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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Mesoamerican ballgame — a high-stakes ceremonial sport with cosmic significance

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The Mesoamerican ballgame was a ritual sport played by the Prehispanic peoples of Mesoamerica for over 3,000 years.

A man wearing a feathered headpiece depicting the rain god Chaac and a Maya priest bless the field of play during a representation of the Mesoamerican Ball Game in Mérida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But to call it Mesoamerican is a bit of a misnomer. This ceremonial sport is believed to have been practiced as far north as the southern United States and Costa Rica in Central America. 

Mesoamerica is a region and cultural area that begins in the southern part of North America and extends to most of Central America, thus comprising central and southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and perhaps even parts of Nicaragua. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

There is even speculation that the Prehispanic game known as Batú in Puerto Rico and a handful of other Caribbean islands may be a form of the Mesoamerican ballgame imported to the region by the Maya. But this is mere speculation. 

The main ballcourt in the great Zapotec capital of Monte Albán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

From time to time, ritual sacrifice was a component of the ceremony, with war captives being the most common victims. Yet, there is little consensus regarding the exact nature of ritual sacrifice or how often it took place.

Ah Puch, the skeletal lord of the underworld, also known as Kizin, often appears on carvings and stucco reliefs related to the Mesoamerican ballgame. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Part of this confusion comes from the fact that Mesoamerica is a vast region covering five nations, and as we have already mentioned, variations of the ballgame can be found well outside its borders.

One of several ballcourts in the ancient city of Yaxha, in what today is Guatemala. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Aside from the extent of the geographical area, it’s also essential to remember that traditions evolve. This means that the practice of early forms of this ritual/game had very different features and belief systems associated with them across other times and places. 

Ballcourt in Uxmal with the Governor’s Palace in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But enough about what we do not know, and on to the facts, such as they are. 

The Mesoamerican ballgame is thought to be full of symbolism and religious meaning. Notions of duality, life and death, and cosmic symbolism are currently cited as essential aspects of the ceremony. Still, as no first-hand ancient description survives, it is impossible to know. 

Reconstruction of a Mesoamerican ballgame in Oaxaca. Courtesy: INAH

The ballgame goes by several different names depending on the region, with the Maya of the Yucatán referring to it as pok ta pok, while in central Mexico, it is known as tlachtli, and ulama in Sinaloa. 

A sculpture of an Ulama player in Sinaloa. Photo: Courtesy

Mesoamerican ballcourts vary significantly in their configuration, with no standard design or size. The origins of the games stretch back as far as the 16th century BCE in tropical regions such as the Yucatán and Chiapas. 

Some of the oldest surviving ballcourts include examples in southern Chiapas and within the city limits of Mérida, Yucatán. 

Aerial shot of the Xanila ballcourt in Ciudad Caucel, Mérida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Despite what many people believe, not all Mesoamerican ballcourts were equipped with rings through which the ball would pass. Rather, they had simple stone markers. 

The most famous stone marker ballcourts are in the great Maya city of Copan, where macaw heads serve this purpose. 

The city of Copan is fascinating for many reasons, and its magnificent ballcourt is just one among them. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though it is difficult to say, the rings of the Mesoamerican ballgame seem to be a Toltec innovation, which then spread throughout Mesoamerica.

A closeup of a macaw stone marker and a more ubiquitous ring-shaped maker from Chichén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One of the few consistent elements of the game appears to be the rubber ball that is employed. Weighing roughly nine pounds, the object of the ceremony was to hit the mark or get it through the hoop to score a point.

Different cultures had different rules about accomplishing this feat, but in most cases, using hands was forbidden. As a result, the players who had the ball needed to gain momentum to bounce it and then control it with hips, elbows, and knees. 

A participant in skeletal makeup during a reenactment of the Maya version of the Mesoamerican ballgame known as pok ta pok in Mérida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Grand Ballcourt complex in Chichén Itzá is not just the largest of Chichén Itzá’s 13 known ballcourts but the largest and best-preserved in all of Mesoamerica. The ballcourt is delineated by two 95-meter-long parallel platforms flanking the main playing area.

A view of the Grand Ballcourt complex from atop the pyramid of Kukulcán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Aside from its impressive size, Chichén Itzá’s Grand Ballcourt is also essential for its frescoes depicting a human sacrifice, supposedly after the conclusion of a match.

A carved stone panel shows a decapitated man on one knee, with blood pouring from his neck in the form of serpents. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Much has been written about the sacrificial element in this game. Some have speculated that the captain of the winning team was honorably sacrificed, while others argue that this grisly outcome was afforded to the loser. 

Some speculation is that the heads of the sacrificed captain would be placed atop the city’s tzompantli or skull platform.

Tzompantlis appears in the Maya world at sites with Toltec influence and thus are not considered Maya per se. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Participants in the sport are represented in stone carvings as being dressed in highly elaborate ceremonial garb, though whether this was just for show remains a mystery.

A stone relief of the Mesoamerican ball court game being played by two lords at Toniná. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But there is good reason to believe that when it came to the Mesoamerican ballgame, the stakes were not always life and death. Some scholars argue that even children may have participated in the game for recreation.

In the case of the Aztecs, it is widely believed that the Mesoamerican ballgame was a proxy for warfare, similar to the so-called flower wars fought between the Triple Alliance and its enemies, including the Tlaxcalteca

In Teotihuacan, ballcourts likely did not survive, but a handful of depictions referring to the ceremony can be found at the site. 

It is rather odd that no ballcourts have been found in Teotihuacan, though as many structures at the site have been destroyed through the centuries, it’s conceivable that these were among them. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In recent decades, the Mesoamerican ballgame has become a tourist spectacle across much of México, with exhibitions staged at theme parks like Xcaret and notably in Mérida on Wednesdays across from the city’s cathedral.

Participants taking part in the reenactment wear loincloths, headdresses, conch jewelry, body paints, and little else. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

There is also a league where teams from across Mesoamerica compete in a championship yearly, with Belize dominating the tournament for the past several years.

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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