May 19, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

History of Pankration (An Olympic Pastime)

4 min read
Heracles Slays the Nemean Lion

Heracles Slays the Nemean Lion

It is getting close to the Olympics! While I personally prefer the Winter Olympics, the Summer Olympic games still keep me enthralled. I do have to say, however, I wouldn’t mind seeing one of the original Ancient Greek Olympic games restored. No, not chariot racing—pankration! I mean, who doesn’t like a little tracheal crushing and death, am I right?

If you are not familiar with pankration, it is very similar to today’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Pankration, a hybrid martial art, blends boxing and wrestling. It involves strength, skill and knowledge of: fighting stances, striking techniques, locking techniques, choking techniques, throws, and takedowns. This particular brand of martial arts competition is one reserved for only the best and fiercest of competitors. What made pankration particularly dangerous (and hardcore) is that it was originally established not as a sport, but as a strategic, offensive battlefield technique.

The history of pankration, while possibly dating as far back as the second millennium BCE, has significant ties dating to Ancient Greek mythology. Theseus, in the slaying on the Minotaur, and Heracles, in the slaying of the Nemean lion, both credited their underdog victories to a fighting style similar to what would become pankration. This war technique would lead to the success of the Greek army for hundreds of years. One of the most memorable battles in all of history is the Battle of Thermopylae. The box office hit 300, which is was based on this battle, depicts a fighting style, also based on pankration. Soldiers in Greek armies were not supplied with equipment and had to provide their own weapons. This often left to unequipped fighters; therefore, the knowledge and use of pankration was essential for survival in the battlefield. It is said that Alexander the Great’s armies were well trained in pankration and that this training allowed them to conquer all of Europe. Some martial arts historians also venture to speculate that because Alexander’s reach was so vast, that his pankration would also spread to Asia and become the building blocks for other martial arts, such as kung fu or karate.

Heracles Slays the Nemean Lion
Heracles Slays the Nemean Lion

The inception of pankration in the Ancient Greek Olympics, however, started in 648 BCE. While records leave us to guess that the Ancient Olympics started in 776 BCE, we do know that whatever the year was, pankration would be added later down the line and was not an original Olympic event. Winners of this event, as victors of every Olympic event, were crowned with a wreath of laurels and their names were chiseled into the history books. One of the best stories that I ran across was the story of Arrichion of Phigalia. This was on the

The short and sweet version of the story is Arrichion’s opponent had him in a choke hold. While losing consciousnesses, Arrichion reached for his opponent’s ankle. Arrichion was able to dislocate the ankle of his opponent, causing him to signal defeat, moments before he died from the damage inflicted by the choke hold. Arrichion’s lifeless body was crowned as the Olympic champion and taken back to his hometown of Phigaila as a hero.

While “tapping out” was created in the sport of pankration, it was not often used. It was embarrassing and dishonorable to tap out as a sign of defeat. Refusal to tap out led to many deaths during pankration Olympic events. (As the ones above proves.) But as you see, even as a lifeless body, Arrichion was crowned the victor and given a hero’s ceremony.

Argus Panoptes or Argos is a character in Greek mythology described as a hundred-eyed giant. As a servant of Hera, one of the tasks given to him was to slay the fearsome monster Echidna, wife of Typhon, which he managed successfully while she slept. Ironically when Hermes was sent by Zeus to kill him he managed to do so by playing soothing music upon his reed pipes until all of Argus’ eyes closed in deep sleep. ”

A modern offshoot of pankration was introduced back into the martial arts community by Jim Arvanitis, in 1969. Exposing the world, once again, to pankration, he inspired and greatly contributed to today’s Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). While efforts have been made, as recent as the 2004 Olympic Games, to reinstate pankration as an Olympic sport, this has yet to be accomplished. When a nation hosts the Olympics, they can request that a “demonstration sport” be in the program for the Olympics. When this request is honored, it generally leads to the addition of the sport to all future Olympic games. When the 2004 Olympics were held in Athens, Greece, they request was made; this request, however, fell on deaf ears and proved unsuccessful.

6 thoughts on “History of Pankration (An Olympic Pastime)

  1. I remember back in ’88 when Tae Kwon Do was a demonstration sport. It never made it any further than that. I’m amazed that they still allow boxing. It seems likely that as people get injured in a variety of sports, the Olypmics will gradually drop all contact sports from the line-up.They’re trying to get back to the basics like running, jumping, and rythmic gymnastics.

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