When we were learning about the Maya in this last section of the class, I found myself really intrigued by the ball courts. I think it’s interesting how the game can connect distinct areas together with tradition, and it also reminded me of our own obsession with sports in American culture. Also, I definitely had a visual from watching The Road to El Dorado a few too many times as a kid.
I think that ball courts seem to symbolize and bring together many aspects of Mayan life. It was probably a form of entertainment much as our sports are today, but there were other purposes and significance. When competing Mayan areas were heading down a road to violence, a ball game could provide a release valve for all that pressure before a full scale, violent war came to fruition. The fact that this was even a possible solution seems to point to strong connections and relations between neighboring areas.
Beyond bringing separate Mayan regions together, the ball court also seems to follow Mesoamerican peoples throughout time as different groups rose and fell in prominence. Evidence of the ball game exists before and after the height of the Maya and seems to have passed from group to group. This common denominator also points to its greater significance for the Maya and other people such as the Olmec and the Aztec.
I also think it’s interesting that the ball court was a prevalent part of the “state” ideology that bound smaller groups together. It appeared in art and architecture and was possibly involved in ideas of cosmic balance, which we discussed in relation to human sacrifice. There was some aspect of the living fighting the dead and renewing a religious cycle. Among the Maya, this took a more extreme turn by including a human sacrifice cult. This could be connected to how the ball court was kind of a lesser war. In war, foreign captives were an important gain from success in conquest because they served as sacrificial victims. Maybe sacrificing ball players after the game was accomplishing the same goals.
Overall, it seems that the ball game was both practical and ritual in nature. I imagine people have investigated aspects of ritual in modern sports, and I wonder if our system fills any of the same functions. Regardless, I’m certainly glad that MSU’s football games don’t end with human sacrifice.
Here’s a link to an article I read about the ball game if anyone is also interested: