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Pyx Lax (Kick-Punch) Ancient Greek Martial Arts at the Academy of Hellenic Paideia
by Athena Efter
Maybe I fell asleep in Greek School. Ok, not maybe. I was sleeping the whole time, but then again my Greek School was not nearly as exciting and creative as the Academy of Hellenic Paideia in New York. It was just the straight talk of uninspiring classes in Greek language, history and culture. Add to that the usual introduction to basic dance moves and the recitation of poems I didn’t even understand. No one bothered to translate anything. It was just assumed you knew what it meant with a curt command of: “Here. Read and memorize this.” I can’t remember if the school was to blame for my lack of interest or if it was simply my own apathy. I think it was a combination of both. Perhaps if I had attended an after-school program, like the one in Astoria founded by Demetra Varsami, I may have been more inclined to engage myself to learn Greek as a second language, and learn it correctly.The first time I walked into her school, I was impressed with her efforts to set a higher standard of Greek education in America. She has a solid mission and doesn’t deviate from it. Each curriculum unit is carefully planned, presented and experienced to accurately reflect her school’s mission of “nourishing genius” and “promoting potential”, and she does this by providing a model that closely reflects the thematic purpose of a classical education.
This interview was challenging for me because it was conducted in Greek, but nonetheless when you want to learn anything, sometimes you just have to throw yourself into the fire, and that’s exactly what I did. It was an exciting learning opportunity for me – to practice my basic Greek. They do teach adults language classes here, and I am ready to start again with Greek 101 and work my way up. Ms. Varsami with her own bright and sunny disposition, and her love of Greek letters, offers a school with a variety of innovative and creative programs dedicated to just that – Greek Letters. I call it her love letter to Greece. She’s a purist in many ways. She weaves the classical style of education that cultivated ancient Greece into the here and now. She brings it into the future. When you walk in, there are several classrooms, each one reinforcing everything Greek. If it’s theater you are studying, the whole room is devoted to Greek theater. Everywhere you turn you see Greek words, Greek images, Greek history, Greek language, and Greek culture. So why not a room devoted to the ancient Greek sport of Martial Arts? That’s something I didn’t know was Greek nor did I learn about in Greek school, or if I did learn it, I was asleep. I always thought the Japanese had a monopoly on Martial Arts. I can’t say the Greeks were there first, but they were doing it ages ago, as far back as 648 B.C.
I had the opportunity to visit the class in action and I found it to be a genius idea. A Greek school teaching Martial Arts in the Greek tradition? Why didn’t anyone else think of that? Finally, someone did, and leading the way for this ancient Greek sport is Konstantinos Doikos, who holds a Pankration Instructor certificate from the General Secretariat of Sports in Greece and is a gold medalist athlete in Pankration Athlema. He is also a certified Ellanodikis from the Greek Association of Pankration Athlema, which means he can serve as a referee in these games, and is trained in a variety of disciplines dedicated to this sport and general athletics.
When I first walked into the classroom, the students were dressed in blue and white uniforms that depict the Greek key insignia on their shirts and pants. They took themselves seriously, with a sense of duty, but still maintained a childlike and light-hearted approach to the concept of competition. They had respect among each other. There was a sense of “filotimo”, a uniquely Greek word that expresses the idea of brotherhood, love, honor and integrity all at the same time. All children are treated fairly and equally and given a chance to rise to their fullest potential. Mr. Doikos’ command of his classroom is balanced. Children learn the rules of the sport in a structured environment that is both disciplined and relaxed. He has a natural affinity with children, as both a friend and mentor. I saw a lot of happy faces, so he must be doing something right.
But what is Pankration Athlema? Mr. Doikos is very specific with this term, because it’s uniquely Greek. There is no head lowering or bowing. Your posture must stand up straight always and the right hand is raised to the forehead as a salute and students shout “erroso”, which is a wish for a healthy body and mind. He explained to me that Pankration Athlema originated as a skill to defeat the enemy when they lost their weapons and ammunition. The term pankration literally means the strongest and athlema means sport. Therefore, whoever wins is the strongest and most revered in the sport, almost with iconic status. That’s no different today, is it? Our athletes today are highly lauded for their victories and sought after. They are bestowed all kinds of honors, especially monetary ones. It was the same way back then. People put their trust in this superhero-like athlete to the point where they felt safe enough to knock down their enemy walls. The logic was that the strongest pankration athlete will protect them. After all he won the fight with his bare hands and without using weapons. The game itself was also referred to as Ieron Pankration, which translates into sacred sport. The winner was made a statue of, was given high honors, and monetary gifts. He even held seats as a guest of honor at various political assemblies.
The idea of a Martial Arts superman can be found in Greek mythology. Hercules killed the lion Nemeas using the skill and technique of pankration athlema. Theseus kills the minotaur also using this technique. You can even see these images depicted in ancient Greek art. I don’t remember learning that in Greek school. Another little fact I came to learn from my crash course in Greek sports history with Mr. Doikos was that Socrates and Plato were also pankration athletes. Plato won twice in Isthmia in Corinth and once in Pythia at Delphi. And I always thought they were just philosophers! They must have applied their sophism to their sport, too. In 648 B.C, Martial Arts became the most important competition in the Olympics. Sadly, Mr. Doikos noted, it is not practiced the way it was in ancient Greece in today’s Olympics. You might see parts of its influence in boxing and in wrestling, and though it may hold the same principle as Karate, the ethos is not the same. If the Olympics originated in Greece, how can we not have a competition in Pankration Athlema in the ancient Greek tradition? Mr. Doikos further explained that only one person, Arrahion, died in Greek history. His opponent had him in a chokehold, and as his opponent put up his finger, a sign of victory, it was the very same minute Arrahion died. It was probably not the opponent’s intention to kill him. Perhaps he didn’t realize his own strength and got carried away.
The Pankration Athlema was held in various contests throughout Greece in places like Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth, Nemea, and at the Panathenea. A lot of this went over my head due to my limited knowledge of Greek history, but one notable competition was held at Pythia where the God Apollo killed Pythonas, the python snake. Nemea is where Hercules killed the lion. With these competition venues, there was a symbolic mythological reference to augment the excitement and skill of the competition. Who would win and hold “the heavyweight” title, as the strongest and almost god-like superhero? In Sparta, Martial Arts were only practiced in real battle, not as a sport. The competitions, however, were held in sandpits with naked men slathered in oil, which made it harder to grab the opponent. By making it more challenging, they created a more compelling competition.
In this modern day Greek martial arts class, children are engaged in the ethos of the sport. They carry on the ancient Greek tradition, which is first and foremost to be a good person, but they also learn how to compete, as a brotherhood and sisterhood, operating as a team and respecting one another. They learn the spirit of the Greek word “filotimo” behind the competition. They learn that they are not enemies or opponents fighting against each other, but fighting with each other to strengthen their mind and body. The walls themselves provide a teaching tool of reinforcement. A poster depicting the various physical styles and techniques is hung on the wall. Instructions and commands, which are given in Greek, are also words you can read on the classroom wall. They use the words pyx lax in ancient Greek, which mean punch and kick. Ohhhhh…..so that’s where that popular Greek music band got its name! When students shout “eia”, it means they are using their inner strength to bring forth their outer strength. As I observed the class, I was also surprised to find out that the game “tug of war” or “dielkistinda” also dates back to ancient Greece, where two people tug on each end of the rope. The person who can’t hang on to the rope loses the game. Within the context of Martial Arts, students are introduced to a variety of Ancient Greek games. And why not a whole class devoted to Greek athletics in the ancient Greek tradition? We were, after all, highly competitive and profusely athletic.
It is Mr. Doikos’ vision and the Academy’s goal to expand this program to other Greek schools, and even to non-Greek schools, with the more planning and funding. Finally a school exists whose mission it is to espouse a form of classical education, to serve as a paradigm for a Greek way of life. It’s not a day school in the sense of the Greek parochial school system, but it is an independent and supplementary program that really scratches beneath the surface.
Classes in Martial Arts are held once a week as a curriculum lesson and twice a week as an after-school program. Friday classes are held from 7-8pm and Saturday classes are held from 3-4pm. Adults can also train in Greek Martial Arts every Wednesday from 8-9pm. Greek language classes for adults are offered every Friday from 6-8pm. For more information about the school and all of its programs, you can visit HellenicPaideia.com or email info@HellenicPaideia.com.
I want to give a big shout out of “erroso” and a salute to the forehead to all the children of the Academy of Hellenic Paideia. I also want to thank them for “taking down the wall” so I could enter their sacred space or “Pankration os Ieron Athlema”. I got to learn some Ancient Greek too. It’s not really a dead language when so much of our language, both Greek and English, was influenced by it. Thanks to Demetra Varsamis, the school Board, and the faculty of the Academy of Hellenic Paideia, Greek is a tangible way of life there. To her and her team, I say: “Keep up the great work. The sky is not the limit, but don’t try to get too close to the sun. You need your wings to fly higher.”