Depicting Myron's Discobolus, this U.S. Postal stamp was issued to commemorate the centennial of the modern-era Olympic Games.
…inquire of Zeus of the flashing thunderbolt, if he has any message to give concerning men whose spirits are seeking to attain great excellence and a breathing-space from toils."
—excerpt from the Eighth Olympic Ode, by Pindar (c. 522-420 BC), courtesy of the Perseus Project digital library.
During the original Olympic games in ancient Greece, champions were not awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals as they are today. Instead, ancient Olympic victors were awarded an olive branch twisted into a circle to form a crown. The wild olive, called kotinos, had deep religious significance for the ancient Greeks. At the ancient Olympics, only the champion was recognized—there were no prizes for runners up. In the modern era, medals recognizing the top three finishers have supplanted the olive-crown as the Olympic award.
Most students can probably recall seeing at least one Olympic medal ceremony. The sight of a triumphant Olympic athlete stooping to receive the gold medal as his or her country's anthem plays is one of the more moving images of each Olympiad. However, students have probably never had a chance to inspect an Olympic medal up-close. If students were to examine the medals awarded at the Athens 2004 games, they would find on both sides of the medal a series of strange markings—some looking remarkably like English letters and others appearing as incomprehensible lines and squiggles.
The string of symbols on both sides of the medal are, of course, Greek letters. The Olympic Movement website had this description of the medal design for the 2004 Athens Olympics: "the main feature of the medals is the Greek character shown on both sides… This is of particular importance, as from now on all Olympic medals will reflect the Greek character of the Games as regards both their origin and their revival." Students can view a graphic of the medal in full detail on the Olympic Movement's Athens 2004 page available through the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.
Students are bound to be curious to know what all that Greek writing means. This lesson plan uses an EDSITEment-created Greek alphabet animation
to help students "decode" the inscription on the Olympic medal. Because the Olympic medal is both a familiar and mysterious object for students, it presents an ideal prompt to build basic literacy in the Greek alphabet. Thus, this lesson uses the Athens 2004 medal inscription as an elementary "text" to help students practice reading Greek and to help reinforce the link between ancient Greek culture and the Olympic games.
By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:
Once students have successfully deciphered the medal inscription, you may provide them with some basic background information on the author and subject of the Ode. You might want to share some of the information provided in the Cultural achievements and the Games article from the Perseus project. Make sure that students can define epinicia. You can make the concept of the epinicia more relevant to students by encouraging them to cite examples of modern-day "odes" to real or fictional sports heroes. Besides poetry, how do we go about commemorating great athletic achievements? Can students name films or books they've enjoyed that pay tribute to a particular athlete?
One well-known ode to a fictional athlete is Ernest Laurence Thayer's "Casey at the Bat." The full text of the poem is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website of the American Academy of Poets. You might read a few passages from "Casey at the Bat" and compare or contrast them to some of the more accessible passages from Pindar's Olympic Ode. What do the poems tell us about the attitudes towards sport, competition, victory, and defeat in the societies in which each poet lived?
Remind students that Pindar's Ode describes the victory of a wrestler named Alkimedon, who came from a Greek island just southwest of Athens called Aegina. You can point out the location of Aegina on this map of the ancient Greek world from the Plato and His Dialogues site available through Perseus Project. Finally, to give students a sense of the rules of ancient Greek wrestling, share with them the short piece on wrestling available through the Perseus Project exhibit. Make sure to show students the Greek vase painting depicting two wrestlers.
Instruct students to create their own 2-line epinician verse celebrating one of the accomplishments of their favorite athlete. Then, have students transcribe the ode they've written into Greek by using our Greek alphabet animation to substitute Greek letters for the equivalent English sound. If desired, you can invite volunteers to write their own odes in Greek letters on the board and let the class practice reading those.
This lesson can be extended in three different directions, depending on which of the lesson's themes you choose to emphasize.
2-3 class periods