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History of Martial Arts and Karate

Text av Shingo Ohgami

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1. The word ’Karate’

The word ’Karate’ is not very old. ’Karate’ meaning empty hand (kara=empty, te=hand, technique), which has become the common terminology today was used probably for the first time in 1929. And the word ’Karate’ as Chinese hand or more likely ’Todei’ (kara=to=China, Tang-dynasty, te=dei=hand, technique) may have been used on the island of Okinawa a bit earlier, though unfortunately it is difficult to find evidences.


                        Toudei - Karate (Chinese hand) - Karate (Empty hand)

                           唐手       -1922               空手            - 1929

So the word ’Karate’ has been used in less than 100 years. But the techniques that are included today in modern karate have been practiced in many places in the world and various periods in the history. Let us look at our Karate as one of the martial arts in the world.

2. Martial Arts in the History

Martial arts (empty hand) are techniques that are mainly used in person-to-person combat. The purpose of fighting could have been different. It could have been just a play - not a serious fight, fighting in form of sport - as a competition, a ritual in ceremony, to defend oneself from some attack from others or even to beat an opponent for some reason. It seems like martial arts have had various characters in different periods and different places in the history. We have to remember that various martial arts have been existed on the earth for a long, long time before our karate showed up in the history.

Let us look at various martial arts from the past and analyze their characters. By doing this we would be able to locate our Karate and understand what is the special character of our Karate.

2-1. Mesopotamia 
The oldest evidences about the existence of martial arts that we can trace today are found in Mesopotamia.  (meso=between, potam=river, in Greek, area between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates) where one of the oldest civilizations of human being, which we know today, was developed. The first city-state Urq was built by Sumerians. A city or a city-state was a place where people gathered. Then they needed a center for administration and various ceremonies so that this gathering of people could function as a unit. The centers in the cities in Mesopotamia were temples. Terracottas with wrestling and boxing were found in those temples as votive tablets. It indicates that wrestling and boxing had something to do with temples. In the temples various ceremonies were arranged, among others to pray for better harvest. Winners in martial arts such as wrestling and boxing were strong men. A strong man gives birth to strong children. Strong children were needed so that their race should continue to exist. A strong man was a symbol for survival and existence. In short, the character of martial arts in Mesopotamia in those days had a connection with better harvest and survival of their race or nation.

Boxers with short skirts. They wear band on their wrists, ca. 2000 BC, found in Ashunnak, Mesopotamia, should be exhibited in Louvre Museum, Paris.


2-2. Egypt  
The next oldest evidence materials for existence of martial arts - wrestling and boxing, which we can trace today after Mesopotamia, were found in Egypt. Egyptian civilization is one of the four oldest civilizations in the history together with Mesopotamian, Indian and Chinese. Evidences of martial arts from Egypt are frescos and reliefs with wrestling and boxing, which were found mostly in the graves of kings or high officers in such places as Saqqara. The oldest reliefs in Egypt with martial arts can be dated back to around 2300 BC. This period is called ’The Old Kingdom’, when Egyptians enjoyed peace and prosperity under the leading of strong kings (Pharaohs). This is also called ’The Age of Pyramids’ when many pyramids were built throughout the country.

 Reliefs of boxers (left) and fencers (right), in the grave of Egyptian high officer Ptahshotpe, found in Saqqara, Egypt, ca. 2300 BC


Egyptians were rather peaceful people in those days. Even when they were strongest, they were not as extremely expansive as Romans. Then it would be rather correct to guess that Egyptians did not need to combine martial arts training with that of military. Frescos and reliefs from Egypt show rather simple and skinny body of their athletes. It is rather obvious comparing with the ancient Greek athletes who had very well trained body. We dare to come to the conclusion that Egyptians rather played with martial arts training - boxing and wrestling. They enjoyed even fencing by using sticks made by papyrus.

Besides Egyptians in the ancient days seem to have believed the life after death. In that belief they started mummifying early as 3000 BC. The body should be in perfect form when they die and being mummified. They wanted to come to the new life (after death) with as perfect body as possible. Then there should not be any injury on their body when they die. Then it would be less possible for Egyptians in those days to train martial arts so hard that the training may cause some injuries on their body. It would be more probable that they trained martial arts rather in a easy manner and played with them.

2-3, Minoan Crete

Around Aegean Sea i.e. between Greece and Turkey today; such places as, the island of Crete, Cyclades Islands, the southern part of Greece and even the west coast of Asia Minor - Turkish coast, a highly developed civilization flourished ca. 2600-1400 BC, which is generally called Aegean civilization. It was nearly a thousand years before the ancient Greek started to show up her own highly developed civilization, which made a ground for the coming European civilization. Especially that on Crete is called Minoan civilization named after the king Minos of Crete in the Greek mythology. Greek mythology says that Minos father was Greek God Zeus and his mother Europe, a Fenician princes. ’Europe’ seems to be named after her. This area around Aegean Sea from this period is quite interesting for us karate historians because we can see some evidences of existence of martial arts: boxing and wrestling.

You can find this fantastic colorful wall painting of ’boys boxing’ in Athens National Archaeological Museum. This was found in Thera. Dated back to 1500 BC.


The bull-leap is quite acrobatic and must have required an advanced systematical training to follow. As far as we know Minoans were the only people who did this bull-leap in the history. Anyway it indicates that Minoans must have trained even boxing and wrestling in a systematical manner. By guessing from the wall paintings from the palace of Knossos where people sat and enjoyed watching something, boxing and wrestling matches must have been performed at palaces together with bull-leap in front of the audience who surely enjoyed watching them.

The fresco with boys boxing indicates that in the Minoan world not only the adults but also the young people enjoyed boxing. The fresco can be dated as far back as to 1500 BC. It is more than 1000 years after the evidences of martial arts in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but nearly 800 years before the Greek started the ancient Olympic Games. 

2-4, Ancient Greece

Iliad by Homeros

Homeros mentions in his Iliad: Achilles arranged a sport event for the honor of his best friend Patroclus who was killed in the battlefield instead of Achilles himself.  This event, if it was really arranged, was the oldest arranged sports games that we could trace in the history. It was meant to be the funeral ceremony for Patroclus. Together with running, chariot racing, javelin, discus, archery and armed combat, boxing and wrestling were included in the program. The story he was telling might have happened around 1300 - 1200 BC. It is quite interesting that our martial arts ( boxing and wrestling) were mentioned in Iliad. Martial arts were performed in connection with a funeral.

Ancient Olympic Games

The ancient Greeks started the Olympic Games in 776 BC. They were arranged every four years until the 293rd in 393 AD. It is quite amazing that the ancient Olympic Games lasted for 1.169 years. It is really a long period comparing the Modern Olympic Games, which have, a history of just 100 years.

In the ancient Greece even the Pythian Games were started in 582 BC. There were even Pananthenaic Games, Isthmian Games and Nemean Games. In such a way the Greek athletes in those days had access to at least one game a year. But the Olympic Games were of course by far the biggest and most prestigious among them all. Let us look at the Olympic Games in connection with martial arts:  

1st     776 BC    The first Olympic Games were arranged. 
18th   708 BC    Wrestling was included. 
23rd  688 BC     Boxing was included. 
33rd  648 BC     Pankration was included. 
37th   632 BC    Wrestling for boys included. 
41st   616 BC    Boxing for boys included. 
145th 200 BC    Pankration for boys included.

Martial arts played a major role in the ancient Olympic Games. What was the most characteristic of martial arts in ancient Greece?

Spartans and Athens

In ancient Greece there were many citizen-states or polis. Among them Athens and Sparta were powerful and competing for the hegemony in Greece. We find some differences in the idea of sport between those two. Spartans rather regarded the sports including boxing and wrestling as a way to train strong bodies and produce strong soldiers at their Agoge - school. The word Sparta is still used today meaning a disciplined and hard training. Spartan men spent most of their lives in military barracks.

A Greek vase from 400-500 BC, Athens National Archaeological Museum. The boxer on the right gives his right straight punch to the opponents face. Both of them have vary well-trained body. You can find many such vases from Greek days.


Athens rather regarded sports as a way to develop the individuality through their body (physical training) based on their ideology ’beauty and harmony’ at least in early Athen days. By making their body well trained and beautiful they may have believed that they should come closer to their God. Many Greek youngsters trained at their gymnasion and/or palaestra (school of martial arts). We can find many sculptures and paintings on the vases from these days at many museums in Europe. By looking at them you can easily find that the Greek athletes had very well trained bodies.

In later days especially after their victory against Persia character in the society of Athens may have changed to more irresponsible freedom and individualism. The sportsmen became more and more professional, and more people enjoy watching professional sportsmen instead of participating by themselves.

The Greek way so called ’Hellenism’ has been spread with Alexander the Great. Martial arts are not exceptions. The idea of gymnasion and palaestra, sort of schools of sports and martial arts and the using of olive oil on the body are very characteristic of Greek sport. Totally speaking one important character with Greeks is that they regarded martial arts as sports with competition. This Greek idea is inherited to modern sports in Europe.  


2-5, Romans

In 275 BC Romans had control over the whole Italian Peninsula by concurring Etruscans. Greece became a Roman territory in 146 BC. Romans in those days were quite expanding. Even the prosperous Rom was split into east and west in 395 AD. West Roman Empire ceased to exist in 476 AD and East Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) in 1453 AD. Romans adapted cultures and traditions from those whom they concurred. Even in the Roman martial arts we can find traces from the Etruscan and Greek traditions. I have mentioned already about martial arts in Greece. Let us have a quick look at Etruscan martial arts.


Etruscans are very interesting for us martial art historians because they have left some materials of martial arts. Etruscans received a great deal of influence from Greeks at that time, but they had their own tradition too. Among others in the Museum of Villa Giulia in Rom, and also in Gregorian Etruscan Museum in the Vatican Museum, you can find thousands of vases from the Etruscans. Like Greeks Etruscans also made vases, maybe not with so high quality as those by Greeks. But you will find several vases that show boxing and wrestling in those museums. But the unique thing with Etruscans is that they have left wall paintings in their tombs, maybe like Egyptians. Some wall paintings show martial arts. You will also find some bronze figures of wrestlers from Etruscans. In some of them even a man and a woman wrestle against each other.  It indicates that not only men but also women wrestled among Etruscans.

But it is important to mention that Etruscans had a tradition of using prisoners as offers for various ceremonies. For example prisoners had to fight either with or without weapons and only the winners of those fightings could survive and the losers became offers. Etruscans had fightings even between two animals and sometimes even between human being and animals. These kinds of fighting with offering were inherited later to the Roman gladiators.


Romans took over the ancient Olympic Games of Greece and continued until 393 AD. The character of the Olympic Games may have changed in the meantime. For example Greek boxers used himantes, soft strings on their hands, but the Roman boxers started using caestus, made of metal in order to injure the opponents more seriously. Gladiators fought not only against each other but also against animals such as lions.

The ancient Rom was a military empire. They used the training of martial arts for military training. It makes a part of character of Roman martial arts.

At the same time Romans enjoyed their lives for example in their huge bathhouses, thermos. Romans did not train hard by themselves. They would rather watching others fighting such as gladiators at Coliseum in Rom. We can find some differences in Romans from the ancient Greeks who rather enjoyed training by themselves.

In 391 AD Christianity became the Roman official state religion. Two years later in 393 AD the last Olympic Games were held. Christianity may have influenced that games had become too cruel and they did not agree with the teaching of Christianity.

You may find many motives with gladiators in many museums throughout Europe; in forms of sculptures and mosaics from Roman days.

But here I would like to show two fantastic evidences of kicking from Roman period: one is a bronze sculpture and the other a marble relief. In the game of pancration it was allowed to use kicks. But still it is not easy to find evidences of kicking. Why not? Kicking may not be the most effective technique when they had olive oil on their body and perform fighting on the sand? Was it too dangerous to kick when throwing was allowed? Anyway these are the evidences of kicking from Greek- Roman days.

 A bronze statuette with kicking (Maegeri), height 27 cm, a pancrationist from 1st century AD? Louvre Museum in Paris. In pancration almost any technique including kicking was allowed. We can see that he bends his toes upward as our Maegeri today. This is one of the few evidences of kicking from these days.


Another evidence of kicking from Greek-Roman days; probably from 200-300 AD, Vatican Museum, Rom. Those two on the left are pancrationist. The fighter to the right holds the opponents wrist and execute knee kick to the genitals. To the right he is a boxer wearing caestus (metals on the hand) and stands over a fallen opponent. Boxers wore some kind of cover on their hand. So we can see that the two to the left are pancrationist and the one to the right is a boxer.


2-6, India

In India around 2500 BC the River Indus they developed one of the oldest civilizations being parallel with Mesopotamia and Egypt. Mohenjo-Daro was a city with some 40.000 inhabitants and was a center of manufacture and trade. Not a few objects were found showing how the life there was, but from our martial arts viewpoint they have not left evidence materials of martial arts as Mesopotamians and Egyptians.

Later a people of Indo-European origin came into India and established perhaps around 1.000BC so called caste system by which people were divided into the classes. People had to stay in the same caste from the birth to the death without any possibility of changing. Then we can guess that the society would be rather passive. Such a static exercise as yoga is very characteristic of India. It  has been practiced for a long time in India at latest already around 500 BC. Yoga aims at an unification of mind through training that includes body posture, control of breathing, meditation and overcoming of the sense impression. The idea of Yoga was inherited in Buddhism. TI think that the idea of controlling the breathing the Indian contribution to martial arts.

Wrestling, 100-200 AD Peshwar, Pakistan

indian wrestlers.jpg

2-7, China

China has been huge. There has been a long history of martial arts. I do not have much space left to go into details. But simply speaking Chinese has combined the training of martial arts with health. About 500 BC Taoism was developed with the idea of chi (internal energy). With chi you will be strong in martial arts and strong in your body (healthy, a long life). Vital points on our body can be used for both medicine and martial arts. It is dangerous if you are hit on those points, but the proper stimulance to the same points will make you healthy (the idea of acupuncture). Today many people train taichi chuan (taichi boxing) for health.

Chinese Wrestlers, Bronze Statue from Zhou Dynasty in China (1100-700 BC), British Museum, London

chinese wrestlers.jpg
2-8, Japan - Budo

Japan is unique concerning martial arts. They developed the idea of ’the way of life’ by training martial arts. This is expressed by the word ’Budo’. The eHistory of Martial Artsquation is:

Art of survival (or art of killing) - Survival of both sides (One should think not only your own survival.) - Winning over yourself (Then you have to fight rather against yourself than against your opponent.) - Winning over ’Life and Death’ ( the biggest subject for human being) - Emptiness - Creative Life ( We have to try to gain a creative emptiness - a real happy life) = Budo.

Book 'Intoduktion till Budo' written by Shinji Nakabayashi (Japnese),Swedish translation by Shingo Ohgami.

Buy the book here


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