Ball Courts

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:

1 thought on “Ball Courts

  1. Kevin Zemanski

    When listening to Professor Watrall in class discuss the ball courts and now reading your blog post I can’t help but draw comparisons to Ancient Rome and their Gladiator battles in the Colosseum. Both of these events were viewed as events to entertain, to reward the citizens. Obviously, these are very different in their actual game play, as gladiators fought to the death, however, you mentioned above how some of the players in the ball game may have been used as human sacrifice. These gladiator battles, were called munera, which means ‘duty or obligation’ and expresses how the individuals involved were paying their dues to the community by entertaining them before their death. Both of these events have religious aspects to them as well but it seems that the ball court games were organized by the state while gladiator battles were organized by individuals or power and wealth. They would organized these battles in order to express their power and prestige sort of like how kings in Egypt would build pyramids.

    It is interesting to me how everything these ancient states we’ve studied do has at least on some level a certain religious aspect to it. Even their games and sporting events. It is very different from our time. There is no religious aspect to basketball or football, however, you do see a lot of players (I’m looking at you Tim Tebow), pray on the sidelines. But, there is not even close to the amount of integration that you see here.

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