‘Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing else to watch but football and mixed martial arts [MMA], which are not the arts

Meryl Streep

Far be it from me to criticise Meryl Streep – I have been reliably informed that she could even play a good Batman – but I must admit this comment made me a bit cranky. No, don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a discussion of Graeco-Roman attitudes to actors/actresses, let’s not be petty, it’s going to be about punching people. But, seriously, MMA not an art?

Where would the Greeks side? After all, the same people who are dismissive of combat sports and hold themselves as ‘artistic’ are often wont to discuss the Greeks and Greek drama in terms of hyperbolic veneration. But you can’t have your Thespis without your Theagenes.

A more sober, mature person might take this opportunity for a lengthy discussion about Graeco-Roman conceptions of art. There’d be a lot of fluff about the definition of τέχνη, painting vs drama, weaving metaphors and poetry. A more politically astute person might take the opportunity to go back over the rest of her speech and discuss possible changes to American immigration policy. A more … you get the idea, here we’re going to talk about punching people.

Look, I’m quite biased here. I’m a reader of books far more than I am a watcher of films and whilst I can be rather geeky, I also really enjoy lifting heavy things and hitting other people. Consensually, and in a controlled environment, of course. I think popular culture also far too often forgets the physical aspects of antiquity.

I’m also weary of trying to find classical precedents and contorting disparate remnants of the ancient world together in order to force comparisons. No, the ancient world is not quite relevant to absolutely everything… but in this instance we might reasonably equate MMA with an ancient combat sport called pankration.

Pankration was neither the direct ancestor nor some considerably more dangerous great uncle of MMA, though within Greece certain right wing groups have tried to cast it in that role. The fullest description we possess comes from the Sophist Philostratus. Being so late, being written under the cultural milieu of the Roman Empire, it is naturally a bit suspect. Given, however, that we’re not too invested in questions of source derivation and authenticity it will suffice:

…οἱ παγκρατιάζοντες, ὦ παῖ, κεκινδυνευμένῃ προσχρῶνται τῇ πάλῃ· δεῖ γὰρ αὐτοῖς ὑπωπιασμῶν τε, οἳ μή εἰσιν ἀσφαλεῖς τῷ παλαίοντι, καὶ συμπλοκῶν, ἐν αἷς περιγίνεσθαι χρὴ οἷον πίπτοντα, δεῖ δὲ αὐτοῖς καὶ τέχνης ἐς τὸ ἄλλοτε ἄλλως ἄγχειν, οἱ δὲ αὐτοὶ καὶ σφυρῷ προσπαλαίουσι καὶ τὴν χεῖρα στρεβλοῦσι προσόντος τοῦ παίειν καὶ ἐνάλλεσθαι· ταυτὶ γὰρ τοῦ παγκρατιάζειν ἔργα πλὴν τοῦ δάκνειν ἢ ὀρύττειν. Λακεδαιμόνιοι μὲν οὖν καὶ ταῦτα νομίζουσιν ἀπογυμνάζοντες οἶμαι ἑαυτοὺς ἐς τὰς μάχας, Ἠλεῖοι δὲ [καὶ] ἀγῶνες ταυτὶ μὲν ἀφαιροῦσι, τὸ δὲ ἄγχειν ἐπαινοῦσιν

(Philostratus Eikones 2.6.3)

The Pankrationists, child, employ a dangerous style of wrestling. For it’s necessary for them to meet blows to face*, which are not safe for a wrestler, and clinch** in a manner where one, having fallen, might prevail. They also need the skill [τέχνη] to choke*** at different times in a different way, they contort ankles, twist arms and jump on their opponents and strike them. With the exception of biting and gouging, all such things are allowed in pankration. Amongst the Lakedaimonians, however, even these are permitted – I assume since they are training for war, but the Eleian games also prohibit these though they allow choking.

* With sense of blackened eyes.

** Sculptural and pictorial evidence suggests we are indeed talking about clinching rather than generic wrestling.

*** As in choke holds. Not like a serial killer or sex pest.

[Let it be noted that Philostratus does use the word for art/skill with reference to fighting, so we could end here and now]

There are some salient differences between MMA and pankration, but I’d say that’s similar enough.

For the Ancient Greeks pankration was important enough to be given a place at the crown-bearing games (Nemean, Olympian, Isthmian, Pythian) and become the focus of song.

I had originally wanted to include translations of a few choice pieces from Pindar and Bacchylides here but I’m going to forebear from doing so. Part of the conceit of these songs is to avoid concentrating on the sporting event itself, instead they invoke mythological paradigms, the achievements of the victor’s family, little bits of local history and, occasionally, admonishments to more seemly behaviour. Given that this is meant to be a fairly quick blog post and we don’t have time to go into epinikian tropes and contexts, it seems wiser for me to forgo direct quotation.

Pindar’s poetry sometimes flows like treacle – sweet and slow – at others it’s like a rush of fresh water (and as we all know, Ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ, water is best) on a hot day – fast and refreshing. It can be as clear as Helios or as obscure as Herakleitos… the point is it’s really, really, good. Unlike Philostratus, Pindar deserves time and consideration to get the translation just right. I hear the Nisetich translations are nice.

One of the paradigmatic descriptions of pankration from ancient sources is the story of Arrakhion who was killed by his opponent in the Olympic games – but not before he forced him to yield via a small joint lock. This story, reported by both Philostratus (above) and Pausanias (8.40.1), is somewhat suspect in that it seems to contain the typical Greek trope of linking death and happiness (Kleobis and Biton are a more famous example), but there’s no real reason to doubt it. We’re not meant to revel in the gory details, but be impressed by the commitment to contest and victory displayed.

Likewise, while we lament the handful of deaths accrued by modern combat sports we can still recognise the nobility in the contest. Pankration and MMA both require deprivation – arguably less of an issue for the ancients, have you seen their food? – and dedication. One ancient fighter, Kleitomakhos of Thebes, was said to avoid sex all together: In a world where slaves (girls and boys) could be purchased cheaply and athletes came from wealthy families, this was arguably harder.

If Pindar, and thousands of ancients, can find something worth celebrating in pankration, surely we can in MMA?

The Internet is full of interesting fights, though I’d recommend Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar as a particularly good, digestible, one. It must be more than a decade old by now and is often credited with helping to bring the sport into the mainstream. Search around and you’ll soon see why people love the sport. First, it’s very fun to train. Second, from a spectator’s perspective, there’s something graceful in the bobbing and weaving, the well timed kicked, when a counter punch lands at just the right moment, how all the different parts of fighting (standing, clinching, ground) bring together different limbs in a way that’s almost dance like…

It’s hard to see how something so graceful, that people have given so much of themselves to (sometimes, as in the case of Arrakhion, all they have) can’t be called art. It’s annoying to see it denigrated.

This has been a bit unfocused, a bit ranting. Sorry. I’d like to end with Sappho (Voigt 16):

Οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων,
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπὶ γᾶν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἐγὼ δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
   τω τις ἔραται

Some say an army of horsemen, others footsoldiers,

others [that] a navy is the fairest thing

upon the black earth, but I say

It is what one loves…

So, yes, some say the kimura, others ill advised biopics about British Prime Ministers. Nobody needs to make Sophie’s Choice between them, let’s all get along. See! Clearly I’m no longer irritated…

Further Reading

Meryl Streep’s speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxyGmyEby40

On the Second Sophistic (the context of Philostratus and Pausanias):

Bowie, E. L. (1970) “Greeks and Their Past in the Second Sophistic” in Past & Present 46, pp 3-41

Newbie, Z. (2005) Greek Athletics in the Roman World. Oxford (esp ch 2, 5, 7)

Swain, S. (1996) Hellenism and Empire. Oxford

Whitmarsh, T. (2005) The Second Sophistic. Cambridge

On Ancient Sports/Pankration

See Newbie (2005) above.

Gardiner, E. N. (1906) “The Pankration and Wrestling” in The Journal of Hellenic Studies 26, pp 4-22

Golden, M. (2008) Greek Sport and Social Status. Texas, USA.


Odes on combat sports = Nem: 2, 3, 5, 10. Isth: 6-8, Ol: 7-9, Pyth 9

2 thoughts on “Pindar Vs Meryl Streep

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