Who We Are is Revealed by Suffering

If you practice an Orphic-derived religion, or have done any study of the subject or ancient Hellenic religion generally, chances are you’ve encountered this fragment by Pindar preserved in Plato’s Meno 81b-c:

But for those from whom Persephone accepts requital for the ancient grief, in the ninth year she returns their souls to the upper sunlight; from them arise proud kings and men who are swift in strength and greatest in wisdom, and for the rest of time they are called sacred heroes by men. (fr. 133)

Most commentaries focus on the eschatology of the passage, the ποινή of Persephone, early concepts of the hero, and the like, but I just noticed something in the Greek, bolded for emphasis:

Φερσεφόνα ποινὰν παλαιοῦ πένθεος δέξεται, εἰς τὸν ὕπερθεν ἅλιον κείνων ἐνάτῳ ἔτεϊ ἀνδιδοῖ ψυχὰς πάλιν, ἐκ τᾶν βασιλῆες ἀγαυοὶ καὶ σθένει κραιπνοὶ σοφίᾳ τε μέγιστοι ἄνδρες αὔξοντ΄· ἐς δὲ τὸν λοιπὸν χρόνον ἥρωες ἁγνοὶ πρὸς ἀνθρώπων καλεῦνται.

That’s right, the “ancient grief” (παλαιοῦ πένθεος) of Persephone contains the name of Dionysos’ cousin! Which is significant, to my mind at least, since it’s far from the only word used for grief or suffering, especially in tragic and epic vocabulary. Euripides, for instance, uses πάσχειν and πάθος throughout the Bakchai, and some are even further afield. 

2 thoughts on “Who We Are is Revealed by Suffering

  1. Aha! It’s brilliant you caught that. It never occurred to me, and I’ve stared at that passage so many times.


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