Pankration is an ancient sport and a martial art introduced in the Greek Olympic games in 648 BC. Many historians believe that although pankration was not one of the first Olympic sports, it was likely one of the most popular. Some also argue it to be the first all-encompassing fighting system in human history. This is a strongly debated issue in the academic community.
The term comes from the Greek words “pan” (meaning “all”) and “kratos” (meaning “strength” or “power”). The term is also used to describe the sport’s modern varieties. The word is pronounced pan-krΑt-ee-on.
In Greek mythology it was said that the heroes Herakles and Theseus invented the pankration as a result of using both wrestling and boxing, were the two “inventors” of pammachia, “total combat”, from παν-, pan-, all- or total, and μάχη, mache, combat. The term “pammachia” would later become disused in favor of the term pankration. The ropalon (club) and lion skin armor would also become symbolic among Hellenic warriors due to the famed feats of Hercules. It had numerous forms such as katō pankration, in which the athletes could fall to the ground and continue the match, and anō pankration, in which athletes had to remain standing throughout the match. The competitors could use moves like the gastrizein, (stomach trick), which was a kick to the gut, as well as the apopternizein, (heel trick), where a foot was grabbed to throw an opponent off balance. Also one opponent could hold another and punch him during a match. Pankration was more than just an Olympic event, it formed the basis for all combat training for Greek soldiers – including the famous Spartan hoplites and Alexander the Great’s Macedonian phalanx. The techniques varied just as in the oriental martial arts according to ‘style’. Pankration systems were taught within families and many times by master teachers to students (pankratiasts). Forms or kata were known as Pyrrics and single blow challenges as Klimax; internal energy was developed through breathing exercises, the equivalent of ‘Chi’ in Chinese arts, known as Pneuma. Pneuma primarily denotes the wind (derived from the Greek word pneo which means to breathe, blow); also ‘breath'; then, especially the spirit. Punching bags and wooded posts were used for striking practice and the hardening of the body and limbs. Herbal medicines were also used.
Opponents, one with a bloody nose, on an Attica amphora by the Nikosthenes Painter, ca. 520-510 BCE
Pankration, as practiced in the ancient world, combined elements of both boxing (pygme/pygmachia) and wrestling (pale) to create a broad fighting sport similar to today’s mixed martial arts. A match was won by submission of the opponent or if the opponent was incapacitated. A contestant could signal submission by raising his hand, but sometimes the only form of submission was unconsciousness or death. Joint locks and choke holds were common techniques of accomplishing this. In fact, there were only two rules: contestants were not allowed to gouge eyes or to bite.
Grave, even permanent injuries were common as an accepted means of disabling the adversary: mainly breaking limbs, fingers or even the neck. Pankration bouts were quite brutal and sometimes life-threatening to the competitors. As a result, a paides event (a somewhat vague younger age group) for pankration wasn’t established at Olympia until 200 B.C.
There were no weight divisions and no time limits. Referees were armed with stout rods or switches to enforce the rules against biting and gouging. The contest itself continued uninterrupted until one of the combatants either surrendered, suffered unconsciousness, or was killed. Although knockouts were common, most pankration battles were decided on the ground where both striking and submission techniques would freely come into play. Pankratiasts 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 (though there are stories of fighters who chose to die rather than surrender.)
A bronze smaller reproduction in Munich of a Roman marble after a 3rd c.BC Greek depiction of pankratists grappling and striking
Ancient sculptures and pottery paintings depicting nude pankratiasts show stances and movements reminiscent of modern fighting systems.
The feats of the ancient pankratiasts became legendary in the annals of Greek athletics. Stories abound of past champions and masters who were considered invincible beings. Arrichion, Dioxippus and Polydamas are among the most highly-recognized names, their accomplishments defying the odds by besting multiple armed opponents in life-and-death combat.
Among pankration fighters, Dioxippus was the most famous. He won several Olympic games as no one dared challenge him, became friends with Alexander the Great and some accounts claim he defeated one of Alexander the Great’s soldiers named Coragus (who fought with weapons and full armour), armed only with a club. Later, Dioxippus was framed for theft, which led him to commit suicide.
In an odd turn of events, a pankration fighter named Arrachion of Phigalias won the event despite being dead. His opponent had locked him in a chokehold and Arrachion, desperate to loosen it, broke his opponents fingers (some records say toes). The opponent nearly passed out from pain and submitted. As the referee raised Arrachion’s hand, it was discovered that he had died from the chokehold. His body was crowned with the olive wreath and taken back to Phigalias as a hero.
- In the lead-up to the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, a modern non-nude version of pankration was tipped as being a new sport in the Olympiad, especially due to its being an event in the ancient games. However, its application was not approved. the International Olympic Committee was unconvinced that Greece could handle the total number of sports proposed. To placate the IOC, the organizers removed all new medal sports and pankration missed out.
Because of Alexander the Great’s impact on the Middle East , there is a belief by some that cultural exchange may have occurred in these civilizations. It has been suggested that the fighting systems of India were influenced by the invasions of Alexander, but this has not been substantiated by firm historic evidence.
Pankration’s influence on modern culture is still debatable as the modern version of pankration is not the original form as practiced by the ancient Greeks. The original ancient Greek form of pankration was not fully transmitted to later generations due to Europe’s Christianisation and neglect of pagan culture and customs. Most modern versions of pankration are influenced by Western boxing, catch and freestyle wrestling, ancient Greek artifacts (i.e. pottery, vases, sculptures, writings), as well as East Asian martial arts like karate, kung-fu, jujutsu, and muay thai.
Advocates for the sport have formed a US pankration team, and it is possible that a modern version of the sport could be introduced at the Olympics in the future.
Some modern pankration groups are seeking to re-introduce classical Hellenic culture into contemporary martial arts (sport, athleticism, philosophy, ethics, and all-around personal development). One such system of “contemporary” pankration, known as “Mu Tau Pankration,” was founded by Demetrios “Jim” Arvanitis in the latter half of the 20th Century. The first modern palaistra (school) was established in 1971.
Pankration has also periodically been reintroduced in the modern Olympic Games, but not with much success due to scarce participation. Given the rise in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts around the world in the recent years, interest in the sport has been renewed and even talks about entering MMA in the Olympics under the banner of pankration.