Mayan Ball Game

As we were talking about the rise and fall of the Mayans in Mesoamerica, one thing that first jumped to my mind was the ball game.  Many of the pictures then shown of the Mayan cities included these ballcourts.  Perhaps one of the first exposures any of us had to this ancient game was while watching “The Road to El Dorado” (the animated movie that was released in 2000).  So I wanted to research this game further, to see just how much is known about this ancient game.

A few sculptures of ballcourts have been discovered, providing invaluable information about the structure of the game and the spectators.  The court has high walls on the sides, which have spectators on the top.  Those citizens watching the game are depicted as male and female, adults and children.  Figures have their arms around one another, and you can actually see family groups sitting together watching the game.  The spectators all seem to be enjoying the game.  On each side of the court there is one figure on the end of the spectators who appears to be playing a drum.  As for the players and the field, the sculpture shows three players on the field for each of the two teams.  There is a single figure in the middle of the court that is not a player and could be a referee of sorts.  Also, there is no ball in this model, but there are round markers on the court (most likely divided it into sections).  There is no evidence from this model that human sacrifice was involved, but other areas played slightly different versions of the game that did involve that grisly end.

The Mayans used rubber to make the balls for the game.  They mixed 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 center, which made it hollow and lighter, while others were solid rubber and weighed up to eight or ten pounds.  Different areas made different sized balls; they were anywhere from the size of a softball to the size of a beach ball.  Only a few ancient balls still exist today.  Players wore several key uniform items while they played.  Like the ball and the rules, these items varied slightly from place to place.  The key was to wear protective clothing that would not hinder the players’ speed and agility.

Not much is known about specific rules, but the general idea was to keep the rubber ball in play, most likely by hitting it with a player’s hip.  It is known that the game was fast paced and dangerous; the heavy ball causing many injuries.  The winners of the game were highly praised, which is probably the result of the game’s key place in the Mayan creation story.   Human sacrifice (of the losing team) was not the result of every game, but carvings and paintings do indicate that it happened.

There is definitely a lot to learn about this first team sport, a lot known and unknown.  It certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “give it your all”.  I guess sometimes winning is everything.

5 thoughts on “Mayan Ball Game

  1. Kari Edington

    I want to join together your post and the previous two posts (Ball Courts and Elite Control). I feel like you all are saying really similar things, but in different ways. Each of you talks about how the elite use ideological tools to gain control of the greater population, and those who focused on the ball courts provided that specific instance of the ways in which ideology constructs not only socio-political environments, but also ideological/religious environments. Even though not all ball games ended with sacrifice, some did, and each of the dominant groups/cities within the Mayan State played some version of this game. By being such a wide-spread ideological tool, what does the ball game do for the common Mayan citizen?
    I like that you asked the question of what our current fascination with sports does for our state. I was thinking about that as we learned about the ball games, especially their sacrificial components. Thinking outside just baseball (the ‘traditional’ American game), there are a lot of fairly widespread sports that pose a significant danger to the players’ well-being. Wrestling, football, hockey, MMA, boxing, etc. all come to mind. The studies done on the physical and mental (not to mention emotional) effect of numerous concussions tells me we haven’t necessarily gotten away from the idea of human sacrifice as possibly entertaining. Instead, we seem to have lengthened the time this ‘sacrifice’ takes. (There’s a ton of research into the gender – masculinity – of these sports and how a patriarchal culture perpetuates the idea that athletes are somehow ‘better’ at masculinity, but I won’t go into that here). In a way, then, our sports function to perpetuate our own forms of ideology, brought on by the dominant (elite) in our own culture.
    I think that the question of what elite takes from common belief in order to run a group of people (such as a country/state/empire) is an intriguing one. A while ago we maybe never thought we’d have a black president. Our ideologies of leadership often exclude women, racial minorities, ethnic minorities, disabled people, young/old people, LGBTIQQAPU people, and more. In a way then, our ‘religion’ as a society did not allow Obama to exist as he does until fairly recently. Even then, there is a lot of controversy over whether certain kinds of people can be good leaders – a discussion surrounding our state’s ideologies. To bring this back to the ball games, the elite of the Mayan state seemed to have similar ideas of what ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ means for people in general. Though they may have couched it in more explicit terms, the fact is that our society does really similar things, just for a different (more hidden) ideological basis.

  2. devallbr

    I enjoyed this post thoroughly, as you really delved into the details of the Ball Game. I guess this is just another example of how sports have been with human society for such a long time. Beyond this, I have a great deal of respect for these civilizations for actually creating a game that did not necessarily involve a sword or spear! In fact, what is extremely interesting to me is the fact that these games involved a rubber ball – the same rubber that is used in essentially every single popular sport. When compared to the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, Mayan ball games seem to be quite tame (aside from the end, of course!). I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but it seems to me that every so-called game that took place hundreds of years ago would typically end with someone dying, unless we’re talking about board games. People forget that the age we live in today, in which athletes are paid millions of dollars and are essentially rewarded whether or not they win a game is really an anomaly of human history. Such things did not occur hundreds of years ago because there was essentially no way for them to. Today, money wealth brings you power, whereas, in almost every ancient society, power would bring you wealth. With that role reversal, no athlete could continuously be rewarded with obscene amounts of wealth just for being particular good at his or her particular sport. With society being as rough as it was at the time, and with human life having almost no value to said society, the grisly ends to Mayan ball games are not quite as shocking to me.

  3. Sam Miller

    When we talked about the ball game courts in class, I too immediately thought of The Road to El Dorado movie. However there are a lot of differences and the movie does not correctly portray the facts of the ball game played.
    The conquistador’s name in the movie is Hernán Cortés, who is the guy that conquered the Aztec, which is in Central America. Cortés’ expedition left Spain in 1519, which is in accordance with the movie plot. According to the legend, El Dorado is located in South America somewhere along the Amazon River. If in fact, Miguel and Tulio from the movie went to El Dorado then they ended up in South America and encountered the Inca, not the Aztec. Also in the movie, when Miguel and Tulio play ball they play against at least 8 players on the other team, which is way more that you stated in your blog post. Obviously, I don’t expect children’s movies to be accurate, but this is a new realization for me that The Road to El Dorado is a mix of a bunch of different histories and ancient peoples. Fun fact: the animators and creators of the movie based the drawings of El Dorado on ruins in Central America.
    Both the Mayans and the Aztecs played ball and had ball courts, although they had different stories about the origin of the game. The Aztecs’ origin for the game came is more war based, while the Mayan’s is based on honoring the Hero Twins. I don’t really know if the Inca played the ball game, but it’s something to find out.

  4. wrigh399

    When my family and I visited Mexico, I was attending grade school. I cannot recall the trip in any remarkable details only the fact that we had visited some Mayan ruins on an excursion through the travel agency. We saw the ruins of the pyramids, learned a few details about the culture as well as a few other noticeable points of interest within the culture. Perhaps the most interesting experience I had while visiting this historic site was an actual recreation of the Mayan Ball game. They said it was historically accurate and they were using appropriate materials, but given again that I was only a child at the time I am doubtful that I could describe the events in detail. I highly doubt that it was as dangerous as its historical counterpart.
    Regarding your paper I too first saw my exposure to this event through the criminally under-rated DreamWorks movie “The Road to El Dorado” and so later when my family visited Mexico I was excited at the prospect of seeing it in person and was not disappointed with the experience. In the article I was very pleased by the attention to detail that you gave regarding the discoveries. The game as you mentioned seemed to be an outing that all could enjoy: men, women and children. I was curious as to the proposed human sacrifice that might have existed in regards to the event, and would have probably enjoyed a little more attention to that area of research. I enjoyed how you mentioned that the rules are not specifically known instead of trying to make something up. Ultimately a great article and I wish you the best of luck on the finals

  5. Josh Schnell

    I have conducted a lot of research into the Maya ballgame, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. When considering the Maya ballgame, it is important to make a distinction between the ballgame during the Classic period and how it was played going into the Postclassic period. He exact origins of the ballgame are uncertain, but it must have originated sometime before 1400 BC, the date f the oldest known ballcourt at Paso de la Amada, an Olmec site in Chiapas, Mexico. In the Maya region, ballcourtss were I-shaped, with sloping walls along the playing alley during the Classic period. By the Postclassic period, these walls became vertical, scholars have made estimates that teams consisted of anywhere from 2-5 players, 2 being typical representations on vessels. Players wore head protection called pix’om, hip protectors made of deer (and sometimes jaguar) skin called tz’um, and pads worn on the knees and elbows called kipachq’ab’. The ball was usually hit with the waist, around which a yoke was worn, but the head, elbows, and knees could be used as well (just not the hands). During the classic period, the ball could weigh as much as 8 pounds and get up to the size of a watermelon.

    The rules are uncertain, but the objective appeared to be to keep the ball in play by hitting it, moving it back and forth between the two teams, each defending their end zone. Points were most likely awarded to a team if the opposing team failed to properly strike the ball, or if the ball landed in the opposing teams end zone. During the Postclassic period, the ball became smaller, the rules were probably similar but we see stone hoops appearing in the center of the now vertical walls along the playing alley. Much of what we know about the game during the Postclassic comes from the eyewitness account of the Spanish bishop, Diego de Landa, in his writings he said that if a team managed to get the ball through the stone hoop, that team would instantly win the game.

    Actually playing the game “engaged one in the maintenance of the cosmic order of the universe and the ritual regeneration of life.” It was often seen to symbolize the battle between the gods in the Heavens, and those in Xibalba, the underworld. It reenacted the original confrontation between the Hero Twins and the Lords of Xibalba. The ballcourt essentially became a luminal place of transition, a boundary between life and death, with the winners emerging symbolically as the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh.

    By the Late Classic and into the Postclassic, as endemic warfare amongst kingdoms increased, we see the ballgame being used for a different purpose. Human sacrifice becomes increasingly linked with the ballgame as well. During warfare, captured warriors were forced to play the game against the victors (their captors), and were preordained to lose, Following the game (a reenactment of one city-state overcoming another itself), the captives were usually sacrificed, often by decapitation. The greatest victory would have been the capture of an enemy leader or noble, he would have been stripped of his elite status, subject to cruelties, and ultimately forced to play the game resulting in his sacrifice. A carving of a skull-rack (a tradition imported from central mexico) at Chichen Itza by the ballcourt attests to the public display and captured enemies after sacrifice during a ballgame.

    I apologize for the lengthy response, but I figured I could shed light on some of the questions you had, if you really like to learn more about the ballgame, I have a paper I wrote on the topic that you are more than welcome to read!

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