August 31, 2009

Book Review - "Combat Sports in the Ancient World"

As some of you know I spent a couple of weeks on vacation recently, and one of my favorite pastimes is to read. I do not do enough of it at home (something I need to be more diligent about) so I find vacation time is perfect for catching up on my long reading list. One such title I had been longing to dive into is "Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture" by Michael B. Poliakoff.

At first glance one might brush this off as being some kids college thesis with little relevance nor sustenance in regards to a subject that is all but untouched in academia. I cannot lie, I do believe this book was the result of Mr. Poliakoff's extensive study of Ancient Greece and Egypt. But nothing could be further from the truth in regards to readability and insight into our modern culture and how we view violence and competition in all arenas not just the combat sports.

Broken into eight chapters, and filled with an exhaustive collection of photo's of various vases, paintings, and sculptures "Combat Sports" tackles a subject that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been addressed... the combative sports of Ancient Greece and Egypt. Stick fighting, boxing, Pankration, and wrestling were at one time the staples of Near East society. Though the civilization of the ancient world has gained a little popularity with movies such as "Troy" and "300," the combative arts such as wrestling and Pankration have rarely been discussed in academia nor pop culture, even with the booming success of MMA (keep in mind Pankration is the earliest example of MMA, superseding any other martial art in all other cultures).

It fascinates me that even hundreds of years later our drive to compete and test our mental, emotional, and physical fortitude has not died down one bit. It could be argued that combat sports are at an all time high with grappling, BJJ, wrestling, boxing, MMA all taking off in the last few years in terms of popularity! Even Pankration is making a huge comeback worldwide with rumors of future Olympic dreams.

Interesting chapters such as "The Nature and Purpose of Combat Sport," and "Combat Sport, Funeral Cult, and Human Sacrifice" fill in the remainder of the book. Poliakoff's insight into society in general, especially the effects of combat sports in both modern and ancient society makes for a fascinating and engrossing read. Though by no means a technical manual, Poliakoff is able to piece together (he offers a caveat that the word "probably" will be excessively used throughout) ancient personal journals that gave broke down details of specific wrestling techniques including pins and submissions.

A very easy read (as long as you do not try to keep up with all the Greek names) for both martial artists as well as sports fans throughout the world, as Poliakoff offers fascinating insight into the development of our culture and our evolution (some may argue DEvolution) as a society of rather violent beings. If you are at all interested in the development of ancient martial arts, (and are tired of the questionable fable based Asian "histories") I cannot suggest a better book. Well worth the $20 you will spend, and who knows it may motivate you to compete and push yourself to the next level. Either way it is a win-win situation.

"Society may well have found the hero difficult to accomodate, but he was an embodiment of passions whose existence the Greeks were too honest to deny." - Poliakoff pg.129


*For those interested I found another related article by Poliakoff re: the use of sport for political and social gains can be found here*

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