Pankration: An Aberration of the Ancient Sporting World
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In ancient Greek society, especially after the Archaic age, the institution of sport provided one of the only avenues for a male citizen to achieve individual kleos similar to that of a Homeric hero. It was during this post-Archaic period that Greek society was full of two especially anomalous ideas; one promoted a collective society, such as with the polis, while another emphasized an intense sense of competition and desire to achieve individual glory. Sport in particular provided an outlet for this competitiveness. The combat sports, boxing, wrestling, and an approximate amalgamation of the two, pankration, were perhaps the most visually exciting sports and thus most evocative of the heroic ideal. With each of these sports an audience got the opportunity to witness an athlete, often: possessing heroic stature, tenacity, strength, and quickness, fight for his life against another in the physical arena. This was one of the few opportunities an average Greek citizen had to witness such single combat that reflected the Homeric age. Of all the combat sports, it was the pankration, the last of the three to enter into the Greek festival games, that likely had the most impact on society. In this sport, only two tactics, biting and gouging of the eyes, were forbidden, and the aim was to either beat one's opponent into submission or force him to concede defeat though a joint manipulation or choke. Making the sport more prominent and popular was the fact that it had some usefulness outside of the agon, as a training tool for war. This paper then, will examine in depth the practice of the sport, the training and rituals surrounding it, and attempt to answer why it continued to exist despite its reputation as being particularly violent and incredibly dangerous.