Browsing the blog archives for September, 2009.

To speak the truth is a painful thing…


To be forced to tell lies is much worse, said Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.

I can’t play music for beans. I have been hacking away at instruments since I was ten, with little avail. I do love music. I try to play. I wish I could play. I am in awe of real musicians. But I am not a musician myself, despite my best efforts. I have to admit it.

Well, the martial arts are like that, too. The fan club is huge. The amount of actual participation in the association is considerably more limited.

Over the decades, I have met a very small percentage of real martial artists within the martial arts community. (Come to think of it, I have probably met more true martial artists outside the martial arts community than within.) Even “famous” figures are not necessarily within this small percentage of genuine martial artists; there is a reason for this, and it is neurological. It depends on how you are wired. You can tell a musician from someone who is not. A real musician can identify a peer in seconds. I can identify a real martial artist the second he walks into a room.

It’s funny. About six or seven years ago, my friend Zak (a martial artist) and I were waiting in line for hamburgers at a fast-food place (Goody’s on Katehaki St. in Athens, Greece). Suddenly, we both turned around at the same time, quick as snakes, like it was rehearsed. There was a Japanese man walking into the place. He stopped stone cold and looked at us. Spontaneously, we all bowed to each other, very low, keeping our eyes on each other at all times. It was a sudden thing, not a conscious decision – it just happened, like all three of us were marionettes dancing to a tune. Then the Japanese man turned around and walked out of the restaurant, which was the right thing to do.

I used to think there was something “Highlanderish” about this, but recent research shows it’s purely physiological. Scientists have managed to prove that all living organisms emit light. This light is called UPE, or “ultra-weak photon emissions” (”ultra-weak” because they can’t be seen with the naked eye). Japanese scientists have observed it coming from the forehead, the palms of the hands, and the soles of the feet of human beings. Scientists in Germany also believe that the light from the forehead and from the hands pulses, and they’ve observed a change in this pulse in people who are ill.

In addition, each living brain has its own RF signature. So our neurons are all broadcasting electro magnetically, each of us within the Faraday cage of our skull and skins, as we walk down the street. Since a martial artist has a particular signature due to the development of specific Brodmann areas in his brain, it’s not improbable to hypothesize that similar signatures can detect and recognize each other.

Think this is far-fetched? Try this: Israeli researchers have discovered a method to remotely sense the physiological and emotional state of human beings using tiny radio antennas already in our skin. The researchers investigated the internal layers of the skin using a new imaging technique called “Optical Coherent Tomography.” The images produced by this technique revealed that sweat ducts, which are the tubes that lead the sweat from the sweat gland to the surface of the skin, are shaped like tiny coils. Similar helical structures have been widely used as antennas in wireless communication systems. This made the investigators consider the possibility that sweat ducts could behave like tiny helical antennas as well.

These scientists, from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believe their discovery could be used to help remotely monitor medical patients, evaluate athletic performance, diagnose disease and remotely sense the level of excitation in a person – which could have significant implications in the biomedical engineering, anti-terror and security technology fields.

So your brain-use signature is like a fingerprint, each of us unique, and you are constantly broadcasting that signature, whether you like it or not. Accordingly, a true martial artist can recognize another in seconds.

Being able to understand martial arts, or not, is dependent on the development of specific Brodmann areas in the brain. A Brodmann area is a region of the cortex defined based on its cytoarchitecture. Korbinian Brodmann published his maps of cortical areas in humans, monkeys, and other species in 1909, along with many other findings and observations regarding general cell types and laminar organization of the mammalian cortex.

Becoming a martial artist is something rare, and seriously, I myself question its worth in this day and age. A martial artist is very much a genetic throwback, something I was not even aware of myself until reading recent research on combat veterans. Today particular Brodmann centers are being studied in an effort to fight post traumatic stress disorder. True martial artists, those in whom specific Brodmann centers are hyperdeveloped either through neuroplasticity or genetics, don’t get PTSD – for them everything is binary anyway. They are either in combat, or they are not, 1/0. If they are not in combat, there is no stress. Bing! No PTSD. If they are in combat, they are there 100%. To quote Yoda, there is no try.

Perhaps it’s a sociological thing more than anything else, something that comes and goes with historic periods and their respective emphasis on human dignity, or more realistically with the need for citizens who can physically deal with confrontation. Sociological imperatives can generate the development of martial arts – the 19th century was full of them. In fact, martial arts as we know them today are a 19th century construct. But true martial artists are binary creatures and don’t compromise very well; the very primitive areas of the brain are hyper-developed in martial artists, and most decisions made there are of a 1/0 nature. Being binary creatures, institutional roles are of necessity strengthened in a society that has many martial artists. This is often against the interests and wishes of those special interest groups that run societies in the first place, who desire compromise so that they may maintain control. In fact, special interest groups rely exclusively on compromise in order to rule whole nations.

A true martial artist has difficulty compromising. He doesn’t make excuses, for himself or for others. He holds the same standards in place for himself as for others. He is absolute, 100%. He does not yield to self-interest. If you hear justification in his reasoning, or comments such as “So?” or “It didn’t work out” or “Give your word today, break it tomorrow”, then you are not talking with a martial artist. If you hear comments such as these, then you are speaking with a member of the fan club.

Albert Einstein said that only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. The martial arts are in accord with this statement. True mastery means that every cell in your body works in conjunction and consensus with your conscious directives, with your every action and motion. If you are not absolute, how can this be? If your emotions, integrity, and spirit waiver depending on circumstance, how can you ever be 100%? How can you go from 1 to 0 and back again, without bringing a baggage train along when you return?


Start thinking outside the box!


I’ve been saying for years that, for a martial art to be effective on the battlefield, it must use the same class of movement, whether the fighter is armed or unarmed, either wearing armor or not, whether facing one or multiple opponents. In addition, there are no rules on the battlefield. This is not rocket science, but I am beginning to really wonder how many people actually comprehend what I am saying.

Behold yon missive heatedly directed to yours truly and submitted yesterday by The Angry Young Man:

Dear Mr. Dervenis,
I have read your book and read your site I practice pankration. Why do you say pankration and pammachon are different they are the same thing. I am a student at university and my professor who is a Greek said pammachon and pankration are the same thing. Where is the historic proof of pammachon there is no historic proof.
The Angry Young Man (no reason to publicly humiliate the lad)

TayMan, you Da Man indeed. I am proud of you actually trying to establish contact with the Evil One rather than reverting, as usual, to a forum of your peers and simply patting each other on the back. I would have been be even prouder if your e-mail had actually been written in English, but, given the general level of erudition among youth today, I suppose that would be too much to expect (This letter was from the US). But you are right – there is no historic proof of pammachon as you perceive it.

Allow me to reproduce a section out of The Martial Arts of Ancient Greece:

The words máche (meaning “battle” or “combat”) and máchaera (meaning “knife”) both stem from the same root, mach (μάχ), in ancient Greek-a poetically exact and particularly mathematical tongue. We believe that this is not coincidental: máche and máchaera are defined within the same context, a battle to the death between warriors using close-quarter combat weaponry-a knife, hatchet, sword, or spear. Consequently, these two words also define the development of the martial or combative arts-referred to here with the archaic word pammachon (a compound word formed from pan meaning “all” plus máche)-which are the product of hand-to-hand combat involving bladed weapons.

The oldest documented use of the word pammachon does indeed refer to pankration – which is why I hypothesized that this is the word the Greeks used to describe martial arts training, before they figured out that, of necessity, combat sports are something different from martial arts. But you are right, my use of the term “pammachon” is arbitrary – moreso because I am more interested in what was practiced in the 19th century A.D. rather than the 8th century B.C. But there IS proof of the existence of ancient Greek martial arts other than pankration – spectacular proof that has been in everyone’s face for decades. I even put reference to it in The Martial Arts of Ancient Greece, hoping that readers would grasp the concept (though Dr. Poliakoff did a far better job of it than I did, back in 1987 to boot, and very few got it).

What is that proof? Well, none other than the historically documented (really) controversy around pankration itself, all the way back to back in the day:

And yet, the controversy as to whether combat sports are appropriate for training warriors has lasted for centuries. Euripides, for example, in his work Autolykos, mocks professional athletes:

Name one renowned wrestler, one swift runner, one champion discus-thrower, one expert boxer who has served his country by winning laurels. Do they drive the enemy out of the fatherland by throwing the discus, or do they break the row of the enemy’s shields with their kicks? No man is so mad as to do this when facing the horror of deadly steel.

(Note to the reader: The poke at “breaking the row of enemy’s shields with their kicks” refers to pankration. It was remarkably amusing to see modern practitioners trying to reproduce this farce in a recent “documentary” on pankration; Euripides would have laughed himself to death.)

In the Iliad we find the example of Epeios, who, though an unbeaten boxer, did not enjoy great esteem among his peers in actual combat. General Philopoimen (fourth cent. B.C.), a distinguished wrestler, learned through bitter experience that athletes did not become good warriors, and so forbade his soldiers from taking part in athletic competitions! The philosopher Plato (although a wrestler himself) was against pankration as a means of training warriors, while he supported fencing and training in mass competitions with wooden weapons. In his “Laws” he recommends the introduction of hoplomachia to the gymnasium.

If pankration were the martial art of the ancient Greeks, would such a controversy have existed? Would Euripides have mocked pankratiasts? Of course not. And so, it must be clear that a distinction between pankration and combative martial arts existed and was, for the ancient Greeks, a matter of record. Again, the conclusion above is not rocket science and is readily arrrive at when one decides to take their blinders off. I personally chose the name “pammachon” for lack of an official one on record. This brings me to an interesting question for the lawyers out there: since I was the first to publish the use of this term in the modern day in reference to Greek martial arts vs. combat sports, does that mean I have IP rights on use of the word “pammachon” within this context? A bottle of Dom for whoever can substantiate this for me.

Anyway, once I started using the term to define the distinction of Greek martial arts vs. combat sports, a lot of other people jumped on the bandwagon and started using it too, and now it is well on its way to becoming widely accepted.  So be it; Somebody has to think outside the box,  n’est-ce pas?

Also, let me affirm once again (and for the millionth time) that I am not against combat sports! I have always supported combat sports and consider them a prerequisite for martial arts training. To quote again from The Martial Arts of Ancient Greece:

Although the differences between pammachon and pankration are clear, the right training for martial arts practitioners is incomplete without the inclusion of combat sports. If one has not become accustomed to competition through sports, he might be found lacking physically, emotionally, and intellectually, when he takes part in battle.

There are also historical anecdotes that demonstrate that advanced skill in a combat sport allowed the combatant to win in actual combat. For instance, there is the well-known duel of Dioxippos the Athenian and Koragos the Macedonian (both Greeks). In a state of drunkenness, the Macedonian challenged the Athenian to a duel. Dioxippos had won the pankration competition at the Olympiad in 336 B.C.E. King Alexander himself set the date for the duel and thousands of soldiers gathered for the event. Koragos appeared in full armor, in contrast to Dioxippos, who appeared in the nude, oiled like an athlete, and holding a club like Hercules.

Koragos first threw a javelin at him, but Dioxippos avoided it, and so Koragos tried to stab him with his spear. Dioxippos avoided the thrust and broke the spear in two with his club. Desperate, Koragos tried to stab him with a knife, but the Athenian grabbed his right hand with his own left, breaking his balance, and then knocking him off both feet and throwing him to the ground. The winner, Dioxippos rested his foot on his opponent’s throat and raised his club, looking out at the audience like the winner in the pankration. Apparently, Dioxippos had knowledge of both weapons tactics and pankration, which allowed him an easy victory.

So in summary, my stance and opinions should be clear to everyone if they actually read what I write. By all means do criticize me – I look forward to it. But if you’re going to criticize me, forget what various 12 year olds of indeterminate age are spouting on their respective forums. Read what I have written by yourself, and then come back and tell me whether or not I was right or wrong.

I am not, and never have been, interested in public relations. I am indeed, and always have been, interested in public welfare. For me, the martial arts are simply a manifestation of this concern. Please act accordingly.

So. We cool, TayMan?

1 Comment

Clack-clack-clackety the clash of timber!


Whenever I really want to teach someone how to use a sword, I start with Western classical fencing. There is a simple reason for this: wooden training implements (wasters, boken, etc) do not convey the actual feeling of steel against steel. If the student spends too much time using a wooden training sword, he will develop bad habits and adopt erroneous principles and never, ever – ever – truly understand how to engage a real blade against a real blade. I state this definitively as I have seen too many cases where it is true. So do yourself a favor and pick up a fencing epee or saber.
Steel reacts in a certain way against steel. It slides and tears and cracks and chips, and bends and scours and springs and nicks, and glides and sparks and coils and splits, and then goes on to slice and spit. Systems of Fencing were designed from antiquity onwards with the specific nature of steel in mind, and neglecting the innate behavior of metal in your training is like boasting about sexual virility while being a virgin – it’s a bit sad and juvenile in the end, don’t you think?
Over the decades I have seen that many oriental schools of swordsmanship disregard the clash of arms, under the premise that your own blade will not engage the opponent’s arms or sword, but that you will be able to position your body to avoid his own cut, and proceed directly to your own cut or stab. That is wishful thinking, and means that you understand neither the sword nor combat at all. Remember the phrase: “the clash of arms?” There is a reason for its wording. In fact, the “clash of arms” is why the entire science of fencing came into being millennia ago.
Wake up, kinder! No living being is going to sit idly by and willingly die so that you can go about hacking, slashing, bashing and clacking. You are living in a dream world and your teachers are feeding both their ego and yours at the expense of your personal ignorance.  Living organisms will react, counter, sacrifice their edge or the weapon itself, do anything they can (including offering you sexual favors) in order to prevent a razor’s edge from being drawn through their organs.  You can squeal and squeak and rage and screech all you want – it won’t help. They ain’t gonna let a blade get through their guard to slice and dice their very-beloved flesh if they can help it. This is why fencing came into being in the first place, and we know it’s been around since the Bronze Age. Take a look at Mycenaean blades: they are very clearly rapiers. Guess how they were used? Make an effort at an answer now.
When I actually want to teach someone how to use a sword, then, I start with classical Western fencing. Despite what you have been told, it is not that hard to come by – there are still places in Europe with extant and documented 400 year old lineages, older than most Japanese koryu by far. I have been a student of two of those European lineages for a brief time, but the point of the matter is, the masters of those schools really didn’t show me anything different from the fencing I studied as an average everyday student in an average American city in the early 80s (with two or three caveats to that statement), and both agreed I was an extremely gifted and competent classical fencer. Any fencing coach over sixty years old today that has been through the right type of schooling can teach you what you need to know – there is no need to go to the high dollar “classical” fencing schools that have taken over the Internet. What you need to know is simple: four quarters, eight parries, and the feel of steel against steel. You need to know parry and riposte, tempo and atempo. So do learn to fence if you want to claim that you can use a sword. Because if you use a sword against another man wielding a melee weapon, you will encounter either steel or shield for your troubles, or at  best wind up wrapped in a grappling match. You will not be able to avoid his strike and cut cleanly unless your name is Clark Kent or Barry Allen. Clean cuts that are not set up via engagement and fencing simply do not exist in actual combat.
Bluster, bluster, choke and bubble! Who the hell do you think you are, Dervenis? Have you killed anyone with a sword? Nope. Has the teacher you, dear reader, are currently training with? Um, no, right? Very few people alive today have, and good thing too. Personally, I base my opinion on the thousands of warriors who have killed people with swords, and left their legacy in writing and in the archaeological record.  The European historical and archaeological record is the most comprehensive in the world today, and it is there for everyone and anyone to look at it. These warriors have left their views written in stone, written on animal skin, written on paper, written in blood. Take a look at what they’re trying to tell us; you are the reason that they left their teachings there in the first place.
When I am satisfied that a student can fence, I teach him how to use a two-handed European sword based on a swordsmanship compendium that is derived from the common ground between the German Medieval School of the Sword (as we understand it today) and select medieval Japanese sword schools I happen to agree with. The derivation of this Common Ground is my own effort and you can take it or leave it as you wish. But an important precondition for understanding the use of the two-hander (which I indeed teach using a wooden sword) is to be able to understand and practice classical western fencing. If you do not understand the latter, then in my opinion you have no chance of understanding the use of a two-handed sword either.
From this point on, one progresses to more close-quarter-combat-oriented applications which, given that they involve grappling with an armored opponent, have little to do with sword technique and everything to do with murder. Some schools try to proceed directly to this final stage; I have to laugh at that. Toddlers must mature a few decades before they can become ultra-marathoners. Today, people don’t want to hear this, but it is very sadly true. Accordingly, students have to learn how to use a sword before they can learn how to use the sword – there is no way around this. Conceit of the opposite variety is why lineages of swordsmanship either disappear entirely or become equally irrelevant though they may appear to prosper.
But the reality of the situation is simple: the future has already happened and the present is found in the past. One simply needs to learn how to see the threads; few things in life are beyond this. Swordsmanship, most certainly, is not.