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The European Martial art of Pankration by Peter Lockhart

The word pankration translated into English means; "all powers" and that pretty well sums it up for me. My Greek friends pronounce the word softly, something like; "Pahn-hrussian".

The word "Pan" means all, as in "Pan Pacific" or "Pan American". The word "kratos" means power. Than should sound quite familiar as we use two Greek words in one of ours, which is "demos" people and, "kratos" power, for the word "Democracy", which we also inherited from the Ancient Greeks. The "all-powers" first became an Olympic event in 648 BC.

Pankration is therefore, the oldest and the most violent of all the world's unarmed Martial arts. There are historical accounts of Spartan hoplites (soldiers), using pankration in battle, as far back as 480 BC. The ancient historians Plutarch and Philostratos, mention wrestling and pankration, being used in battle by disarmed hoplites, at two famous Greek battles, Marathon and Thermopylae. Philostratos wrote of Thermopylae:

"......when the Lacedaemonians (Spartans), because they had broken their swords and spears, achieved much with their bear hands. The first contest in order of preference is the pankration, even though it is a mixture of imperfect wrestling and imperfect boxing........"

Not only is the pankration just the oldest Martial art in the world, but there is historical and archaeological evidence to suggest, that the pankration, is the "Granddaddy" of all the Martial Arts, not only including Oriental Arts, but especially Oriental Martial Arts. Pankration is Karate in it's original unadulterated form as invented by the ancient Greeks.

It is interesting to note, that the ancient Greek Martial Art of Pankration has been revived in the present day and age. It will even be an Olympic event at the Greek Olympic Games in 2004. The event is open to all Martial artists, no matter what style, system or origin.

Pankration is all-in, full contact Karate, Kickboxing and wrestling with few rules. Put simply, it is performed by kicking the legs out from under your opponent, or just kicking him to hurt him, using all the kicks familiar to a modern day Karate exponent or Kickboxer. All the while punching and or chopping him in the head and face, or anywhere on his body, using all the punches familiar to a modern day boxer and, all the chops familiar to a modern day Karate exponent.

Then, while he is on the ground, feel free to get his arm in a hold and break it, just to punish him for fun and then, for good measure, put him in a death lock wrestling hold, until he either yields or dies. This is done, needless to say, using all the wrestling moves of a modern freestyle wrestler. Sound like fun? Do that and you win. It sounds easy enough, but remember, he is trying to do it to you first. This makes for some rather interesting bouts, which are not for the feint hearted. Some of those Greek dudes are mean and tough, not to mention scary looking.

Two thousand years ago, when Athens was exporting olive oil (then it's only legal export) to the rest of the ancient world. The olive oil was sold and stored in exquisitely beautiful and highly decorated Greek pottery, some of which has survived to the present day.

Many of these olive oil jars have graphic and bloody depictions of men punching and kicking each other to death. This is Pankration and, there are many, many jars still in existence from that era, with words and pictures of this Greek fighting. Pankration has been around for almost three thousand years and, was and still is quite commonly practiced by Greek sailors, who have then exported the techniques, via "bar brawls", to the rest of the world. French Savate is a modern instance where this is known to have occurred.

This phenomena has occurred not only in the last two hundred years, such as is the case with Savate, but quite possibly in ancient times as well. Alexander the Great had some very hard men in his Army when he conquered his Empire around 334 BC. An example of just how tough they were, can be best illustrated when his Army took present day Uzbekistan. There they made a forced march in three days, a distance which would normally have taken, some ten days to travel.

That particular forced march by the way, was achieved in 40 degree heat. You may like to test your own resilience by emulating that feat of endurance - Australia after all, has no shortage of ten day marches and extreme heat. - go right ahead. Anyone who succeeds, is then hard enough to have been one of Alex's boys. That is something of which you can feel quite proud. Not only were his men physically tough, in order to have made such a journey, but they were very heavy drinkers, with large quantities of wine being consumed both before and after every battle. They got drunk before battle, to give themselves an edge with courage and aggression (as did may soldiers in World War I) and, then again after battle to celebrate their inevitable victory. They always won thanks to the phenomenal leadership and military genius of Alexander.

Alexander never went anywhere without several wagons of wine, with which to lubricate his soldiers. Alex's boys were also hardened fighters and just like the hoplites of Marathon and Thermopylae, they were well practiced in the pankration, with fights to the death a frequent and well documented occurrence among his soldiers.

It is known historically, that Alexander regularly held games for two reasons, to amuse his men and to stop his men from becoming soft through inactivity. He held the games just about everywhere he went on his conquests. The games consisted of: three kinds of running races, a running race in full armour, Wrestling, Boxing, Pankration, Pentathlon, Horse races, Chariot races and trumpeting competitions. Being typically Greek, the Macedonian soldiers simply loved watching and competing in these games and, they trained hard regularly to be fit enough to compete.

In Australia, we have many fine people who have come here from Greece. Kickboxing champion Stan Longinides, Australian rules champion Anthony Koudafides and tennis champion Mark Philippoussis, are three excellent examples of Greek men with magnificent athletic prowess. I believe all these men would have fitted in quite well with the Army of Alexander. Imagine a whole Army of thousands of men like these specimens of Greek manhood. That really would have been something to see. Little wonder then, that Alex never lost a battle.

The only rules of the pankration that were around with Alex are: No biting and no eye, nose and mouth gouging. It was not against the rules however, to punch, kick or rip off, your opponents testicles. Other than biting and gouging, you can pretty much do whatever you like to your opponent to beat him. There are Greek jars from that era, with clear pictures of hapless Greeks, on the receiving end of serious front snap kicks to the groin. The Spartans, to the contrary, had no rules at all, in their pankration competitions.

The men of Alexander the Great took the pankration with them to Asia, as far East as the Punjab in India and even Tibet. That much we know for a fact. We also know these men were extremely hard and, being the hard and arrogant men they were, there must have been more than a few drunken brawls with the local boys or among themselves, over women or whatever when in the East.

Also, it is possible that, while watching the Greek Games, held to amuse the Greek soldiers, the local Indian boys took Pankration on board. It has even been suggested by historians that some Greek soldiers deserted from the Army of Alexander the Great. Some disaffected troops, may have decided they had simply had enough of a life of adventure and conquest, so they could well have opted to bail out. They simply stayed on with Indian wives. That is possible because this still occurs in modern times with military men, and, has always been a well known phenomenon.

Greek soldiers deserting their own army and fighting as mercernaries for another army was well known in ancient times. Indeed, when Alexander fought Darius at the battle of Issus, he led the Macedonian cavalry - the Companions - and broke the Persian lines and immediatly wheeled his infantry to the left and fell upon the main body of the Persian infantry in the centre. The main body of the infantry of Darius at Issus were Greek mercenaries fighting for the Persians.

The Greeks and the Persians had for many centuries traded and squabbled. After the Persian war where the Persians were defeated by specifically Themistoclese with the Athenian Triremes at Salamis, Themistoclese was ostracised by Athens and went to live in Persia where he was treated as an honoured guest and deeply respected by the Persians.

After saving Athens from total annihilation at the hands of the Persian invaders, Themistoclese was kicked out in disgrace by his own people and accepted and lionised by his enemy (that incident just makes me shake my head and wonder about human beings). Therefore, Persians had a love-hate relationship with Greeks and recruited them into their armed forces over a long period of time. The Greek lads also had a culture that encouraged adventure and derring-do.

It is also well known and documented that Alexander set up colonies of his soldiers and camp followers, everywhere he went, even in India. In this way, he was building his Empire and spreading Greek civilization. Alexander also had big problems with his troops while in India. His men had had enough of travel and there was actually an insurrection over conditions. When Alex announced they were going home, his men surrounded him and openly wept with joy.

On the long march home, he deliberately took his army through a desert, some historians think, he did this just to punish his men. Many died on the return journey, especially the camp followers. Camp followers, were mostly women and children that the soldiers had acquired on the campaign.

After Alexander died, a general exodus of both, soldiers and camp followers, from the many colonies all over his Empire, went home to Macedonia. However, some simply stayed put, not inclined for whatever reasons to undertake the journey home. This we know for a fact. These men were too far away from Greece to ever go home. They then settled down in India and started a new life for themselves. It is very probable that the Greek deserters, then passed their pankration skills on to their sons and even taught it to the general community.

Another possibility, occurred just before Alexander entered India, while in the Hundu Kush. Alexander actually sacked, several thousand of his infantrymen and installed 40,000 Persian cavalry in their place. Some 30,000 local men were inducted into Alexander's army and taught to fight the Greek way. This would have included pankration training. Imagine several thousand Greek boys, all highly skilled in pankration and other military skills, roaming around the Orient with nothing to do.

My guess is that instead of returning home, they followed the Army for a while as camp followers and then, stayed put in the colonies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Afghanistan was then known as Bactria which was set up by Alexander and remained a Greek kingdom for centuries. Afghanistan is quite close to the Punjab. The Greek colonies in Afganistan of Bactria and Kandarhar had a huge cultural influence on both India and China for centuries. That is a well known historical fact.

All my inquiries and research leaves me with the inescapable conclusion, that all the Oriental Martial Arts began, according to legend, in China by a Buddhist monk from India called `Bodildharma' or `Dharma' or something similar, (the spelling varies) in the sixth century AD. (my Indian friends tell me that Bodildharma means "Embodiment of excellence and virtue"). Therefore it is very probable and highly likely in my opinion, that whatever it was that the Indian monk, Dharma taught the Chinese, other than Buddhism, was in fact an Indian version of the pankration and therefore, a legacy of Alexander the Great, brought to India from Greece, some nine hundred years before.

Archaeological evidence suggests that before Alexander went to Asia, there was only wrestling in the Orient by all accounts and, there were no punching and kicking forms of fighting in Asia or in India. These only came and, in fact, exploded into existence, and spread rapidly all over India after Alex's army had actually been there. It certainly makes sense, sounds plausible and it is a theory that I like to believe is true.

The game of Chess is an interesting analogy to bear in mind here, as it was invented in India over one thousand years ago and instantly spread far and wide, even as far away as Iceland. That wonderful game captured people's imagination and spread like wildfire. I believe the same could be true of the pankration.

After he had conquered new lands in India, the Indians revered Alexander very much as both a God and a Great commander. Any of his men remaining in India, after he had gone home, would, I believe, have been treated very well. They would have been regarded as honoured guests, with great Martial skills, passed on of course, from their Great commander Iskandar (Alexander). It is possible and likely, that the Indian Generals or head men, could have recruited some Greek men, as mercenaries to train and upgrade their armies.

The Indians were so impressed by Alexander, that after they were defeated by him, they tried to imitate him, by having an army as skilled and powerful as his army. The use of mercenary instructors has long been a common and accepted practice. Foreign mercenaries are still used today for this purpose, all around the world.

If these local chiefs or Satraps, recruited Greek mercenaries, and it is highly probable, that they did in my view, pankration would have been taught to Indian soldiers as a matter of course, in the Greek military tradition. The Greek mercenaries would have been well paid and given positions of power and prestige as officers and instructors in the Indian armies.

This could well have spread pankration to the rest of India and from there, to the rest of Asia. What is known however, is that India and Arabia traded with the Greeks and Romans (the Romans too loved pankration) for centuries after the death of Alexander. This is yet another possibility for the spread of pankration to India.

The impact Alexander had on Asia was huge to say the least. India became a martial society for many centuries after, thanks to the example of Alexander the Great. His impact is best further demonstrated by mentioning the fact that, still in this day and age, in many of the places he conquered, mothers tell their troublesome children, "Alexander is coming! ". The children are, to this day, struck dumb with terror at that notion and immediately behave themselves.

The actual rules of Pankration, which are passed down to us from ancient texts and, that applied to the ancient Olympiads, which also give us an interesting glimpse of the ancient Greeks are as follows:

a) All the wrestling holds - waist cinch, grasping the legs by the ankles, twisting the arms - were allowed, as were all the blows of boxing, but with bear hands. The athlete was allowed to hold the opponent with one hand and punch with the other.

b) Biting, gouging the eyes, nose or mouth and scratching with the nails were forbidden.

There were two types of pankration:

Kato pankration in which the contest continued after the opponents fell to the ground. This was established at the Olympic and other games. Ano pankration in which the athletes remained on their feet. This was practiced only in training.

The techniques of pankration:

1) Defensive

2) Offensive

3) Throws to the ground (rassien) a) from the legs, b) from the hips, c) from the arms, d) from the shoulder, e) "sacrifice",

4) Arm techniques a) attacking and striking, b) strangle-hold (anchien), c) hand grasp (akrocheirizein), d) blows, e) pressure on joints using fingers, elbows, knees, heels, f) punches: direct, circular, back-hand, double, swipe, hook, inside, spinal, basal, straight, g) blows with the palm of the hand: inside, spinal, basal, h) chops: inside, outside,

5) Leg techniques a) offensive: Kick - front, circular, side, back, double, arched, downwards, in the air, backwards circular, upside down circular, upside down arched, straight, b) shin: inside, outside,

6) Ladder-trick or "scissors" (klimatizien)

7) Immobilization techniques,

8) Disarticulation techniques, a) control of the legs: pelvis, knee, foot, b) control of arms: shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand, c) neck holds: front, side, back, d) waist holds,

9) Stances, a) foot forward, b) tiptoe, c) battle, d) sideways,

10) Body positions, a) forward, b) diagonal, c) sideways,

11) Moves and turns,

Other techniques known from ancient texts: Strangle-hold (apopnigmos) where the athlete came behind his opponent, squeezed his body with one arm while passing the other round the neck and under the chin and squeezing tight. Stomach kick (gastrizein). Heel-trick (apopternizein) the athlete kept a firm grip on the opponent's leg and twisted it firmly to throw him to the ground.

It is known that Pankration exponents were the strongest of all the athletes of the ancient Olympic games. These men both maintained and improved their strength and practiced by punching and kicking animal skins filled with sand. It is very clear that by reading this description of the pankration techniques, that modern Karate and Kickboxing are not too far from this ancient Greek Martial art.

Some of these ancient techniques are clearly quite dangerous - deadly in fact. It is little wonder that so many deaths were reported in Greece from pankration. Pankration is a real "Martial" art because it was to be used by warriors in actual battle after becoming disarmed. It was invented and developed by the Greeks as unarmed combat to be used with deadly force while in combat. There are ancient accounts that, that is precisely what transpired. Therefore, it had to be deadly and it was and still is, deadly.

It is also well documented that Greek pankration exponents would practice and demonstrate their `pneuma' or inner energy, by breaking stones and boards with their bare hands and by kicking their toughened feet through forged war shields. The connection then with the pankration and modern Karate is both obvious and possible through the Indian Dharma and then onto the Shaolin monks.

The Romans loved the pankration and they encouraged their fighters to wear spiked and weighted gloves called caestus. Rome had the pankration as a gladiatorial event to satisfy their lust for blood and brutality. It was very, very rare for a true Greek pankratiast to participate in the Roman competitions despite the offering of rich prizes and powerful positions within Rome. The Greeks were above the vulgarity of Roman violence however and appreciated sport only for it's spiritual and physical benefits.

The ancient Greeks were highly advanced, civilized and quite extraordinary people really, who among other things, spoke of atomic theory and were in 120 BC, experimenting with building a steam engine. Who knows how different world history would have been, if the ancient Greeks had managed to build that engine, more than two thousand years before James Watt in 1780?

The modern Olympic games, boxing, wrestling and many of the track and field events were invented by the Greeks. Their legacies to us are manifold, just a few are: Democracy, Philosophy, Mathematics, Algebra, Trigonometry, Astronomy, Medicine, Science, Biology, Art, Literature and who knows, possibly Oriental Martial arts as well.

If that is the case, then we Martial artists, of whatever style, creed or system and whatever the land of origin of our beloved art or arts, From English boxers to Chinese Kung Fu, we are all brothers in the same fraternity. Greece is where both our Democracy and our fighting arts and systems all began. I am quite inspired by that notion.