Sporting events are not immediately associated with religion or politics, but the ancient ball game played across Mesoamerica changes this notion. My paper analyzes the various ways different cultures of Mesoamerica morphed the ball game to suit their needs: socially, politically and spiritually. For Mesoamericans, this ball game was tethered to the cosmos above, ultimately playing a hand in life and death. I use references made in the Mayan council book, “Popol Vuh”, to illustrate the religious aspects of the ball game and its impact on daily life. The ballcourts of Mesoamerica brought both entertainment and power to its players and believers.
Sports have long held symbolic importance to the cultures that practice them, both as past times and in honoring ancestors. The ancient ball game symbolized more than just a past time for the people of Mesoamerica the games’ dynamics, its courts and players were representative of the cosmos above and what was owed to their god(s). The game itself holds ritualistic aspects and hides behind a veil of mystery. A game that was played across Mesoamerica and by the various great civilizations in the area, gives us an understanding of the complexities of advanced societies and the evolution of socio-political societies. Various Mesoamerican cultures played and created variations of the ball game, which allowed for the ancient ball game to become a part of everyday life as well as being able to hold a sacred status. Each variation of the game held its own uniqueness in the symbolism and the cultural connection it carries. From its’ inception by either the Olmecs or Taínos to its presence in Mexico today, the ball game held the future and survival of society on its courts. Misunderstanding and ignorance ultimately destroyed the popularity and open practice of the game at the hands of the Spanish in Mesoamerica. Though aside from their efforts to subdue the sport the game, lives on today in certain regions. The importance that the ball game held to Mesoamerican cultures is easily analogous to the importance that religion or spirituality and associated rituals hold today.
The Mesoamerican Ball game is one of the oldest team sports in the world, but very little is known about the specifics of the game. The first ball court is said to be dated at about 1300 BC and resides in San Lorenzo, present-day Veracruz. From pre-Colombian Central America to before the Spanish conquest, the organizational ancient ball game has been played for generations. A version of the ball game played by the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs has its roots in the islands of the Caribbean. Batey, a Caribbean form of the ball game that used a rubber ball was already being played by the indigenous Arawak members, Taíno. While an earlier form of the game existed, it was the Olmecs, the “mother” civilization of Mesoamerica, that is credited with the invention of the ball game (Standish,2006:8).
To begin, there is a veil of mystery that surrounds this ancient ball game, historical findings conclude that the game existed, was played among several civilizations quite a few miles away and yet there is very little known about the dynamics of the game. Figurines posing with round “balls” in their hands, wearing what looks like protective gear and stone yokes found in Veracruz point to the game’s presence (Miller,1989:25). Yokes, named by the Spanish, are waist belts designed to protect the body from the strain of the ten-pound ball used in play. The yokes which were U-shaped could be customized both functionally and aesthetically. The assumed function was to add weight to a player, so greater force could be used to propel the ball (Arapi,2009:2). Insignia on the stone belts could be to ask for support from the gods during the match, or possibly to add a personal touch to distinguish the yokes from others. Considering the vital connection between the ball game and religious rituals performed, the stone carvings likely serve the purpose of honoring a specific deity during the game. Two teams played against each other on a rectangular court that varied in sizes, using only the body and legs. It is speculated that the purpose of the game is to make the ball, usually made from latex rubber, into the stone vertical goal ring without using the hands or arms to assist (Neiburger,2015:74). It would have taken tremendous ability and determination to be a skilled ballplayer, ballplayers could have been considered to have special abilities that differentiated them from commoners.
A 1,000 years before the Ancient Greeks held the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, the Olmecs were using the local latex bearing trees of the Mesoamerican lowlands along the Gulf coast to produce rubber. There is little known about what the Olmecs called the game but the name, “Olmecs” was given by the Aztecs, in Nahuatl, it translates to “rubber people”. Balls in Europe were still being made of leather, stuffed with hair, fur, and various materials, were much heavier and did not possess the fluidity of Mesoamerican game balls. While weighing around 10 pounds, rubber balls used in Mesoamerican had more bounce, could be moved quicker than traditional balls. It is assumed the rules for the ball game differed for each culture, because of the Olmec trading routes that lead them to Western Mexico and on to Central America, it is possible the rubber ball and the game were passed by the Olmecs to others. Olmecs had established vast trading routes, Chalchuapa, for example, is 525 miles from the Olmec heartland in San Lorenzo.
"A game that was played across Mesoamerica and by the various great civilizations in the area, gives us an understanding of the complexities of advanced societies and the evolution of socio-political societies."
Additionally, figurines from modern-day Oaxaca, Mexico provides evidence of Olmec cultural influence as the Olmecs had a trading route established in Oaxaca (Blomster, 2012: 8023). From archeological findings like ceramics and stone carvings, we can assume how the Olmecs played their version of the ball game, by using their hips and butts; it is different than how the Arawak peoples of the Caribbean had been playing. Giant Olmec stone heads, which usually have a helmet-like garment on, could indicate that protective headgear was used possibly meaning that moving the ball with one’s head was allowed. Besides building the first complex structures, inventing the first writing system, and maintaining vast networks of trading routes, the Olmecs also influenced a team sport. Trading routes created by the Olmecs may have been the key to the influence that led to the many variations of the ball game played in and to areas surrounding Mesoamerica.
Before the disruption of Mesoamerican life by the Spanish conquest, the Olmecs, Mayans, Zapotecs, and Aztecs, as well as other cultures, participated in some form of the ball game. Its’ existence is displayed in artwork, carvings, archaeological findings and in present-day sports. The Mayans, a civilization that expanded over parts of present-day: Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras also played the ball game in a similar fashion as the Olmecs. Pok-A-Tok, an ancient ball game is a major component in the Popol Vuh, “the council book” of the Mayans, that tells of the Mayan creation myth, of the Quiché people. After the tale of how maize beings were created by the gods of the sky and sea, the Popol Vuh uses metaphors to perform the story about the hero twins, Hunapu and Xibalanque, of their trials to defeat the Lords of Xibalba in the Ancient ball game. The ball game holds special meaning for the two twins as their father and uncle are killed playing in Xibalba, the underworld of the Popol Vuh.
There is also value in being able to play the ancient ball game if one is a ballplayer it is assumed, they possess special powers, as implied in the Popol Vuh. The twins risk their lives to play in Xibalba after being summoned by the Xibalba Lords. The twins outsmart the trials and defeat the Lords of Xibalba at their own game. In the end, the Hero Twins ascend into the sky as the sun and moon while the 400 Hundred boys (who are murdered in the Popol Vuh) accompany them in the sky as stars. In the Popol Vuh, symbolically the ball court represents a portal to the underworld land of death, Xibalba. The game demonstrates the duality of life and death in conjunction with the rising and setting of the moon or sun. The ceremony of a game match parallels the Mayans recreating the Hero Twins match with the Xibalba Lords, playing for their survival. The true meaning and relation between Mayan sacrifice and the ball game are still unclear as well as who was selected for sacrifice and the specific way the sacrifices were conducted. Sacrifices could potentially act as offerings to satisfy the gods, for which the gods would bless them with health, victory in warfare, and fertility of the land. “A carved stone panel artifact discovered in Chichén Itzá depicts a kneeling ballplayer decapitated; serpents and vegetation sprout from his neck, underlining the regenerative nourishing power of sacrificial blood” (Earley,2017:1).
While the motivations of the Mayans regarding sacrifices are unknown, evidence like the findings at Chichén Itzá and in El Tajín, provide an explanation for sacrifice in other cultures. For the Mayan civilization, the significance of the ball game is contributed to the role the game plays in the Popol Vuh, a parallel is attending confession for salvation and forgiveness, the Mayans potentially used the ball game for redemption from the gods in the sky and the sea. Likewise, carved into another stone panel is a person bring sacrificed on a ballcourt, this panel discovered in Veracruz, is home to an astonishing amount of ball game courts, and carvings. Seventeen different ballcourts were found within the site, rare with exceptions to a few sites; Chichén Itzá and in Puerto Rico- the Antilles also have a vast number of courts in their regions. Based on Friar Juan de Torquemada’s observations, “each ballcourt was at the same time a temple dedicated to a god” (Zeitlin,1993:94). A potential part of daily life in El Tajín could have looked like paying respects to the ballcourts or having a celebration when a game match is occurring, just as other religions have members attend masses and other rituals.
The game could also have been extracurricular in nature, like modern sports and their importance in culture, playing a match could have been a way to pass time and socialize. The inhabitants of El Tajin, Veracruz, used the ball game as an essential part of the cultures’ routine, just as important as the Popol Vuh is to the Mayans.
In the Caribbean Sea, the indigenous community of Taínos resides on the islands of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and parts of Cuba. The Taínos inhabited the Greater Antilles, from AD 1200-1500, a great deal of knowledge of the Taino people comes from Spanish accounts. Like the Mayans and Olmecs, the Taíno culture played a ball game on a court known as Batey, which was different from other ballcourts. According to the account of Bartolomé de las Casas, his observation of how the Mayans may have played, errors (faltas) in the game occurred when the ball touched the floor or went beyond the length of the court. His observation of the Taino peoples provides an explanation as to why the hands were not used during the game, the balls used had a tremendous amount of bounce and if the hand were used, either open or closed, after hitting the ball a few times would cause the hands to split open or break bones. His account also introduces how indigenous women participated in the games; they played using their knees to move the ball instead. Batey played by the Taíno peoples is a simpler version of Pok-A-Tok, but there are no accounts of whether a goal ring was used or not as a part of scoring.
"After the tale of how maize beings were created by the gods of the sky and sea, the Popol Vuh uses metaphors to perform the story about the hero twins, Hunapu and Xibalanque, of their trials to defeat the Lords of Xibalba in the Ancient ball game."
Similarly, to those found in Veracruz, Yoke artifacts also appear in the Antilles, most collected inland (Alegria,1951:348-349). The similarities between Batey and Pok-A-Tok point to a common origin or influence of both ball games, they utilized a rectangular ballcourt, as well as both regions, contained stone yokes and figurines that had protective waist belts. Any religious or rituals connected to the ball game are not confirmed, but the Taínos could have had abstract connections to the game that are not yet clear. While the territory of the Taínos of Antilles lies about 1,000 miles away from the Yoke artifacts of Veracruz, the ball games’ existence is evident on the islands. The origin of the game and its dynamics could be argued, the Olmecs are considered the creators of the ball game, but it could be the Taíno, indigenous of the Antilles who are its true creators.
In many ways, the Aztecs are considered to have perfected the ball game, similarities and differences between how this civilization played against the rest of Mesoamerica, is evident by the importance of politics and entertainment the ball game provided. The Aztec empire at the turn of the 14th century to the late 16th century played tlachtli or ulama (both names have been associated with the ball game), which was similarly played on a long rectangular court that was enclosed with a 7-12 foot stone wall with two stone hoops that hung on the sides that divided the middle of the court. Aztec players wore gloves and garments similar to yokes, with the option to play alone or with three team players, unlike the Mayans, only the knees and buttocks could be used. The bounce of the ball captivated the attention of the Spanish, later they attributed its’ high bounce and power to the possession of evil spirits in the ball (Leyenaar, 1995:117). Spaniards were fascinated at the skill of the ballplayers, Hernán Cortés even brought back a team of ballplayers to display in Europe as one of the World’s Wonders (Miller,1989:22).
While Europeans would be intrigued by the artistry and abilities of the players, the intrigue of the Spanish ends, it determines that the ball game went against Christianity which leads to the disbandment of the ball game. Indigenous ingenuity was beyond what the Spanish could comprehend, so it was ignorantly deemed evil. Before the Spanish infiltrated Aztec lands, the ball game also dually functioned as an influence of politics and entertainment. Drums, whistles and rubber balls found at the Teotlacho ballcourt allude to the themes of celebration or ritual with the ball game which could be associated with the deity Xochipilli Macuilxochitl, the patron of music, dance and the ball game (Canuto,2003:105-107). Much like the inhabitants of El Tajín who are believed to use the ballcourts as both a court and a temple to worship different gods, the Aztec’s potentially could have operated their ballgames in a manner that paid homage to their specific deities. Politics is thought to have played a role in the importance of the game, believed to have started out as a commoner’s game that turned the heads of political figures, who used it to gain political needs.
Playing a ball game match to determine ownership of territory would alleviate the need for costly warfare (Scarborough, Wilcox,1993:16-18). Aztecs practice human sacrifice like other cultures but to the extent, they used it, surpasses other cultures’ connection to sacrifices and the ball game. Victims were both honored in life and in death, both prisoners of war and members of Aztec society were sacrificed, specifically how they were chosen is unclear. It is because of the Aztec’s creation myth that the need for sacrifice, as repayment of blood to their deities. The blood that the gods gave in order to bring about human beings created a cycle of a blood debt, for which the Aztecs had to pay in order to maintain the prosperity of their society (Pennock,2012:284-286). Similar to the assumed reasoning behind Mayan sacrifice, the ballgame acted as a religious service, where one could pray and honor their god(s) while providing offerings for luck and blessed life. The final importance that differs within Aztec society is the relation between the ball game and gambling. Xochipilli Macuilxochitl, the god of games, was also believed to be worshiped by those who gambled and bet on various games played. An image from the 16th century shows Macuilxochitl with four individuals who are playing a board game, it is possible the gamblers prayed to this deity for luck in their ventures.
"Indigenous ingenuity was beyond what the Spanish could comprehend, so it was ignorantly deemed evil."
There are few accounts of those, possibly addicted to gambling, who would sell their belongings and homes, one instance claims children may have been sold, to bet on game matches (Voorhies, 2012:49-50). The Aztec empire kept the heart of the ball game but added variation to make it their own, different gear used, importance on sacrifice and the ritualistic side of the ball game and the overall skill of players is what differentiates the Aztecs with other ball game playing Mesoamerican cultures.
Lastly, the importance of the Mesoamerica ball game to today is to keep alive ancient traditions and understanding the importance that a sport held within religion and daily life for Ancient Mesoamericans. Today, Ulama, a version of the ball game is being played in Mexico. Variations of the game are played in different parts, arm-ulama is especially popular in northern Sinaloa (Leyenaar,1992:45-47). The modern-day versions of tlachtli, now referred to as ulama, is played without the use of the stone walls that characterize ancient ball courts. While the ball game is played less frequently, the individuals that continue playing can extend the life of an ancient game played at its’ height hundreds of years ago.
In conclusion, through different periods of time and locations, the ball game has taken on many facets; religious rituals, entertainment, political motives, and athletic achievement are just some of the important aspects of the ball game. Simple to complex societies all played their own versions of the ball game that suited their cultural needs, like the Taínos who are believed to have played for entertainment or the Aztecs who depended on the game for their survival. While the game was overlooked by the Spanish, Mesoamerican societies relied on the game for certain political decisions and to honor their deities, it played a major role in both social and political life. The complexity behind the ancient ball game still eludes the mind today, specifics of the game are still unclear, what is clear is of the ball game’s existence, whether as a ritual or as entertainment, the ball game was a vital part to Mesoamerican societies, just as sports have a surmountable influence nearly 498 years later.