Strength and History
Updated: May 31
Why do we exercise? Go ahead, throw an answer out there... you won't be wrong, we promise. The reasons that people engage in physical exercise are as numerous and varied as the individuals themselves. Maybe it's a team sport, a train-up for a charity 5K or a major marathon, or an interest in learning a form of dance. Perhaps it's to rehabilitate from an injury, an illness, or after surgery. Exercise might be an adjunct to therapy, a strategy for coping with everyday stressors, or a way to spend more time outdoors enjoying nature. Physical exercise has always played a role in human culture, whether out of necessity, as part of an occupation, as a way to shore up national pride through competition, for health and wellness, or for recreation.
In this series of posts, we will look at the history behind some of the different strength sports that continue to play a modern role. We'll start by considering the historic antecedents to today's sports, some of which have changed greatly, while others retain remarkable similarities. Then, we'll look at the modern day version of each sport.
We can safely assume that strength, speed, and agility were valued throughout prehistory. One's ability to survive was predicated upon an aptitude to evade predators, to stalk and bring down prey, and to carry large volumes of water and plant-based foods. As techniques of agriculture and animal domestication developed, societies became more stable and less nomadic. Cities were built with permanent structures including arenas for sport, and records of athletic training began to appear through visual art and writing. One of the earliest strength sports to appear and which continues to have a major place in modern athletics is wrestling.
Sculptures and friezes depicting wrestling matches (and, possibly, boxing) appeared in Mesopotamian art as early as 2900 B.C.E. Likewise, wrestling plays a notable role in very early written works, including Sumerian poetry c. 2100 B.C.E., which were then incorporated into the Epic of Gilgamesh, circa 1800 B.C.E. The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely acknowledged as the oldest significant literary work, and includes verses dedicated to a wrestling match between Gilgamesh and his adversary Enkidu. Competition between Gilgamesh (the king of Uruk) and Enkidu (a "wild man" created by the gods to represent the people of Uruk),
and their eventual friendship, are major themes of the ancient text, which suggests the cultural importance of displays of strength and athleticism.
Another Sumerian written work describes a series of athletic contests in which the Semitic god Mardu wins the admiration of the god Numushda, as well as Numushda's blessing for Mardu to marry his daughter, Adgarkidug. Again, athletic prowess becomes the basis for alliances and relationships.
Wrestling is also described in another of our oldest works of literature, Homer's Iliad. The renowned Greek warrior Achilles arranges a series of eight athletic competitions to honor the fallen Patroclus. Ajax and Odysseus engage in multiple rounds of vigorous combat, and are eventually awarded a tie, in honor of their equal skill and might. Wrestling became an official event of the ancient Greek Olympic games in 708 B.C.E.
It is clear from these examples that wrestling was a significant test of strength and willpower in ancient cultures. Its influence endures into the 21st century, in both traditional and very different modern forms. Please come back next week for the next installment as we explore strength sports throughout the ages.