Paradosiakos Pangration: Reconstructing Pankration
Dan Kanagie, our resident hoplologist, dives into the difference between modern and ancient Pankration, a sport he names Paradosiakos Pangration.
“These folk standing up, who also have been coated in dust, punch and kick each other in their attacks. And now this poor wretch looks like he is about to spit out even his teeth – his mouth is so full of blood and sand, having just taken a blow on the jaw, as you see” Lucian, 2nd c. CE
Recently we’ve seen a resurgence in articles about Pankration. There are schools that teach it and organizations that hold competitions. While this is a great thing, this is a revitalization of a culture and not a reconstruction of a long dead martial art. There is little actual comparison between the modern and ancient arts.
Modern Pankration is a mixed martial art based on modern sports. The lack of similarities to the artistic evidence as well as the written evidence that survives tells us that. This isn’t to denigrate one or the other, but the two shouldn’t be conflated. This is why I’ve started using the term “Paradosiakos Pangration”, which translates to “Traditional, or Old World” Pankration, to differentiate it from the modern sport.
To study the ancient art, we need to reconstruct the art, as close to the evidence as possible. This includes the cultural philosophy concerning sports, and combat sports in particular. For instance, there is a misconception that Pankration was a deadly sport, however, my research shows that in the over 1040 years of inclusion in the Panhellenic games, I could only find evidence of 2 recorded deaths. Boxing, or Pygmachia, was a much deadlier sport.
When looking at Paradosiakos Pangration, one of the first things that stands out is the basic fight stance. By comparing the vastly numerous depictions in the existing artwork and the few written descriptions to have survived, we can actually get a fairly clear picture of what it looked like. This description from the 2nd century CE corroborates the artwork: “just as they stand when called to the contest with their arms thrust out high and protect their head and face with their hands, blocking like a rampart, and before the fight all their limbs are ready to ward off blows and give them”.
An upright posture with extended arms. Sounds more like traditional Muay Thai than modern MMA or boxing. This stance also promotes a forward movement style similar to what we know about Hellenic combat.
In the first three Olympic games that the sport was included in, it was called “Pammachon”, which comes from the root words “pan” meaning all, total, or complete, and “machos” meaning combat. It was what the Greeks called their hand to hand fighting style they used in war. It was what the Spartans used to fend off the Persians at Thermopylae. Pankration was originally a means of safely practicing Pammachon.
By looking at the evidence, we get a clearer picture of this groundbreaking sport. We start to understand the meaning of the name Pankration. Paradosiakos Pangration wasn’t a mixed martial art, but complete martial art.