Games in Xibalba

The ancient Maya ballgame

British Museum

The quote in the video is from the Popol Vuh (an 18th century document recounting the mythology and history of the K'iche' Maya people), which contains the story about hero twins who play a ballgame with the Gods of Death in the underworld and after many trials eventually defeat them. The Popol Vuh is one of the key sources that help us to understand the ancient Maya ballgame.

Popol Vuh, 2019, From the collection of: British Museum

Otherwise, what we know about the ballgame comes from ballcourts, present at many Maya sites...

...as well as from the ballgame-related artifacts such as balls and protective gear, and from ancient Maya texts and imagery.

Ancient Maya ballgame by GMP teamBritish Museum

Pits: the ballgame

The Ancient Maya ballgame (pits in Maya), which has its roots in the wider Mesoamerican tradition, is a game or a sport which has been played in many different forms all across Mesoamerica since the early 15th century BCE. until today. In pre-Columbian times it was not just a game but it had a much deeper ritual meaning, playing an important part in Classic Maya religion.

Ballplayer Figure in Costume, From the collection of: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Ballcourts

The game was played on a ballcourt, which often had the shape of an upper-case letter I.

It is formed by a narrow aisle, usually flanked on each side by a rectangular building with slanted side-walls. These were probably used to bounce the ball off them. Sometimes there is an end-zone at each extreme of the aisle.

Ballcourt at Palenque by GMP teamBritish Museum

This small greenstone model of a ballcourt shows the usual shape.

Miniature BallcourtThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The ballcourts vary in size, from very small to very large ones. The largest known ballcourt is at Chichen Itza, with a size of 96.5 x 30 meters.

Ballcourt at Chichen Itza by GMP teamBritish Museum

Equipment

The balls were made of rubber (or caoutchouc) harvested from local rubber-bearing trees. Such balls could be dense and heavy (from 10 to 30 cm in diameter and weighing from 500 g to 3.5 kg), so the players would be wearing protective gear and padding.

The players wore knee-pads and leather belts around their waist called “yokes”.

Ballgame scene at Yaxchilan by GMP teamBritish Museum

Although the yokes themselves did not survive there are examples of yoke moulds such as this one made of greenstone.

The yokes would be necessary, as the ballplayers would be required to hit the heavy ball with their body, especially the hips, since the use of hands and feet was not allowed.

Ceremonial ballgame beltBritish Museum

Different place, different rules

The rules of the Maya ballgame are not well-known and they very likely varied over time.

The scenes depicted on monuments or vases show teams of two or more players.

Ballgame scene at ToninaBritish Museum

The main goal was to keep the ball moving between them (a bit like volleyball, but by using mostly your hips rather than hands).

Ball Court ModelLos Angeles County Museum of Art

At some ballcourts, rings are attached high on the wall and it has been suggested that in the Postclassic variation of the game (c. 1000-1500 CE) the players were required to pass the ball through the ring.

Ring at ballcourt at Chichen ItzaBritish Museum

However, these stone rings have not been found at all ancient Maya sites, so the scoring rules might have varied as well.

Photograph of Chichén Itzá taken by A.P. Maudslay by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

More than a (ball)game

The ballgame was more than just a sport or entertainment for the ancient Maya. They might have seen the ballgame as the re-enactment of the battle between life and death (as told by the story of the Hero Twins who play the ballgame with the Gods of Death in the underworld and eventually defeat them). It was also probably related to ideas of agricultural fertility.

Vessel Depicting the Hero Twins and the Lords of Death, From the collection of: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

They might have also seen the ballgame as the battle between day and night, where the movement of the ball represents the passing of the sun through the underworld before it is rising again the next morning.

The ballgame is also often linked with 'human sacrifice', decapitation in particular. The evidence is based mainly on the story of the Hero Twins and on scenes on carved panels, such as this one from Chichen Itza.

The Chichen Itza panel is showing one ballplayer being decapitated, while the other one is holding up his head.

However, the nature of the association between the ballgame and sacrifice is still unclear. Were the winners or the losers killed? Were the victims in fact war captives, forced to play and then killed?

Ballgame panel at Chichen Itza ballcourt by GMP teamBritish Museum

The ballgame was still played in Mesoamerica at the time of the arrival of Spanish in the New World. After the conquest in the 16th century, Hernán Cortés sent a group of Aztec ballplayers to Spain to perform the game (ōllamalitzli in Nahuatl) for the court of Charles V.

Aztec ?llamalitzli players by Christoph WeiditzBritish Museum

Continuing tradition

The ballgame is still played today and gaining in popularity. In 2017, the World Maya ballgame championship was held in Teotihuacan, Mexico, with teams from Mexico, Guatemala and Belize participating in the tournament.

Street art portraying Maya ballgame by GMP teamBritish Museum

The ballgame is sometimes also played during Maya celebrations such as this summer solstice festival at the ancient Maya site of Uaxactun in Guatemala.

Modern reconstruction of Maya ballgame at Uaxactun by GMP teamBritish Museum

Ritual before the ballgame by GMP teamBritish Museum

Ritual before the ballgame by GMP teamBritish Museum

Credits: Story

All images ©Trustees of the British Museum, unlike otherwise marked.

Text and image selection: Eva Jobbová, Senior Research Fellow: British Museum Google Maya Project 
Thanks to: Jago Cooper, Claudia Zehrt, Ana Somohano Eres and other British Museum Maya Project collaborators .

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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