The Mesoamerican ball game has been played for 3,600 years. They say it was not just a sporting game; it was a ritual and drama. What does that mean? Who were the players? What did they play for? And what kind of ritual did the game represent?
I love this dynamic scene from Nayarit and would love even more to see it animated! It looks like the players and observers were having a great time. It is part of an artistic tradition of ceramic and clay figures that were placed in shaft tombs as funerary offerings. This scene to me simply looks like a sporting event rather than a formal ritual.
So let's have a closer look at this game. It was played from ancient times until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century by the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilisations. To the Mayans, it was known as Pok a Tok, to the Aztecs it was Tlachtli. Today it is still played (in Sinaloa on the eastern coast of Mexico) and it is called Ulama. In Spanish they simply call it Juega de Pelota (ball game).
Many balls have been discovered as part of burials and as ritual offerings at shrines, suggesting the ball game was a sign of status or wealth. In fact, this idea has been reinforced by the evidence of ball courts being found near chiefs' homes in Olmec sites. In Michael D. Coe's view there is enough evidence to suggest the ball game originated along the Mexican Gulf Coast. The game the Olmecs played was associated with prestige and social standing, and only the wealthy and therefore upper class could afford to put on a game. After some debate, it is believed that the head cover on the famous Olmec heads is the ball game protection, a helmet. It is not clear if the Olmecs played just for fun or if creation mythology was already embedded in the game. There is no conclusive evidence of their practice of human sacrifice being connected with the game either.
Despite the lack of a ball court, the game was also played in Teotihuacán (in the open), as we can see from the mural at the Tepantitla complex of Teotihuacán (commons.wikimedia.org.) Apparently here they played the game also with sticks and it has been hypothesised that the stick-game eclipsed the hip-ball game.
Roughly 1,300 Mesoamerican ball courts have been discovered till today; the oldest one in Paso de la Amada in Mexico has been radiocarbon-dated to around 3,600 years old. This places it historically between the Mokaya and Olmec cultures, only a few hundred years after the early hunter-gatherers had settled into residential communities.
Most cities boasted one or two courts, but some built large numbers. The game was played as far south as Paraguay and north into present day Arizona. Six courts have been registered at Tula, Chichén Itzá has 13, El Tajín almost 20, and Cantona 24! Usually, they stand close to the main temples, in the heart of the city, but in the lower part of the sacred precincts. But some cities, such as Bonampak and Teotihuacán, did not have one. As for the small ball courts, maybe they were used as training areas. After all, there would have been a stock of initiates who would train professionally at large sites (although to me it is not clear if the professional initiates were a special social class like the warriors, artists and architects were or if they came from the ranks of slaves). It was not quite the Olympic Games but the game rituals were taken seriously and played at times during special festivals. Also, the game was popular with the nobles for recreation, and the small ball courts would have been ideal for their play without the ritual implications. Even gambling was involved in such games, where people bet things like precious feathers or even their children (and even got themselves into slavery over a bet). This view is held even by serious Mayalogists…
So how did the game become a ritual? Several themes recur in scholarly writings.
The most common symbol that the ball courts were representing was astronomy. The ball represented the sun. The stone scoring rings are speculated to signify sunrise and sunset, or equinoxes. The game was viewed as a battle between the sun against the moon and the principle of lightness and darkness. To the Maya it was a matter of life and death and one of the reasons for human sacrifice. The gods needed human blood and hearts to keep the sun and moon in orbit. I read somewhere that at times they would put the 'drama show' on at night, with the players wearing obsidian polished stone slabs on their backs so when they moved, the slabs would have been shiny (like mirrors, with which the Maya were obsessed because mirrors served as portals to a realm that could be seen but not interacted with). Their movement would have represented the movement of celestial bodies.
With time, the game was used also as a proxy for warfare. Some ball games were played by kings to resolve bitter disputes between rival cities or as a proxy for war. Winning or losing a game could turn into an excuse to start an attack or attempt an assassination. One legend is about the Toltec king Topiltzin (born 895 AD), who played against three rivals, with the winner ruling over the losers (this king did not like or allow human sacrifice during his reign in Tula; perhaps that is why he decided to play a game instead). Over time, the ball game's role would expand to include not only external mediation, but also the resolution of competition or a conflict within the society, and was even used for purposes of divination. In an Aztec legend, a famous ball game was held at Tenochtitlán between the Aztec king Motecuhzoma II (1502-1520 AD) and the king of Texcoco. The latter had predicted that Motecuhzoma’s kingdom would fall and the game was set up to establish the truth of this bold prediction. Motecuhzoma lost the game and did, of course, lose his kingdom at the hands of the Spanish invaders.
Another game was played between the kings of El Pajaral (also known as Zapote Bobal) and Motul de San José, both in today's Guatemala.
The image of the game was preserved on a vase (650-800 AD) and it has been proposed that the vase was created by the king of El Pajaral to commemorate the visit of the king Sak Ch’een of Motul de San José (Sak Ch’een is portrayed in the drawing on the left: wikipedia.org). Given the celebratory nature, it must have been just a 'friendly match'?
So the game was played for recreation, as a proxy for war, for divination and for drama (show), representing the astronomical events such as movements of the celestial bodies. But the main spiritual significance of the game was sitting in cosmologic duality and it is this aspect that gave the game its utmost cruel face. The game was seen as a struggle between day and night, and a battle between life and death. Courts were considered portals to the underworld. Playing ball engaged one in the maintenance of the cosmic order of the universe and the ritual regeneration of life. This goes back to the Mayan creation legend. It is certain that the meaning of the game is connected with the ball-playing twins of the Popol Vuh (Book of the People). It may seem like a diversion to describe this creation myth, but it is absolutely crucial to understanding anything that the Maya did, yet alone the ball game. Below left is a modern drawing of the game scene (pinterest.com.mx).
Here is a brief summary: The universe has passed through various cycles of creation and destruction (by floods and other disasters). Each successive world was peopled by imperfect beings (e.g. made of clay), the last of whom were wooden idols. But the gods were not happy with them as the wooden people could walk and talk but their souls were not perfect because they forgot to worship their gods. Finally, the Creator God created perfect people from maize and gave them his own blood (this blood had to be returned to him, hence the bloodletting rituals and those of human sacrifice from then on).
To the old creator was born a pair of twins, Hun Hunahpú (the Maize God) and Vucub Hunahpú. One day they annoyed the gods of the underworld with their noisy ball playing and the two brothers were tricked into descending into Xibalba (the underworld) where they were challenged to a ball game. Losing the game, Hun Hunahpú had his head cut off; a foretaste of what would become common practice for players. His own twins, Hunahpú (the second) and Xbalanqué, were also tricked into playing the game against the lords of the underworld. At some point in the game one of the twin brothers lost his head and the remaining twin won only by playing with his decapitated head, thus tricking the underworld lords (needless to say that playing with a human skull is another practice that has been taken from this creation myth). In the end, the twins outwitted the lords and ascended to the night sky as constellations. So the bottom line is that they overcame death and became demi-gods themselves. The play provided a passage between the realm of the human and the realm of the gods.
Furthermore, while in the underworld, the twins resurrected their father, the Maize God. He journeyed back to life through the Xibalbá waters (basically a cave with its waters was the underworld), he finally emerged through a crack in the earth's surface, pictured as the shell of a turtle. And this is the reason why the majority of the ball courts have the shape of a split turtle shell. Thus, the game symbolises regeneration and life (and kings thereafter had a symbol of their rebirth as the Maize God even on their sarcophagus, like king Pakal the Great in Palenque). Often the rings on the ball court are symbolic in that sense too; for example the rings in Chichén Itzá have carved images of the feathered serpent god Kukulkán (this deity represents a duality: being feathered represents its divine ability to fly to reach the skies and being a serpent represents the ability to creep on the ground among other animals of the Earth).
In some places, the regeneration symbol was taken further in terms of extending it to food, mainly maize. At El Tajín, the ballplayer sacrifice ensures the renewal of pulque (an alcoholic maguey beverage). In the Chichén Itzá ball court reliefs, seven floods of blood flowing from the necks of decapitated players are interpreted in various ways. Some researchers believe that the blood is being transformed into the Tree of Life (thus symbolising the rebirth of the player); others believe it is seven snakes, a symbol of rebirth, and yet others see the transformation of blood into flowers, vegetal growth, and maize. Decapitation is thus linked with maize cultivation and the game can then be interpreted as a fertility ritual. Through the game, the king confronts the forces of the underworld to obtain fertility, and the rebirth of vegetation. It was the king's duty (his job) to provide fertility to his people (otherwise he could face a revolt).
So in essence, the kings, by playing the game, symbolically entered the underworld to match themselves against its leaders, to defeat death and recreate life (in other words, also to become gods). Each ball court usually had markers on the floor; those were the spots where the king entered the underworld for this symbolic battle.
One good example is from the ball court marker in Copán, placed on the court itself. The central stone marker represents the creator of the ball court, the king himself. On the left is the king, known as 18-Rabbit, wearing protective padding around his chest, neck and shoulders, and shorts with a piece of knotted cloth protecting the groin area. He is squaring off against the great god of the number Zero, pictured on the right.
This deity is associated with the underworld and is known as the death god of sacrifice. The lower part of the jaw of this figure is actually a hand. This figure represents completion, or zero, in the Mayan counting system. In the god's hand is a human head. Both figures are kneeling ready to strike the ball, which, according to the other markers, has just been dropped. Thus the game begins.
And how was the game played? The rules have changed over the centuries. Teams varied in size from two to seven and the aim was to get the solid rubber ball, which varied in size from 10 to 30cm in diameter, past the opponents ‘goal line’. The ball had to be kept in the air and all parts of the body could be used except the hands and feet. Each player wore protective clothing, knee and elbow pads, as well as a carved wooden or leather ‘yoke’ around his waist with which, by swivelling his hips, he could hit the ball with considerable force.
The ball courts varied in size but in general all have the same shape: a long narrow playing alley flanked by walls with both horizontal and sloping (or, more rarely, vertical) surfaces. The ball could roll back to the playing field from the sloping walls (and players could also use the wall for running on it). The walls were often plastered and brightly painted. Although the alleys in early ball courts were open-ended, later ball courts had enclosed end-zones, giving the structure an I-shape when viewed from above.
The ball was made of rubber. The Olmecs were the first to make it (they did everything first for that matter) by mixing liquid rubber (latex) from the rubber tree with juice from the Morning Glory vine; this added extra bounce and made it less sticky.
Some of the balls had a human skull at the centre, which made it hollow and lighter, while others were solid rubber (and very heavy, up to 5 or 6kg).
Points were scored for ‘goals’ and also if the opponents allowed the ball to touch the central flat playing area. Additional points were scored if the ball could be passed through the ring (a rare occasion). Points were scored when a team failed to send the ball back, or when a player struck the ball with a forbidden part of the body. The scoring system could make the game last for hours. For instance, a team could score two points, and then lose the third; then its score would go back to zero, while the other team would score one, and so forth. The games however, only went to 8 points so the first team to score 8 points won the game (and lived another day?).
You can watch how the game was played on Youtube. The Xcaret eco-park in Riviera Maya offers nightly shows of Mayan dances and they also have a performance of the Mayan ball players. Here they also play the fire ball game: they set the ball on fire (this is prompting faster passes) and then hit it with wooden sticks.
At some point the war captives were made to play and I wonder how that worked, as they would not have had any professional training. I found only one suggestion on this (not evidenced). As the teams had to keep the ball in play at all costs, perhaps the trained initiates were positioned near the rings, while the captives were on the sides of the ball court. The untrained captives would have likely lost the game so that brings us to the question of whether it was the losing or winning team that was beheaded (or just the captain). There is evidence that the ballgame was played during religious festivals and holidays in Chichén Itzá (which was a religious centre for the wide region of today's Yucatán), and following these games many of the players were sacrificially executed (at the Tzompantli platform next to the ball court, which was a 'theatre' place). There is an ongoing debate as to whether it was the losing team that was executed (or the losing captain), or the victorious team.
The confusion sits in the fact that according to Mayan religion there were three categories of people who went straight to heaven without having to go through the difficult nine layers of the underworld: warriors who died in battle, women who died in childbirth (they were then considered warriors) and the sacrificial victims. So in essence, if you were prepared as a victim for sacrifice, it was a reward for you and heaven was guaranteed (how handy to manipulate the folks from the beginning of mankind!). I just hope somebody explained it to the captives!
Nikolai Grube points out that the text on Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 in Yaxchilán refers to the beheading of three gods in the mythical past. Each of them is described as a victory (by sacrificing them, they ensured that the sun rose again and that was a good deed for their people). Because the event took a place on a ball court, its staircase is called 'the staircase of three victories'. The ball court is situated in a place known as 'the black hole', the entrance to the underworld. The three gods represented different aspects of the Maize God. Those gods set out for the underworld after their death, to allow for rebirth of the maize and the completion of the life cycle. Linda Schele's drawing (below) on the hieroglyphic stair 2 (temple 33 substructure) in Yaxchilán shows king Bird-Jaguar dressed as a ballplayer, waiting for 'the ball' to reach him, to 'play' with it. The ball is a bound captive (alive).
Even without human sacrifice, the game could be brutal. Today it is still played as 'ulama' game in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. I would not like to try it. Would you?