Pankration, sometimes spelled pancration, pancratium or even pankratium, was a combination of earlier forms of boxing and wrestling practiced by the Greeks.

The word Pankration is a Greek word, which translated, means "all powers" or "all powerful", both are acceptable translations by Greek scholars. Pankration was a sporting event in the ancient Greek Olympic games that was first introduced in the games of 648 BC. The rules of the sport were simple, no biting or eye gouging and victory was secured through knockout, submission or death. The historical records of the early pankration are shrouded and mixed with Greek mythology and it is not known whether these accounts of championship bouts and feats of strength of the champions were myth or actual accounts. What is known is that just like the boxers and wrestlers of the Olympic games the Pankration competitors refined their skills for many generations through hundreds of years and became extremely proficient at all elements of their sport including ground fighting and submission holds to standing fighting with all types of strikes. Many of the holds, throws and striking techniques can be seen on the pottery, statues and drawings of those times. The ancient Olympic games were intertwined with many ceremonies and connections to the worship of gods that were pagan to the rising christian population. Because of this association and the rise of christianity the games eventually came to a halt and along with it Pankration competition disappeared for many centuries.

The various styles of worldwide Wrestling in hand-to-hand fighting have preceded, without any doubt, the many kinds of Boxing we know today.

Sumerians were the first to mention a fight opposing Gilgamesh to Enkidu. Egypt left us through its low reliefs an extract of the various techniques of Wrestling, whose rules neared those of all-in Wrestling.

In Greece, there were formerly several fighting systems. Wrestling itself was divided into three principal styles: the Orthopales, the Pale and the Alyndisiz where the legendary Milon of Kroton distinguished himself in winning six times at Olympia. Proud of his strength, he liked to show it off: holding a pomegranate in his hand, he challenged whoever to make him open his fingers or to crush the fruit by squeezing them. He was defeated for the first time during the 67th Olympic games (512 BC), when he was over forty.

If Wrestling was the sport Greeks valued the most, Pugilism and Pankration were also practiced, so that they very early became Olympic disciplines.

Theagenes of Tasos, for example, gained his first victory in Pugilism during the 75th Olympic games and in Pankration four years later. Thereafter he was crowned three times at Delphi, nine times at Nemea and ten times at the Isthmian Games.

Like all the other Greek sports of the time, Pugilism was practiced naked. The pugilists’ fists were wrapped with leather straps called “himantes” (sort of thongs), themselves sometimes covered by plates of lead, copper or wood meant to wound or kill, even though the Olympic rules banned voluntarily killing of the adversary.

If the fight dragged on interminably, one had recourse to the “Klimax”: in turn, each of the two fighters remained still while the other struck him with a blow. The poet Theocrat (315-250 BC) told in the following way the combat that opposed the giant Amykos to Polydeukes:

“Amykos, groggy on account of the blows, is injured around the mouth and spits blood. When Polydeukes realizes that his adversary is at his mercy, he strikes him with a formidable blow above the nose, exposing the bone of the forehead. Amykos collapses, but manages to get up again. Then Polydeukes strikes again and cuts Amykos’ temple, then he aims at the mouth and the teeth make a rattling noise. Amykos falls down again, but succeeds in raising the hand as a sign of giving up. He was close to death ... “

Another famous pugilist is Diagoras of Rhodes. This champion was considered the best of the ancient Greek civilization. Pindar wrote in his honour an ode so beautiful, that Rhodians had it engraved in golden letters on the temple of Athena at Lindos.

Eurydamas of Cyrene became also a legend following a combat: having received a blow, which broke several teeth, he preferred to swallow them rather than to give his adversary the satisfaction to have succeeded an effective attack. Mouth shut, he continued the combat and won.

The origin of Pankration is lost in the mists of time reappearing abruptly in 648 BC at Olympia where mention were made of the first Olympic Champion of Pankration, a certain Lygdamus. But it seems that it was actually former to that time for if the Olympic games were instituted in 776 BC, the various sporting contests already existed at the time of the Trojan War (2 millenniums BC).

Does one have to seek the origin of Pankration in the Mycenaean, Ionian, Minoan or Egyptian civilization (2600 BC)? For it is known that one of the Egyptian wrestling style looked like Greek Pankration.

Hercules was himself considered by the Greeks as the creator of Pankration, while others thought it was Theseus, who floored the Minotaur.

The name of Pankration is composed of two Greek words: “Pan” meaning “Everything” and “Kratos” meaning “Strength” which could be interpreted as “Everything is allowed in strength” or “All power”. Although the term employed is pejorative because in addition to the power and force, good techniques were above all necessary, weight category being non-existent.

There were two forms of Pankration: “Kato Pankration” that authorized the continuation of combat on the ground and “Ano Pankration” that prohibited it. The latter was generally used in preliminary contests and was like modern Kickboxing.

Whereas striking was not allowed in Wrestling, nor was grappling in Pugilism, Pankration (Kato Pankration) offered all the resources and the tricks of Pugilism and Wrestling. One could even continue the combat on the ground to the death of one of the two fighters.

As long as they could stand up, their main concern was to strike terrible blows. On the other hand, once the fighters hit the ground, the combat changed of nature, becoming bitter hand-to-hand fight. Rolling on the sand or in the mud, the opponents grappled ceaselessly striking violent blows: each one trying to reduce the other to helplessness and to extract the consent of defeat from him.

Although popular, the art of Pankration held its technique secret and each school, each family holding this knowledge protected it at best, so that it ended up disappearing completely from its countries of birth.

The entirely naked body coated with very fine sand, the long hair swept back and tied on the occiput in a bun, the pankratiast descended in the arena the arms in high position and directed forwards, to guard his head and face. They kept their fingers bent, halfway between opened hand and closed fist, which had the double advantage of being faster as much with grappling than with striking.

The recently turned over soil was sprinkled with water and the pankratiasts were to fight until total exhaustion. Only sunset or one fighter giving up ended the onslaught.

The fights between pankratiasts ended sometimes in one of the fighter’s death. One of the most famous stories of Pankration is that of Creugas and Damoxenos whose statues were erected in the Vatican.

The history tells that if the winner could not be decided by sunset, the combat had to be stopped, because such was the rule. The klimax then was applied: each adversary had the right to strike the other, once in turn, the one being struck not allowed to try the least dodging. The attacker was to tell to his opponent which posture he was to adopt before striking him.

It was Creugas who, after drawing of lots, was entitled to the first blow. He asked Damoxenos to keep his arms lowered and punched him powerfully to the face. The later took it without turning a hair. Damoxenos then asked Creugas to raise his left arm and then he inserted his fingers under his ribs and pulled out the entrails.

Arrichion of Phigalee died while gaining the victory. He was being strangled by one of his opponent’s arm. Hopelessly trying to release himself from this submission, he managed to seize his opponent’s foot (some say the toe) and twisted it so much that he dislocated the ankle. Unable to take the pain, his opponent raised the hand as a sign of giving up at the same time that Arrichion, choked out, breathed his last. Arrichion was proclaimed victorious on posthumous grounds. The Agonotheses crowned his corpse and this scene made the subject of a painting that Philostratos described.

Pindar celebrated some Pankration winners in the Games of Nemea and Isthmus. Pausanias, in his Eliques, tells about a famous pankratiast named Sostratos from Sikyon, who won twelve victories in Pankration at Nemea and Isthmus, two at Delphi and three at Olympia, where was erected his statue at the time the historian lived. He was called “the fingers breaker”, because his favourite trick consisted in seizing his opponent’s fingers and twisting them until he gave in.

Children, such as Pytheas of Egine, who won the crown of Pankration at Nemea, also practiced Pankration. These fights appeared in 200 BC in the Olympic games.

The extreme violence of Pankration where everything went, except eye and nose gouging, biting, carrying a weapon or having the hands covered with gauntlets, made this Olympic discipline the most dangerous contest of which the outcome could sometimes be fatal. Indeed, it was not rare to see some pankratiasts dying of their wounds after several days of agony.

In these furious titanic duels, they sometimes transgressed certain rules; moreover the cases of bites had become so frequent at the time of the philosopher Demonax that he wrote:

“This is not without reason that those who follow the athletes of today call themlions.”

Some philosophers such as Plato criticized Pankration and qualified it as brutal and little aesthetic. They thought that, in the Greek nation’s interest, it was preferable to train warriors.

Pankration imported into Asia
The Greek soldiers were trained in many styles of fighting. In addition to weapons, there was hand-to-hand combat including the various styles of Wrestling, Pugilism and of course Pankration, which was the synthesis of the two above-mentioned systems. We know that Alexander’s armies crossed many regions and thus benefited from a unique military knowledge, which doubtlessly contributed to make Pankration evolve.

Arrived at the gates of India, the Greek soldiers grew weary of conquests. A number of them will even desert while others will refuse to venture further, so that Alexander will have no other choice that to yield to the will of his soldiers and to turn back.

It is extremely probable, not to say certain, that Pankration mixed with the styles of local combat to be divided into a multitude of techniques and practices as various as are the Martial Arts and combat sports of today. It is thus allowed to think that some vestiges of original Pankration lie in the Indian, and thus Asian, Martial Arts. To convince oneself, one has to know the historical and legendary origin of the majority of them.

India is to the Orient what Greece is to the Occident. It played a significant role in the culture, the religion and the Asian Martial Arts. At the 5th century in India, a prince-warrior of the “Kshatryas” caste named Da Mo (Bodhidharma), expert in yoga and various Indian Martial Arts, experienced enlightenment and decided to give everything up to found his own philosophical school “Chan” or “Zen”.

He crossed the chains of the Himalayas and arrived in a temple called “Shaolin”, which means “Small Forest”.

The legend tells that Da Mo remained 9 years meditating before teaching his meditative, gymnic and warlike arts, as well as his Buddhist philosophy to the monks of Shaolin.

This temple will remain a long time the leader of the Far Eastern Martial Arts. At present, many are practicing Martial Arts and assert that their arts originated in this famous temple and its outstanding combatants.

It would be however erroneous to think that Pankration is at the root of all the fighting styles. War and violence are buried deep down mankind, and the various people of Asia do not seem to have awaited the arrival of the Greeks or Bodhidharma to beat each other up. Witnesses are these statuettes dating from the 5th century BC, discovered in China representing a style of combat close to “Shuai Jiao” (Chinese Wrestling). Nevertheless one can think that in a preoccupation to improve the various techniques of combat, Pankration had to play a considerable role in the evolution and the perfection of the systems of fighting of the time. Indeed what ancient people other than the Greek people did have the idea to raise the sport - and in particular combat sports - to the rank of national disciplines and to create the Olympic games?

Thus some techniques of Pankration are found in several systems of ancient and modern combat.

The pankratiasts training
The training in Pankration took place in a gymnasium called “Palaestra” overshadowed by the statue of Hermes. It included “Pyrrhics”, a form of simulated combats similar to the katas of Judo, which were carried out by pairs and lost of their importance as the progress and the experiment of the pankratiast proved to be perfect. In addition to Pankration, all the forms of Wrestling, as well as the practice of Greek Boxing more known as Pigmachia were studied. But the training of the pankratiasts was not limited solely to the martial forms, it also included a hardening of the body by flagellation, as well as gymnic practices like running, the long jump, the discus and the javelin, which made them complete athletes.

A preparation going from one to ten months was mandatory before each competition. Those were held under the vigilant eye of the “Hellanodikai”, the judges/referees, who were wearing red togas and armed with a forked wand.

Pankration like Pugilism and Wrestling formed part of the practices known as “heavy”.

Fighting rules of the ancient Pankration
One started by turning the soil over and sprinkled it with water, and then the pankratiast arrived on the place of the meeting the arms directed to the top guarding his head.

The rules were simple: carrying a weapon, biting, eye and nose gouging, or killing the adversary voluntarily was prohibited. Apart from that the pankratiasts could use everything they could to win, including breaking one or more limbs if the opponent did not raise the finger in sign of conceding defeat.

Ancient techniques of Pankration
The use of kicks in Pankration and Pugilism was usually employed. Theocrat of Syracuse, in its fable of the Argonauts, tells us of the time when Polydeukes must fight Amykos to have the right to take water.

Amykos: “One against one, hands raised, man against man, it is how you will get it (the water).”
Polydeukes: “Would this be only punching or also kicking; eyes in the eyes?”
Amykos: “Punching, as much as you want and do not save your science...”

The final result of this combat can be found in the Pugilism heading.

A bronze statuette dating from the imperial time showing a pankratiast raising the leg in “Mae Geri”, as would say a Karate expert, is an additional proof of the use of kicks in Pankration.

On a monument praising the achievements of a Pankration champion, were mentioned his “broad feet” and his “unconquered hands”. In a satire on the professional athletes, Galen awarded the prize of Pankration to an ass because of its ability to kick. But there is better, spinning and jumping kicks were also used and formed integral part of Pankration training, nevertheless they were probably not used during the fights, the slippery mud and tiredness prevented this kind of techniques, certainly spectacular, but completely ineffective and unrealisable in a combat as much realistic as is Pankration.

The athletes diet
Frequent massages, enemas and hot baths formed part of the athlete’s hygiene but food remained the most important point. The athletes diet consisted of little fermented bread, almost uncooked, called “Coliphia”, of meat, dry fruits, fresh cheese and wheat. Fried cakes, boiled meat, fish and cold drinks were prohibited. According to Pausanias, Drone would be at the origin of the meat regime of the athletes, but these statements are in total contradiction with those of Philostratos.

The pankratiasts, like any athlete, did not drink wine immediately after training but only water. When they ate they “stuffed themselves” so much that the dinner lasted long hours. Moreover, they were advised to chew their food well in order to extract the maximum of energy from it. Some schools prohibited speaking while eating, that by no means did prevent the pankratiasts from cultivating a good appetite. It is said on this subject that Milon of Kroton felled an ox with his bare hands and devoured it entirety. We are definitely well far from modern dietetics.

Organization of the Greek Games
The opponents were paired by means of broad beans of which two were marked “Alpha”, two “Beta”, ...etc. If the number of competitors was odd, for example five, a broad bean marked Gamma was put in the ballot box. Then the one that drew it was kept in reserve to fight with one of the winners of the first combat, between who took place a second drawing of the lots and so on.

End of the games
In 393 AD, Theodosius became Christian and cancelled the Games, having their origin in ancient paganism.

In 399 AD, the imperial gladiators schools (ludi) were closed. Lastly, in 404 AD, Honorius cancelled officially the gladiators’ combat. Just like the gladiator art, Pankration will know its fall after more than a thousand years of glory.

One carried, during centuries, various appreciations on this liking for blood and violence, where appeared most certainly man’s most primitive instincts.

Without discussing a matter, far from coming to an end (reminding the controversies of bullfights), let limit ourselves to note this fact of civilization, in a region where pleasure and joy in life are the keynotes, but also imbued with the acute feeling of the vanity of mankind and of the presence of death.

Pankration today
As we could see it through this short historical summary, Pankration is undeniably the Olympic and ancestral Martial Art of the European continent. As such, it is marked with rites coming from our past and constitutes a priceless cultural vehicle.

Heir to the old traditional Martial Art, modern Pankration is holding precise rules, impossible to circumvent, under penalty of an empty imitation, imitation without a real interest. So the deontology closely related to the practice of Pankration is the sign of a culture, which is essential to preserve and to respect.