Lately, I’ve been trying to get myself back to the gym and into shape. So athletic training has been on my mind. Today, I thought I would write a blurb about the pankration (Greek παγκράτιον; Latin pancratium). This was one of the most vicious competitions in the Greek athletic games which combined both boxing and wrestling. In many ways, it was an ancient form of modern-day mixed martial arts. Aristotle describes the athletic events this way: 

  • Bodily excellence in athletics (ἀγωνιστική) consists in size, strength, and swiftness of foot; for to be swift is to be strong. For one who is able to throw his legs about in a certain way, to move them rapidly and with long strides, makes a good runner (δρομικός); one who can hug and grapple, a good wrestler (παλαιστικός); one who can thrust away by a blow of the fist, a good boxer (πυκτικός); one who excels in boxing and wrestling is fit for the pancratium (παγκρατιαστικός)... (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1361b.14; LCL; Eng. trans. by Freese)
Painting of Theseus’ Battle with the Minotaur in the Labyrinth
from an Attic kalyx crater (wine-diluter) ca. 480 BC
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum

Legend has it that the pancration was a technique created by Theseus as he fought against Minotaur in the labyrinth. According to Dio Cassius, Emperor Caligula popularized the sport in Rome (Roman Histories 59.13). It was very likely still a crowd favorite at the Isthmian games sponsored by Corinth at the time when Paul visited the city. The winner was determined when the loser was killed or “tapped out” by slapping the side of the victor in a gesture of submission. 
   The pancration gives us just one more example of how radical Paul’s use of the athletic metaphor was to describe the kind of discipline, training, and endurance which the Christian athlete needed to exercise self-control over wrong desire. 

Picture of two pankratiasts fighting (center), a trainer (right) and onlooker (left)
from an Attic skyphos (wine-cup) ca. 500 BC
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons