What’s in a word?

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There are few references to Pammachon in antiquity. One of them is the papyrus letter SB 3.6222.

 

In this letter to his sister Sophrone, a man called Dios writes how he competed in athletic games in Alexandria. He may have penned the letter himself, as indications are that Dios received a good education and belonged to the upper class. The letter has been dated to the late third or fourth century through literary means, and we can date it very precisely based on the events it illustrates.  The papyrus describes the emperor attending festivities in the center of the city. We know that Diocletian visited Egypt in the winter of 301 through the spring of 302. He was most certainly in Alexandria on the 31st of March.

 

Let’s look at some excepts from the text of the letter (as translated and completed by Ms.Sofie Remijsen of Leuven University in her article Pammachon, A New Sport (The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 47 (2010) 185-204)):

 

(Note: Text in parentheses and italics (this format by example) has been added by yours truly for clarification).

 

To my dear sister Sophrone, greetings (from) Dios.

 

Above all I pray to [the lord] god that you are doing well and also that

the best things in life may be yours. …..

 

We are glad to be here. I will tell you everything that has happened to me in Alexandria. So, when we arrived here, we didn’t find the person whom we came looking for (but) we did find our lord the emperor visiting. He ordered that athletes be brought to the Campus and fortunately, I and five (others) were selected, without the other athletes knowing. When I arrived there, I was at first paired up to do pankration and I had bad luck, as I do not know how to do pankration. So I was performing [poorly] for a long time…  then I challenged the five to do pammachon. The emperor wanted to know whether I was [immediately] summoned to do it (fight) one man after the other. (Note: Pammachon contests were also held with one man fighting against multiple opponents.)

 

The prize for us was a linen tunic and hundred guilders. The [linen tunic] is inexpensive, and I received … and I got a gold coin with the money and the other five the tunic. This happened on the 27th of Choiak. And on the 26th of the same month he held the festival in the Lageion and we performed there. And I got a silver prize, a sleeveless tunic, and the money.

 

So don’t be sad …. for good fortune has given us other things. Take care of your sister … I greet my dear father and all who love my soul. I pray that you are well, my dear sister, for many years.

 

To Sophrone from her brother Dios.

 Ms. Remijsen makes an interesting case in her article for Pammachon as the “new sport” of the early 4th century:

 

SB 3.6222 is the earliest attestation of pammachon as a separate sport. This interpretation is confirmed by ILS 5164, an honorary inscription from AD 375-378 for the athlete Philoumenos, who had obtained victories in four different events: pammachon, wrestling, pankration, and boxing. Also in the fourth century, Eusebius compared a martyr to a victor in the sacred games, victorious in the pammachon. As this passage does not go back to agonistic poetry and was written in a century when pammachon was attested as a separate sport, one may assume that Eusebius also referred to the new sport. The athletes doing pammachon were not called pammachoi, but pammacharii with the Latin ending -arius typical of professions (Note: in Roman times)  Pammacharii figure in six texts from the fourth and fifth centuries.  The anonymous author of the Expositio totius mundi mentioned them in his description of the entertainment sector in Syria.  In a story of the Apophthegmata, an officer helped a group of pammacharii on their way to Constantinople to get a boat from the governor.  In another story, an old hermit compares a Christian fighting evil with a pammacharius fighting two adversaries.  Saint Jerome mentions pammacharii as a type of athlete, besides runners and those who throw the discus.  Firmicus Maternus and Pseudo- Teuchros tell which position of the stars makes pammacharii. The lexicon of Hesychius, mentioning pammachon in the lemma about Cypriotic wrestling, brings the total number of sources on this sport to ten.

 (Note: Hesychius makes a point of calling the Pammachon practiced in Cyprus “barbaric and unskilled.”)

 

I personally have to question however whether or not Pammachon was something “new” in the fourth century (though it undoubtedly became a new sport at that time).  I have multiple reasons for this, which I will endeavour to explain.

 

Back in the year 2000, I had selected the designation “Pammachon” because I knew that the ancient Greeks were fully aware of the distinction between the Martial Arts and Combat Sports.  I specifically decided to use the word for my reconstructed martial art because, beyond the historical and documented use of the word from ancient times until the palaeochristian era, it is obvious linguistically that the words “machaira” (μάχαιρα – blade), and “machi” (μάχη – battle) originate from the same root “mach-” (μαχ-). Thus the word “machi” (μάχη), essentially describes a martial confrontation that includes both the use of close quarter combat weaponry (e.g. knife, sword, spear, lance, club etc.), and (the somewhat more important in contemporary times) unarmed combat against the aforementioned lethal weapons. A proper translation of the word “pan-machon” (πάν-μαχον) would be “total combat.” In essence “pammachon” describes what we would call today “close quarter combat,” and so I chose the term carefully to differentiate what I would be teaching from combat sports.

 

It is also important to distinguish pammachon from pankration, though the words have been poetically used as synonyms. Pankration derives from “all” (pan) and “kratos”. The word Kratos is used in modern Greek to denote a nation and has multiple implications. It means power, yes. But it also means dominance, control, the ability to reduce something else to submission. Pankration translates best as “submission fighting”, that is to say, the intention of the sport being not to kill, but to subdue the opponent and control him.

 

But the word μάχη in Pammachon refers to other things. Pammachon can translate as “everything in combat.” Does that imply that weapons were taken into account, or that their use was taught in same? It appeared as a sport in Roman times – was it influenced by gladiatorial contests? The reader should recall the following definition of a martial art that I have posted in the past (this definition has not changed for the past ten thousand years):

 

A true martial art

Must use the same type of movement

And the same tactics,

Whether the practitioner is armed or unarmed,

Armored or unarmored,

Whether battling alone or in a group,

Fighting one opponent or many,

Whether on the battlefield itself,

Or in a civil disturbance.

 

But it is worth pointing out that the types of people who practiced pammachon as a sport came from very different social groups. Men such as Dios and Philoumenos, who received a statue in Rome, belonged to the upper class and enjoyed a certain degree of prestige. But other sources list  pammacharii among lower class circus entertainers or troupes of professionals for whom pammachon was little more than an ordinary job.

 

Ms. Remijsen states that the differences in the class of Pammachon practitioners were common to fourth-century Greek athletics in general. In Late Antiquity, Greek athletics were performed as extra entertainment in the circuses. These circus athletes belonged to a completely different social structure than the career athletes of the traditional Greek games. Hence Ms. Remijsen states that the diversity among the pammacharii did not differ from that among their contemporary wrestlers or boxers. I am not so sure I agree with that conclusion, and can perhaps offer an alternative explanation.

 

I was very intrigued by Dios’s stating that he “did not know how to do pankration,” which clearly differentiates what he was doing (pammachon) from pankration. Why were the two arts  different? How was pammachon different? Therein lies the key to the puzzle.

 

What if pammachon was a name for the martial arts, a term that evolved to become the name for a combat sport in the 4th century? There is precedent for such a transition in the past millennium, with the same word being used for both martial art and combat sport. I am referring to the German “fechten”, which 500 years ago used to mean “how to rip the other guy to pieces in actual combat,” and now means “how to compete in a combat sport in which padded athletes tap each other with electrically sensitive rods of metal in order to score points.”  Both activities have to do with fencing – it is how the activity of said fencing is expressed that differentiates the two expressions of “fechten”.

 

That is to say, if pammachon was so very different from pankration, and yet was a sport that suddenly appeared in the 4th century and then just as suddenly vanished, it had to have evolved from something that was “known” earlier to be different from pankration. Well, we know that the word pammachon is ancient and has been used in much older texts than the one referenced above. What if the evolution of pammachon was similar to that of 15th century fechten to 20-21st century fechten? In the case of fechten, 15th century close quarter combat with bladed weapons became sport fencing with electrical implements. What if the same held true for pammachon? What if it were a martial art before it became a combat sport in the 4th century?

 

Now wouldn’t that truly be something?

 

 

Many thanks to Ms. Sofie Remijsen for providing me with a copy of her extraordinary article.

1 Comment

One Response

  1. Yiannis Sampalis  •  January 28, 2011 @2:38 am

    This reminds me of the evolution of Bare Knuckle Fighting to the modern sport of Boxing. Very interesting article and new information I wasn’t aware of!

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