triad 12, Pindar repeats the prophecy of the colonization of Kyrana, now ruled by Arkesilas.
The ode contains in its closing triads an appeal to Arkesilas for the restoration of a certain Damophilos, living in exile. Pindar mentions him by name only once, but the entire poem seems to exist on his account. He may have commissioned it from Pindar as a means of ingratiating himself with Arkesilas.
Last revised 3 February 1998