Mortality is Hard to Wrestle With: Cosmology and Combat Sports in the Alcestis
Wrestling with Death
γυναῖκα κἀς τόνδ’ αὖθις ἱδρῦσαι δόμον
Ἄλκηστιν Ἀδμήτῳ θ’ ὑπουργῆσαι χάριν.
ἐλθὼν δ’ ἄνακτα τὸν μελάμπτερον νεκρῶν
Θάνατον φυλάξω, καί νιν εὑρήσειν δοκῶ
πίνοντα τύμβου πλησίον προσφαγμάτων.
κἄνπερ λοχαίας αὐτὸν ἐξ ἕδρας συθεὶς
μάρψω, κύκλον γε περιβαλὼν χεροῖν ἐμαῖν,
οὐκ ἔστιν ὅστις αὐτὸν ἐξαιρήσεται
μογοῦντα πλευρά, πρὶν γυναῖκ’ ἐμοὶ μεθῇ.
ἢν δ’ οὖν ἁμάρτω τῆσδ’ ἄγρας καὶ μὴ μόλῃ
πρὸς αἱματηρὸν πελανόν, εἶμι τῶν κάτω
Κόρης ἄνακτός τ’ εἰς ἀνηλίους δόμους,
αἰτήσομαί τε καὶ πέποιθ’ ἄξειν ἄνω
Ἄλκηστιν, ὥστε χερσὶν ἐνθεῖναι ξένου,
ὅς μ’ ἐς δόμους ἐδέξατ’ οὐδ’ ἀπήλασεν,
καίπερ βαρείᾳ συμφορᾷ πεπληγμένος,
ἔκρυπτε δ’ ὢν γενναῖος, αἰδεσθεὶς ἐμέ.
Though the description of the contest lacks the voces propriae of formal athletic matches, Heracles’ fight with Death has frequently been identified as a kind of wrestling match or pankration.  Specifically Heracles’ inescapable “encircling of hands” technique (κύκλον γε περιβαλὼν χεροῖν ἐμαῖν, / οὐκ ἔστιν ὅστις αὐτὸν ἐξαιρήσεται, 847–848) evokes the maneuvers employed by wrestlers and pankratiasts to render their opponents helpless and to force them into submission. Comparable language appears elsewhere in reference to controlling holds in an athletic setting. One Homeric scholiast refers to the “wrapping around of hands” (περιβολὴν χειρῶν) in referring to a wrestling position adopted in the contest of Ajax and Odysseus at the funeral games for Patroclus  ; further, a commentary by Ambrose (Enarr. in Ps. 36.51) suggests that one way a wrestler may suffer a fall (πτώμα) was to be bound in a “chain of arms” (vinculo lacertorum). Though relatively late these descriptions bring to mind the well-attested waistlock position (τὸ μεσολαβεῖν), as Michael Poliakoff has convincingly demonstrated (1982a: 40–51), a particular hold in which a wrestler grabs his opponent firmly around the waist, often with the intention of throwing him to the ground. The waistlock was one technique used to get an advantage against one’s opponent, and accordingly, as a metaphor the verb μεσολαβεῖν and its variants could be used actively or passively to express advantage or disadvantage in any given situation. 
ὠΐσθη δόλον εἶναι· ἔπειτα δὲ λέκτο καὶ αὐτός.
ἡμεῖς δὲ ἰάχοντες ἐπεσσύμεθ’, ἀμφὶ δὲ χεῖρας
βάλλομεν· οὐδ’ ὁ γέρων δολίης ἐπελήθετο τέχνης,
ἀλλ’ ἦ τοι πρώτιστα λέων γένετ’ ἠϋγένειος,
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα δράκων καὶ πάρδαλις ἠδὲ μέγας σῦς·
[γίνετο δ’ ὑγρὸν ὕδωρ καὶ δένδρεον ὑψιπέτηλον.]
ἡμεῖς δ’ ἀστεμφέως ἔχομεν τετληότι θυμῷ.
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δή ῥ’ ἀνίαζ’ ὁ γέρων ὀλοφώϊα εἰδώς,
καὶ τότε δή μ’ ἐπέεσσιν ἀνειρόμενος προσέειπε …
Like Heracles, Menelaus lies in wait and attacks suddenly (λοχαίας … ἐξ ἕδρας συθεὶς, 846; cf. ἐπεσσύμεθ’, 454). Lacking Heracles’ strength, however, Menelaus requires an entire crew to take down his withholding adversary, who fights back with his own “tricky skill” (δολίης … τέχνης). Neither fight is fair by the standards of formal athletic contests: the point of the ambush is to give an edge to the attacker who, being mortal, presumably faces a serious disadvantage in his divine opponent. Such is the tactic described by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant in their landmark study of mētis, “cunning intelligence,” in which, not coincidentally, the tricks of the wrestler’s tekhnē emerge as a primary example. 
Wrestling with Necessity
καὶ μετάρσιος ᾖξα, καὶ
πλείστων ἁψάμενος λόγων
κρεῖσσον οὐδὲν Ἀνάγκας
ηὗρον οὐδέ τι φάρμακον
Θρῄσσαις ἐν σανίσιν, τὰς
γῆρυς, οὐδ’ ὅσα Φοῖβος Ἀ-
μόνας δ’ οὔτ’ ἐπὶ βωμοὺς
ἐλθεῖν οὔτε βρέτας θεᾶς
ἔστιν, οὐ σφαγίων κλύει.
μή μοι, πότνια, μείζων
ἔλθοις ἢ τὸ πρὶν ἐν βίῳ.
καὶ γὰρ Ζεὺς ὅτι νεύσῃ
σὺν σοὶ τοῦτο τελευτᾷ.
καὶ τὸν ἐν Χαλύβοις δαμά-
ζεις σὺ βίᾳ σίδαρον,
οὐδέ τις ἀποτόμου
λήματός ἐστιν αἰδώς.
καί σ’ ἐν ἀφύκτοισι χερῶν εἷλε θεὰ δεσμοῖς.
τόλμα δ’· οὐ γὰρ ἀνάξεις ποτ’ ἔνερθεν
κλαίων τοὺς φθιμένους ἄνω.
καὶ θεῶν σκότιοι φθίνου-
σι παῖδες ἐν θανάτῳ.
The Chorus identifies Necessity (Ἀνάγκη) as the chief enforcer for Zeus’ will. Their description explicitly recalls Heracles’ own fight against Death, and follows his announcement by an interval of fewer than 150 lines: much like Death, Anankē has the ability to incapacitate mortals in her inescapable controlling hold (σ’ ἐν ἀφύκτοισι χερῶν εἷλε θεὰ δεσμοῖς, 986). Thus the depiction of Necessity as a fighter whose hands form bonds stronger than the strongest iron expands upon the previous identification of Fate, Grief, and Death as wrestlers.
Anankē the Wrestler
Σπάρτα μοι Σπάρτα κυδιάνειρα πατρίς.
κεῖνοι τεχνάεντες· ἐγώ γε μέν, ὡς ἐπέοικε
τοῖς Λακεδαιμονίων παισί, βίᾳ κρατέω.
Clearly the two tactics could be seen to contrast each other: one either relies on tekhnē or on bia, but not on both. So, for example, in the Iliad the wrestling match between Odysseus and Ajax begins with the introduction of the two opponents by their traditional opposing epithets: Ajax is megas, “huge,” and Odysseus is polumētis, “very crafty” (23.708–709)—the fighters stand for strength and skill, respectively. The contest goes back and forth, with Ajax alternately gaining advantage through his strength and Odysseus winning it back through tricky maneuvers. Achilles finally intervenes and calls the match a tie, highlighting how evenly matched their abilities are.  Neither fighter proves superior because each excels in his own way, but they cancel each other out.