Palestra: wrestling of the mind

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I played college basketball for Dartmouth for four years.  That means I had ample opportunity to play in Penn's hallowed Palestra.  All of the Ivy League schools had unique, distinctive gymnasia, and they remain sharply etched in my mind.  But the Palestra was something else altogether, as though it belonged in a different league, a different world.  Entering the vaulted space was intimidating enough by itself, but the fact that the bleachers (in)famously came right down to the edge of the floor, with no separation of the fans from the game, made it all the more nerve-wracking to play there, not to mention that the Penn teams were always extremely well coached and fiercely determined.

Since I do not know of any other sports arena in America that is called by such a classical, Greek sounding name, nor of any other that has such a distinguished history, it would be worth our while to inquire how it became so.

I would encourage those who are interested in college sports to read the Wikipedia article on the celebrated history of the "Cathedral of College Basketball".  Here I will quote only this sentence about its name:

The building was completed in 1927 and named by Greek professor William N. Bates after the ancient Greek term palæstra, a rectangular enclosure attached to a gymnasium where athletes would compete in various sports in front of an audience.

More detail on the etymology of the word:

    1. 1400, palestre, "ancient Greek gymnasium," from Old French palestre (12c.) and directly from Latin palaestra, from Greek palaistra "gymnasium, public place for exercise under official direction," originally "wrestling school," from palaiein "to wrestle, survive a wrestling match," which is of unknown origin (see discussion in Beekes) + -tra, suffix denoting place. The noun palē "wrestling" is a back-formation from the verb. Palestral "pertaining to wrestling or martial games, athletic" is attested from late 14c.


So a palestra was originally and eponymously intended for wrestling, and as a stand-up (not on the ground) sport at that.

For more on the history of wrestling in ancient Greece, going back to 708 BC, see here.

Now we make a big switch from combat sports to mental gymnastics.  I am prompted to make this diversion as a result of our discussion of the Iranian antecedents of "kiosk", in which we also touched upon the Indian origins of "stupa".  In this post, "Indo-Greeks: the importance of archeology for historical linguistics, part 4" (10/16/22), we focused on a single monument of tremendous importance that shows the intimate intermingling of Indic and Greek archeological, architectural, artistic, iconographical, religious, numismatic, and, not least, linguistic elements.

Since that post of one month ago, partly as a result of texts I was reading with my students in Classical Chinese, I recalled the ancient Buddhist text called Questions of King Milinda.  "It records the encounter between a Greek king and a Buddhist monk around 200 BC and reads like a modern dialogue between East and West." (source)

I turned to Lucas Christopoulos for further elucidation on Questions of King Milinda.  He explained:

For the Pāli text of the Milindapañha dialogues, and just as with the stupas constructed by the king Menander (Pāli मिलिन्दो), it seems to be a mixture of Greek and Indian (Buddhist) concepts, with also references of Greek wrestling in it. Reference to Greek (Olympic) wrestling or Pale is used to be compared to the struggle of the mind against evil as mentioned below. Zhuangzi in his Renjianshi 人間世 (Man in the World), also makes that association between his philosophy and the art of wrestling: “Skilful wrestlers begin with open trials of strength, but always end with masked techniques (to gain the victory); as their excitement grows excessive, they display much wonderful dexterity” (且以巧鬥力者,始乎陽,常卒乎陰) — quoting the Victorian translation of James Legge, 4.3.   [VHM:  Here we see that Legge translates this passage literally, whereas, in my translation Wandering on the Way (p. 35), I render the text metaphorically:  "Moreover, those who contest for supremacy with cleverness begin openly but invariably end up in deception."]

Wrestling before the Greeks in Asia was mostly the ancient belt-holding form of wrestling, and very randomly practiced. Naked professional Olympic wrestling training in special halls (palestra) was institutionalized during the Panhellenic games in Greece and then practiced in the gymnasiums existing in every new city built by the Greco-Macedonians in Asia as a requirement for a Greek type of education (together with the theatre and the market place). These customs were perpetuated by the people of India and Central Asia while they were living in these new structures of Hellenistic educational systems. I observed similar “naked” Greek-style wrestling iconography catching legs with a referee holding a (rhabdos)-like whip-stick in Qin dynasty China (and also assume that physical contact occurred between the Qin and the Greco-Bactrians with all its implications, philosophical as well, for many reasons). 

The association with the mind was however existing maybe for the first time with Plato (Theaetetus, 169a–b: “It is not easy, Socrates, for anyone to sit beside you and not be forced to give an account of himself and it was foolish of me just now to say you would excuse me and would not oblige me, as the Lacedaemonians do, to strip; you seem to me to take rather after Sciron”). Mixing the skills of wrestling with philosophy and dialogue argumentation was a very Socratic thing…. Wrestling was also compared with the art of rhetoric during the Eastern Roman Empire, as with Libianus of Antioch (314-394) for example, who also practiced wrestling and “used his wrestling tricks against his mentor” in his dialectic, according to a letter of his relative Bassianus in 360. Nilus Ankyranus (?–430), the disciple of John Chrysostom, made the same association of soul and physical combat in his Narratio (3.10–14), saying that when teaching young students combat sports, the paidotribes ("trainers") should provide them instructions as to how to resist their passions and should “attach them to the rock (of virtue)”, as mariners would attach their boats against the storms (of passion) in the ports. 

In the Tarim [VHM:  Basin in Eastern Central Asia were the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Europoid mummies were found], the same association with Greek wrestling and religion is perhaps shown on a wall inscription with the caption of two figures wrestling (apud Schmidt 1998:80) with the Tocharian B inscription; mesk (from Tokharian A; mask) probably coming from the Greek makhe (fighting). 

The physical contact between the Greeks and the Indians, the Central Asians and the Chinese most likely led to new evolutions in thought, and it affected both sides, as with Pyrrhon of Elis (365–275 BC) who was versed in Indian philosophies, or Dharmaraksita, the venerable Greek Buddhist monk in India, and probably many others. The Greek-wrestling rule mentioned in the Milindapañha is mixed with Buddhist principles, and it is a very clear demonstration of the union between Hellenistic and Indian philosophical principles.

About ten days after that post on the Indo-Greek stupa (10/16/22), I addressed the matter of Hellenic debate in Classical Chinese texts, especially the Zhuang Zi:  "Greek argumentation: 'Let's go back to the beginning'" (10/25/22).  Here again, we have a kind of jousting of the mind.



Lucas cites a graphic example of the comparison of mental contestation in the Questions of King Milinda:


 "just as the wrestler who is able the most quickly to lift his opponent up, and make him full flat on his back, is considered the ablest pugilist – even so, O Venerable Nāgasena, it is that one of these two things – virtue and vice – which most quickly bears fruit that is, to the world, the more powerful of the two." (So, contends the king.)


Selected readings

Here is a bibliography of related works by Lucas Christopoulos, who has decades of experience researching combat sports (especially wrestling) in Central and East Asia:

-Greek influences on the Pazyryk-style wrestling bronze buckles motif of Keshengzhuang. Sino-Platonic Papers: University of Pennsylvania, USA. (2015)

Free pdf available at the site.

– Combat sports professionalism in medieval China (220-960 AD). Nikephoros:  Zeitschrift fur Sport und Kultur im Altertum; Graz University, Austria n.26 (2015)

Greek combat sports and their transmission to Central and East Asia. (pdf) Classical World Review: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA. n.106.3 (2013)

– Hellenes and Romans in ancient China (240 BC-1398 AD). Sino-Platonic Papers:  University of Pennsylvania, USA. n.230 (2012)

– Early combat sports in China and the rise of professionalism (475 BC-220 AD)  Nikephoros: Zeitschrift fur Sport und Kultur im Altertum; Graz University, Austria. n.23 (2010)

– Le Greco-Bouddhisme et l'art du poing en Chine. Sino-Platonic Papers: University of Pennsylvania, USA. n.148 (2006)


  1. martin schwartz said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 1:18 am

    The mot interesting etymological connection with Greek palaistēs
    'wreslter' which has been adduced (theoretically) is Greek Palaistinē "Palestine',first attested in Herodotus. See "Timeline of the name Palestine", Wikipedia, under "Etymological Considerations". The idea of this connection is that the place-name is a partial calque of Heb. Yiśrä'ēl "israel' as from 'he is wrestling with a divine entity'. While "Philistine(s)" (Heb.P(e)lišt-īm, Gr. Philistinoí), may have played a secondary role,i it is unlikely, for phonological reasons,
    the be the primary source of the Herodotan etc. place-name.

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 4:37 am

    In Italian, palestra is just the ordinary word for gym. But a quick look at Wiktionary reveals that the corresponding word in Polish refers to 'the bar' (i.e. the legal profession), and in Portuguese it means a major public lecture. If you didn't know that these were all connected, you would never guess from the meaning. It's no wonder that lots of etymologies (like the ones discussed in Martin Schwartz's comment) are doomed to remain speculative or uncertain.

  3. DJL said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 6:25 am

    In Italian ‘palestra’ can also refer to the exercise or activity one does in, well, the palestra. And in climbing there’s also the ‘palestra di roccia’, which refers to the structure where you practice climbing.

  4. Scott P. said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 12:35 pm

    Since I do not know of any other sports arena in America that is called by such a classical, Greek sounding name,

    There are oodles of "Coliseums".

  5. Philip Anderson said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 1:18 pm

    @Scott P
    Although to be pedantic, Coliseum is Latin rather than Greek.

    Gymnasium is Latinised Greek; yet in Europe it’s a term for a type of school. Whereas in Brazil, academia means a gym, not an academy (school).

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 2:35 pm

    From an anonymous commenter:

    I believe I recall reading a reference to sexual intercourse as "flower wrestling". I thought the term very evocative and lovely. Is it (or was it) in common usage?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 7:25 pm

    From Denis Mair:

    The phrase in Chinese is huázhèn 華陣, which literally means a "battle formation of flowers." I have seen it translated as "flowery combat." The word 花 hua ("flower") has sexual associations. For instance, the compound 花痴 hua-chi refers to someone who is obsessed with sex (it can apply to both men and woman).

    In his book of musings on poetry, Luo Ying wonders why peach blossoms are not used more often metaphorically in modern poems as they were in traditional poetry:

    Peach blossoms are difficult to write about: their spotlessness can come off as a cliche, and there are concerns about certain innuendos. They are not frequently used metaphorically in texts of contemporary Chinese poetry.

  8. Fritz Newmeyer said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 8:01 pm

    The main gym/basketball court at the University of Rochester is called The Palestra. It was built in 1930, so three years after the one at Penn.

  9. martin schwartz said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 9:40 pm

    @Bob Ladd: So "one would never guess" becomes a criterion of
    a hypothesis being (merely) speculative or else "remaining uncertain"? Such a criterion would condemn countless accepted etymologies. Granted that what I reported is conjectural, but
    the usual etymology is very problematic at the most basic phonological level (Palaistinē = Philistia), while what I reported
    provides an explanation which is not so much impossible as
    unexpected. Informed counterarguments are what is needed.

  10. Monscampus said,

    November 20, 2022 @ 9:53 pm

    To this German native Goethe's poem/song Heideröslein aka Heidenröslein comes to mind.
    In courtly love songs *bluomen brechen" – breaking/picking flowers – is a metaphor for sex without consent, not for vanilla sex. Wrestling might well be part of it as in the song.

  11. Bob Ladd said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 3:58 am

    @Martin Schwartz: Sorry, my comment was an astonished quick reaction to the range of meanings of palestra in European languages and wasn't intended as a specific comment on your suggestion – though I can certainly see that it could be read that way. All I meant was that semantic shifts can demonstrably be so abrupt and so unpredictable that it's damnably difficult to distinguish between (as you put it) the impossible and the unexpected. Informed counterarguments are important, but I think that etymology in general provides an extreme example of the need to acknowledge that all scientific conclusions are ultimately tentative.

  12. martin schwartz said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 1:17 pm

    @Bob Ladd: OK, thanks for the clarification.

  13. martin schwartz said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 1:40 pm

    On the Gr. words from palaist-, matters Iranian,
    and spiffy etymological method, I recall that W.B. Henning, Trans. Phil. Soc. 1948, p. 69 observed that the Proto-Indo-European
    word for 'eight' (Avestan aštã) is a dual of a word for *'measurement of 4 fingers', on the basis of the Avestan measurement ašti,in a Late Av. series of measurements, corresponds to Greek palaistē '(palm with its) 4 fingers'. The latter would be, I add, what was grasped in Greek wrestling.

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