Ancient Pankration: An Introduction

The completion of techniques used by modern mixed martial artists form extremely effective systems of hand-to-hand combat. Created by assimilating the most functional aspects of other martial arts, MMA indiscriminately relays on grappling, striking, takedowns, chokes and joint-locks to overpower opponents. But is the concept of this ‘complete fighter’ a modern phenomenon?

e2b6f927849cc7677a9bb6ae9e305a52.jpgPankration, meaning ‘all-power’, was an ancient Greek martial art first used by hoplite warriors on the battlefield. According to the ancient writer Philostratus, pankration employed wrestling, kicking, and striking in equal measures. Ancient historians have recorded several likely instances where Greek fighters relied on pankration in war. Herodotus, for instance, describes the Greeks at Thermopylae during the second Persian invasion in 480 BCE relaying on unarmed combat to continue fighting once their weapons had shattered.

After being introduced into the PanHellenic games in 648 BCE, Philostratus writes that only two limitations were added for participant safety: no eye gouging or biting. Archaeological evidence has verified the existence of a wide range of techniques familiar to modern mixed martial artists, including knee-bares, heel-kicks, and one-legged take-downs.The martial art consisted of both upright fighting and ground fighting and pankrationists would also frequently compete, like MMA fighters today, in wrestling and boxing.

Similar to the early days of the UFC, pankration competitions were not constrained by weight divisions. The fights ended, since no time limitation existed, only when a contestant surrendered, fell into unconsciousness, or breathed his last. Numerous instances document the brutality of pankration. Pausanias writes of a particularly violent encounter where the fighter Damoxenos pulled out the entrails of his opponent Creugas. After the gruesome incident the Greeks were forced to institute an additional rule forbidding the ripping out of internal organs.

In 393 CE the Roman emperor images.jpgTheodosius outlawed pagan festivals along with pankration. As the amount of practitioners declined, the techniques developed and refined from over a 1000 years of use began fading from memory. Recently, however, researchers have started reconstructing the martial art based literary evidence, archaeological remains, and practical applications.

Kim Arvanitis and Aris Makris, both of Greek decent, have worked to reintroduce the martial art into public consciousness. Scholars like Andreas Georgiou and E. Norman Gardiner have also combined studies on literature, epigraphy, and archaeology to research pankration.  As a result of modern efforts pankration gyms, tournaments, confederations have begun to emerge around the world.

Author: Johan Vandeleuv


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