Wrestling is one of the oldest sports known. Art
and literature abound in dramatic examples of gods and men grappling as powerful
adversaries. A number of tales make a hero of Herakles, the demigod, who was
reputed to have been the originator of wrestling. According to Greek myth,
Herakles challenged and charged Erginus, King of Orchomenos, and their
muscle-bulging struggle ended when the King was pinned to the ground.
Two styles of wrestling, in vogue for centuries, added variety and
excitement to athletic festivals: One was known as horthay palay; the other,
kulisis. Horthay palay, a
free-for-all style of wrestling, was engaged in by semiprofessional athletes.
Matches were fought in an area of loosened dirt, really a mud pit, where the
wrestlers wallowed like animals, their bodies quickly becoming slippery with
damp earth. Modern mud fights in which protagonists with bodies wet as eels
slither helplessly into ludicrous positions bear no resemblance to horthay palay.
The bull-strong wrestlers of Greece were trained for the condition of the ground
and in the technique of the sport; they grabbed opponents with clever and
damaging holds in spite of the mud. There were no rounds to be stopped or
started by timekeepers or referees; the match was continuous, ending only when
one combatant wrestled the other to exhaustion or insensibility. With stamina
and determination, typical of Greek athletes, wrestlers fought hard and long,
enduring agony until one fainted or hollered the equivalent of "uncle."
Upright wrestling, kulisis, beautiful to watch and requiring even more skill in
execution than ground wrestling, was the accepted form of competitive wrestling.
Little is known about the rules of kulisis: a book of rules and a drill book
assembled by paidotribes disappeared centuries ago. What is known about upright
wrestling has been learned from the study of countless pieces of sculpture, has
reliefs cut in stone, and vase paintings.
Another style vicious, crude type of fighting, was
allowed, first as an exhibition and then as a competitive event. This was the
The pankration was brutal, barbaric and bloody; it was literally a
combination of the worst elements of wrestling and boxing. Beefy contestants,
larded with blubber and bulk, battled each other with no holds barred; the only
restriction was that fighters could not gouge each other in the eyes. They
fought by kicking, biting, strangling, twisting arms, and jumping on a downed
adversary; even the searingly painful, well-aimed blow of the knee to the groin
was permissible. Kicking in the stomach was a favorite trick of pankrationists.
The bout continued until one contestant was knocked out, or groveled in pain on
the ground, unable to rise to continue the bloody battle.
Greeks were as wildly enthusiastic about boxing as are contemporary
devotees of the sport. But Greek boxing more nearly resembled the sport
as it was practiced in the early nineteenth century than twentieth-century
There was no measured ring or boxing area. Boxers took their position on the
hard dirt in the center of the stadium and spectators gathered around, giving
the boxers plenty of space in which to circle. At a command from the judges, the
boxers squared off, sparred and battled until one of the contestants admitted
defeat or was knocked out. There were no set rounds and no classes; the
designation of boxers as welterweight, lightweight, or heavyweight is a modern
device. Any Greek boxer who felt himself ready to meet any other boxer was free
to enter the contests, after receiving approval of the Hellenodikai.