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Pankration: Myth-Busting Edition

Pankration, or sometimes pancratium, the Ancient-Hellene version of 21st-century MMA is often touted (rightly) as a forerunner of a sport so many of us enjoy today. Careful studies of the past can allow us to glean wisdom, both tactical and strategical, to be applied to our own game in the present.

It has been said many times, and in many versions, that there is nothing new under the sun, or that often our “newest discoveries” are but re-discoveries.

Or as two ancient texts would present an idea that was already ancient at the time of their writing:

“The thing that has been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”Ecclesiastes 1:9

“Truly it has been said that there is nothing new under the sun, for knowledge is revealed and is submerged again, even as a nation rises and falls.”Paracelsus

Past is forerunner et cetera et cetera…

But… if we are to learn from the past it is wise to make sure we are certain of our sources. And the word “certain” is spot on as it is derived from the Old French meaning “determined or fixed” and that is in turn derived from the Latin for “determined, resolved, fixed, or settled.”

To make certain is to ensure that we haven’t made “true” that which is not necessarily true at all. We must be “certain” that that which we have made “fixed” is not in error. For if so, we may be making a bearing on a “fixed” course that will lead us far from the truth.

Today’s combat case in point, the very nature of the ancient pancration.

Take a gander at this characterization of the sport.

“In the pankration the competitors fought with every part of their body, with their hands, feet, elbows, knees, their necks, and their heads; in Sparta they even used their feet. The pankratiasts were allowed to gouge one another’s eyes out… they were also allowed to trip one another’s opponents, lay hold of their feet, nose, and ears, dislocate their fingers and arms and apply strangleholds. If one man succeeded in throwing the other, he was entitled to sit on him and beat him about the head, face, and ears; he could also kick him and trample on him. It goes without saying that the contestants in this brutal contest sometimes recived the most fearful wounds, and not infrequently men were killed.”

Wild, huh?

A story we have often heard.

But…according to many renowned historians and those truly knowledgeable in the field of translating ancient transcripts the above is “almost completely wrong.”

That “almost completely wrong” quote is from Professor Waldo E. Sweet, and it is seconded by Professor Erich Segal and many others.

And yet, this often deadly no-holds-barred story is, more often than not, the one that is told.

Now, where did this idea come from?

The above passage is from a work titled Gerschihte der Olympischen Spiele (History of the Olympic Games) written by Franz Mezo.

The passage is in a book that won a contest called “Epic Works” that was sponsored by the ninth Olympiad in 1928. (This prize-winner found a publisher in 1930.)

It receiving the award allowed it to be given a bit of historical heft and passages were picked up and repeated in work after work, among them, Ludwig Drees’ 1968 book Olympia: Gods, Artists, and Athletes.

If you read both of these works one is left with the assumption that you are smarter for navigating their historical waters.

But again, better scholars, more adroit translators assure us that what Herr Mezo began and what has been subsequently repeated by Mr. Drees and others, is a poor translation and interpretation of the ancient story of Arrichion.

This repetition of Olympic Committee-approved poor information is a combat-specific sort of “fake news.” It disorients not only the real history of pankration but can lead some to interpret better sources in a skewed way as they seek to jibe truthful sources with the poorly interpreted sources.

Imagine if the late senator John McCain’s interpretation of the early Ultimate Fighting Championship as “human cockfights” and his attempts to ban it were the prevailing narrative. This wrongheaded interpretation would be the prism through which all other information on the subject would be shot through.

It is the better part of martial scholarship, whether it be mere academic or with an eye on application, to strive for veracity in all things, eschew legend, and check your sources then check them again.

We can save ourselves a lot of time (training and otherwise) by not going down the rabbit-hole of poor scholarship and holding to a muddleheaded idea simply because we like how the narrative sounds, or it makes us feel “cool” to be associated with a given interpretation of “truth.”

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8 thoughts on “Pankration: Myth-Busting Edition”

  1. As an old man and a student of history (master’s degree in the same and a professor), most current research on the pankration tells us it was an empty-hand submission sport with scarcely any rules. The athletes used boxing and wrestling techniques, but also others, such as kicking and holds, locks and chokes on the ground. The only things not acceptable were biting and gouging out the opponent’s eyes (wikipedia).

    There is evidence that, although knockouts were common, most pankration competitions were decided on the basis of submission (giving up). Pankratiasts were highly skilled grapplers and were extremely effective in applying a variety of takedowns, chokes and joint locks. In extreme cases a pankration competition could even result in the death of one of the opponents, which was considered a win (Ibid)

  2. I keep getting this back from your company saying I already posted this. I did not, unless it went through. As an old man and a student of history (master’s degree in the same and a professor), most current research on the pankration tells us it was an empty-hand submission sport with scarcely any rules. The athletes used boxing and wrestling techniques, but also others, such as kicking and holds, locks and chokes on the ground. The only things not acceptable were biting and gouging out the opponent’s eyes (wikipedia).

    There is evidence that, although knockouts were common, most pankration competitions were decided on the basis of submission (giving up). Pankratiasts were highly skilled grapplers and were extremely effective in applying a variety of takedowns, chokes and joint locks. In extreme cases a pankration competition could even result in the death of one of the opponents, which was considered a win (Ibid)

  3. Hmm! Very interesting article. And, I was glad to see you used that scripture about there being nothing new. (I was gonna post it, but then saw you used it.) There is NOTHING that any of us can think, that hasn’t been thought of before by someone else. Even SOME of the things that we think today have been thought of by someone else, whether in this day & age, or somewhere back in time. Our most modern inventions, usually came about from someone somewhere trying something that either didn’t work just right, & somebody came along, & improved it. Same in sports. Some moves that athletes use today, have been used for years, but, each individual has added something to it, & improved it. And sometimes you improve something, by learning to NOT do it! Lol! I just turned & 70, & a lot of things that I’ve learned in my life, were things that taught me a lesson. (Such as, be careful where you stick an all metal knife, that you’re using as a screw driver, & touch the live place were the electricity comes through. VERY shocking!) And,then you call yourself all kinds of a dummy! But, some things like that, we weren’t the first to do it! But, I learned a lesson! And, I bet I don’t do it again!

  4. I was on my college Karate Team years back. We practiced Pankration under the US Grand Master of the style.
    2 Levels of Green Belt. 4 of Brown, 12 of Black.
    All Senseis were at least 4th Black.
    1/2 speed, 3/4 contact.
    No helmets, no gloves, no padding, and cups were discouraged because you likely wouldn’t be wearing one on the street.
    Men and women were equally mixed.
    I got my ass kicked more than once.

  5. Sure we should all study martial arts from all angles , with ours and others insights in mind. But your two quotes mentioned above said it all . Man’s history always repeats itself.
    Aren’t the MMA matches we all love to watch the gladiator games of our time? Someone a thousands years from now may see or read about our brutal sport of combat and may have a scholar of the day tell them It really wasn’t like that ! Go figure ha ha ! As far as a brutal martial art that uses all the techniques above there is one in existence today. I believe one of your contributors , Kathy Long knows and practices it ,ask her about it .
    I met here on a few occasions back in the day. Salute to you Guys Fight Fast !

  6. So, what IS the “truth ” , what was the “real” Pankration? Criticism is fine but only if it’s constructive. Labelling a claim untrue, requires the revelation of the “true” version.
    And to Chris Bono, it’s Molon Lave, not Moron Labe. I guess you’re trying to write in Greek, in which case it is μολων λαβέ, translated “come and get/take it”. It was the Greek response to an instruction to hand over one’s weapons. Possibly coined in Sparta.