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The Arts of Mars

Guru Scott McQuaidby Guru Scott McQuiad

Martial arts is the generic term used for combat systems of codified practices used in self-defense. The term martial arts derives from Latin being the ‘Arts of Mars,’ the Roman god of war and although this term has become heavily associated with the fighting arts of Eastern Asia, the phrase actually originated from Europe sometime during the 1950s. The term was used in regards to the combat systems of Europe back then. In a 1639 English fencing manual the term martial arts was used in reference specifically to the ‘Science and Art’ of swordplay.

The origins of martial arts are spread across Asia but many scholars believe the mother of all these fighting systems can be traced back to ancient Greece. In 648 BC the combative art known as Pankration was introduced into the Greek Olympic Games. This was a style of boxing and wrestling. Some historians believe that the art may have been practiced in Greece around the second millennium BC.

The term pankration means 'all powers' and the Spartan warriors were taught to use this ancient art to kill on the battlefield. In Greek mythology it is believed that Hercules invented pankration and Alexander the Great was also noted as pankration fighter.

The Arts of Mars - Pankration

The fighting applications used in this art consisted of punching, kicking, elbows, chokes, locking, grappling and takedowns. Although knockouts were said to have been common in the Olympic Games of pankration, most of the action took place on the ground with both striking and submission techniques. Today's modern gladiators are the MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters of the octagon arena who are often described as barbaric and journalists have labelled this sport as human cock-fighting.

MMA was born from martial artists blending various styles, mainly wrestling, muay thai, judo and boxing, but it eventually became its very own combat system. A sport with strict guidelines and rules for the octagon. It may appear that MMA fighters can do anything to each other in the arena but this is far from the truth. There are actually more rules in this sport than boxing. This newly developed bloodsport is also much safer than boxing as the gloves are thiner which causes more decisive knockouts. In boxing, on the other hand, the fighters use big padded 12 to 18 ounce gloves which cushion the blows and as a result the punishment the fighters received to the head over the 10 to 12 rounds can cause major head trauma.

Pankration rules evolved over time. One ancient account tells of a situation in which the judges were trying to determine the winner of a match. The difficulty lay in the fact that both men had died in the arena from their injuries, making it hard to determine a winner. Eventually, the judges decided the winner was the one who didn't have his eyes gouged out. So the rules were adapted and such maneuvers were banned.

The Arts of Mars - Pankration

Within each specific fighting art, there is no singular source of origin, there will always be an influence from somewhere else. Studying other styles that are similar to your own may reveal a weakness that can be corrected by implementing the ideology of another martial art but keeping the structure and format of your existing system. The deadly elbow strikes in pankration that are clearly seenin today's muay thai fighters are also rooted in Indonesia's Pencak Silat styles. The Minangkabau tribe's Silek Harimau (tiger) system of combat uses the elbows to demolish their opponents' lower leg joints. Harimau pesilats (silat players) are expert ground fighters; they will often engage in a fight from an orthodox upright position before swooping down and smashing their elbow through a knee cap and then switching to rise up with the elbow on the inside under the enemy's chin. The Javanese blade fighting system of Harimau Berantai Silat (chained tiger) uses the elbow for disarms against a knife attacker. As the blade shoots into their direction the pesilat will flank their opponent and drive the elbow up through the bottom palm of the knife hand. This often results in disarmament.

Guru Scott McQuaid

The pugilist punching of boxing in pankration is still the most effective boxing style used today. From featherweights to heavyweights, the punches are the same and the result is often a knockout. Boxing punches are seen across Southeast Asian arts. However most Chinese and Japanese styles adopt a very different approach. The punches shoot straight from a square shouldered stance and often are very liner. This is slightly easier to avoid than a punch that hooks, uppercuts or crosses from an angled attacker. This is the reason why the western boxing methods are used in MMA and not a rigid short base punch. Your opponent does not stand in front of you and lunge as most techniques are often demonstrated. Your enemy is a moving target throwing attacks from various angles, so once in a scuffle the wresting skills are applied. Brazilian Ju-Jitsu practitioners are masters on the floor with their grappling, locking and famous arm-bar finishes. It is probably well conceded to say that the Greeks pankration played a major part in the development of Judo which in turn influenced Brazilian Ju-Jitsu.

The stasi or stances in pankration place the pankratiast (pankration fighter) with almost frontal stance, only slightly turned sideways. This is an intermediate directional positioning, between the wrestler's frontal positioning and the boxer's angled sideways stance. This mid-way stance between the two styles gives the option of striking and protecting the center line of the body with the option of grappling techniques. The efthia or punches shoot out from the hip giving some snap and weight to the punch. The laktismata or kicks would generally target the lower parts of your opponent. This allows the fighters to knock their opponents off their feet and helps maintain their speed. The apokrousis or blocks work off their elbows like a boxer's guard but the knee rises and deflects a kick much like muay thai fighters.

The strategy and tactics in pankration competitions would rely on grounding and the sun. Each fighter would try to find the higher solid ground in the dusty uneven terrain, leaving one of the fighters stumbling on the lower sloping floor. The use of the sun was a major tactical objective. The pankratiast would try to get their partner to face the hot bright Greek sun, blinding them slightly of any attacks that would come. The decision to remain standing or take your opponent to the ground obviously depended on the strengths of the athlete. This practice is still seen in MMA today - some fighters are master technicians on the floor while others are better equipped striking from their feet.

The ancient pankratiasts are said to be legendary within Greece and evidence of this combative art is seen today in paintings on pottery. Artists painted fighters onto large jugs used for wine and the rich nobles would buy them and use them at gatherings to impress their guests. The world owes a lot to the Greeks in human development and this fighting art certainly created a ripple for other martial arts to grow but its humble beginnings may trace even further back to ancient Egypt and there are also theories that pankration came from India as this country did have an ancient version of martial arts in a Yoga style that predates Alexander the Great. Nothing is certain when it comes to history but the farther back you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.

The Arts of Mars - Pankration


Published in Irish Fighter magazine, 2014.