The Greek race is certainly well-known for its athletic and military achievements in the Pre-Christian era. In truth, we must credit them for both the word "athlete" and the ideal it expresses. It was also the Greek soldier who would represent the standard for the rest of the world to follow for centuries. The contribution of the Greeks to the evolution of the martial arts, as we presently know them, is now certainly evident. Fighting systems that have originated in both Eastern and Western parts of the world may indeed be linked to this ancient combat form.
Over 2000 years ago, the ancient Greeks had developed a brutal, all-out combat form which they named Pankration (pronounced pan/cray/shun or pan-crat-ee-on depending on the dialect). The term is derived from the Greek adjectives pan and kratos and is translated to mean "all powers" or "all-encompassing." First introduced into the Olympic Games of 648 BC (the same year as the horse race), Pankration would soon become the most popular and most demanding of all athletic events. It would be well to note that a subdivision, "Boy's Pankration", was added in the 2nd century BC, which indicates the popularity of the sport. Also, before we go any farther into the history, it should be noted that some historians trace Pankration's origin to the Indian Vajramushti system. There is controversy here, because Pankration and the Pyrrhic dance, a Greek armed and unarmed war-dance similar to modern karate kata, both predate Indian statues depicting temple guardians in poses similar to those used in fighting systems to follow.
In the palaestra , the Greek wrestling school, Pankration was allocated a separate room to train. It was known as the Korykeion, which was equipped with punching and kicking balls, called korykos, which hung from the ceiling beams. The smaller balls were used for punching and the larger ones for kicking, which hung about 2 feet from the floor. Pankration was taught similar to modern day karate, as it was presented in steps or stages until the student had become proficient in the movements and their combinations. After reaching a certain stage, the practitioner would then be allowed to engage in "loose play", as it is called in fencing.
Pankration integrated every physical and mental resource - hands and feet, mind and spirit - in the closest simulation of no-holds-barred competitive fighting that any culture has ever allowed. The object was, as in boxing, to force an opponent to acknowledge defeat, and to this end almost any means might be applied. Though rules were enforced by officials with a switch or stout rod, a whipping must have been more desirable than being killed, for the rules were often broken. Serious injuries and fatal accidents did occur, but they were rare, rarer probably than in ancient Greek boxing. Facing one another, much as in the position taken by wrestlers, Pankratiast's, as they were called, tried to bring one another violently to the ground. There was much preliminary sparring. Hands were bare and generally held open, although the clenched fist was used for hitting. Only biting and gouging were prohibited. Anything else went, although the tough Spartan contingent allowed these, too, in their local athletic festivals. As in Greek boxing, there were no rules against hitting a man when he was down. The techniques included a murderous mixture of Hellenic boxing and wrestling, hook and uppercut punches, full-powered kicks, elbowing and kneeing, joint locks, as well as numerous submission chokeholds. Such throws as the flying mare and various foot and leg holds, although too risky for Greek wrestling proper, were freely employed. A Pankratiast would sometimes throw himself on his back to accomplish a throw, known today as Sacrifice Throws. In this same family of throw, known as the Stomach Throw, the Pankratiast would grab his opponent by the shoulders or arms and throw himself backwards, planting his foot in his opponent's stomach, pulling him over his head. This throw is known today as TomoeNage. This technique may have been used by the ancient Egyptians, as this technique is depicted in the tombs of Beni-Hassan.
Kicking was an essential part of Pankration, especially rising kicks to the groin or stomach, and powerful leg sweeps meant to take an opponent off his feet. Kicks above the belt were used sparingly, with blows aimed to the head or face only when one's adversary was on the ground and too weakened to block or catch the attacker's foot. Due to this unique tactic alone, some combative experts credit Pankration as the first comprehensive unarmed fighting system on record. In other words, the first total martial art known!
Pankration bouts were extremely brutal and sometimes life-threatening to the competitors. Rules were minimal in number. In addition, there were no weight divisions and no time limits. The fighting arena or "ring" was no more than twelve to fourteen-feet square to encourage close-quarter action. As was mentioned earlier, referees were armed with stout rods or switches to enforce the rules against biting and gouging. The rules, however, were often broken by some participants who, realizing they were outclassed by a heavier and stronger foe, would resort to such measures to escape being seriously maimed. The contest itself continued uninterrupted until one of the combatants either surrendered, suffered unconsciousness, or, of course, was killed. Because of the high purses and honors, and the fact that there were no weight classifications, these events were generally monopolized by the "heavy weights".
As a historical note, it should be noted in this history that Plato objected to this style of fighting, because he said that it "did not teach men to keep their feet". I suppose you could "bounce" the pro's and con's of this around as long as their is time on earth.
Although knockouts were common, most Pankration battles were decided on the ground where both striking and submission techniques would freely come into play. Pankratiast's were highly-skilled grapplers and were extremely effective in applying a variety of takedowns, chokes, and punishing joint locks. Strangulation was most feared during ground combat, and was the leading cause of death in matches. A fighter would immediately raise his arm in defeat once his opponent's forearm had secured a firm grip across the windpipe or carotid artery. The Eleans especially commended strangling as a means of defeating the opponent. Their favorite stranglehold was called the "Ladder Trick". The aggressor would jump on his opponents back, wrap his legs around the body and his arms around the neck. An experienced Pankratiast would realize when his opponent had an effective grip and would acknowledge defeat.
The feats of the ancient pankratiast's became legendary in the annals of Greek athletics. Stories abound of past champions and masters who were considered invincible beings. Arrichion, Dioxxipus, and Polydamos are among the most highly-recognized names, their accomplishments defying the odds by besting multiple armed opponents in "life and death" combat, and battling and killing lions when human competition was no longer a feasible challenge. It is also theorized that the famed strongman Hercules was the first Olympic victor in Pankration. Another fact, with reference to Dioxxipus ( a friend of Alexander the Great), won the Olympic crown by default in 336 BC because no one would compete against him. Later as Alexander marched in conquest across the world, his armies carried with them elaborate tents, that were like collapsible amphitheaters. In these they practiced and played athletic games, among them Pankration. Exhibitions of superhuman strength were frequently witnessed by the awe-struck Greek people. Practitioners displayed the power of pneuma (Gr. inner energy) by breaking stones and planks with their bare fists and driving their hardened feet through forged war shields.
The Romans would later adopt Pankration into their particular athletic contests, but their modifications would degrade it to a mere blood sport. The fighters were now armed with the dreaded caestus, a weighted and spiked glove which reigned blows with deadly results. In Rome it was not unusual for such public brutality, as it was the rule rather than the exception, to quench the spectator's thirst for gore. This alteration, however, diminished the skill and aesthetic value that the Greek race had come to admire in their athletes. Rarely, if ever, did a true Greek Pankratiast participate in the savage gladiatorial arenas of Rome, even though they were often tempted by higher purses and positions within the powerful Roman empire.
Pankration was basic to the majority of the Greek warriors who served under Alexander the Great, during his invasion of India in 326 BC Many authorities now contend that this dispersal of Pankration techniques throughout the subcontinent laid the foundation for countless Asian martial arts which evolved soon thereafter, including Chinese kung fu, Okinawan karate, and Japanese jiu-jitsu. This theory has been the subject of a raging controversy for the past twenty years. Home Page