The History Thread Wrestles With History

Came across an old article in The Atlantic which summarizes the problems with the way history is taught in public schools. The thrust of the piece is about how focus on individual narratives and perspectives robs history of its richness:

Lionization and demonization are best left to the heroes and villains of fairy tales. History is not indoctrination. It is a wrestling match. For too long, the emphasis has been on pinning the opponent. It is time to shift the focus to the struggle itself. Conflict does not necessarily demand a resolution. Disagreements among highly educated, well-informed people will continue. Why should history ignore this reality? There is no better way to use the past to inform the present than by accepting the impossibility of a definitive history—and by ensuring that current students are equipped to grapple with the contested memories in their midst.

Which led me down a rabbit hole to examples of historical wrestling. Unsurprisingly, this sport has been practiced in various forms across the world, engaging everyone from the lowliest pleb to literal gods. Some examples:

Viking Wrestling!

The oldest manuscript that mentions this myth is the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241) an Icelandic historian. According to Codex Upsaliensis, from the 14th century, Snorri’s Edda is from around 1220. In the Norse myth, the thunder god Thor has a wrestling match with an old woman named Elli, which means “old age”. She is described as an experienced wrestler and it is said that she has defeated stronger men than Thor. Elli uses throwing techniques called bragð, against Thor’s feet. When Thor starts to lose his balance, Elli tries to defeat him with very hard throw called sviptingar.

Thor falls down on one knee, and by touching the ground with the knee the fight is called as over by the judge Utgard Loki, who orders them to stop. We know this was a standing wrestling match, by the fact that the match was lost when anything other than feet touched the ground. This also tells us that there were rules and that wrestling was practiced also a sport/game.

Turkish Oil Wrestling!

Some sultans went a step further and became wrestlers themselves. The best example of this is Murad IV (r. 1612-40). Murad frequently stripped down and wrestled his court officials, including his calligrapher (who was, of course, a great wrester himself). There are amusing incidents in which a court servant gave Murad the advice that, since he had already taken a bath and must be exhausted at the end of a long day anyway, he shouldn’t oil himself for wrestling; Murad responded to the servant’s “trash-talking” about the sultan’s exhaustion by lifting him up in the air and spinning him around until he pleaded to be let down. Murad let him down, laughed, and rewarded him with gold coins.

Chinese Wrestling!

Under the Qing Dynasty wrestling was popular with the ruling class. During the rule of the Kangxi Emperor (1661-1722) a wrestling school, the Shanpuying, was established. The school contained two hundred wrestlers (alongside some archers and horsemen) and was divided into two ‘wings’. It’s believed this was to create an internal rivalry and drive the students to new levels as they competed. The wrestlers were expected to fulfil a variety of duties, including guarding the emperor and representing China by wrestling competitors from other Central-Asian countries when they delivered tributes.

Lucha Libre!

Starting with 1958’s Santo contra el cerebro del mal (Santo vs. the Evil Brain), El Santo took on everyone and everything from grave robbers to martians and mafia killers to Dracula. These B-movies were massive hits in Mexico and have since become cult classics in English-speaking countries even though only a handful of them were dubbed into English. One of these movies — Santo vs. las mujeres vampiro (Santo vs. the Vampire Women)— even found its way into a 1995 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Abraham Lincoln Wrestling!

Touting just one loss among his 300 (or so) contests, Lincoln gained a reputation among the New Salem, Illinois, locals as an elite fighter, eventually earning his county’s wrestling championship. He knew just how good he was, too. After one victory, Lincoln reportedly looked at the crowd and bellowed what passed for trash talk at the time: “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns.” The challenge would go unanswered.

Turns out that a lot of human history has centered around two people trying to force another person onto the ground.