World of the Mayans: A Brief History of the Mayan Ballgame

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Mayan ballgame, or Pok-ta-tok, was a popular game in Mesoamerica. When was it played, where, its history, rules, origin story, and is it on the rise today? 

When you hear of “ballgame” you probably think of games such as basketball, baseball, tennis, and hey, maybe even golf. What you don’t think of is a rubber ball weighing about nine pounds being thrown around in a large stone court! Right? And here is the kicker – the players aren’t allowed to use their hands or feet to hit the ball. They only use certain parts of their body – in most versions of the game, it’s their hips. Wow!

You may have heard of the Mayan ballgame in the context of human sacrifices during the Mayan period. However, that is an oversimplification and only a part of the story! There is so much more to this extremely fascinating game. 

So how about we move past the pop history bits and really take a deeper look at this game? How did it come about, what is the origin, how and where was it played, what are the rules, and yes, is it on the rise?

Brief Introduction to the Mayan Ballgame

What we know about the game comes from Mayan art, sculptures, glyphs, codices, and of course, Mayan ruins. Archeologists believe that a large rubber ball that weighed, in some cases, up to ten pounds was used to play this game which now we know as ulama. The version of ulama in which the elbows and forearms are used to hit the ball are still played in Sinaloa in Northwest Mexico. In Mexico City today, the hip version of the game is being revived. 

Mexico City, Mexico, November 01 – A group of extras plays the ancient Juego de la Pelota (The Ball Game) in a field rebuilt in the Zocalo square in Mexico City, in the historic center of the city, on the occasion of the Day of the Dead celebrations.

The game consisted of ballplayers, sponsors, priests or ritual specialists, audience, and of course, gamblers. It is believed the game was played much like present-day volleyball or racquetball. Though many versions of the game existed, certain aspects remained the same. It was played by two opposing teams and each team would aim to put the ball into the opponent’s end zone, often through a ring in the wall. The ring was placed about 20 feet above the ground. Wondering how the players got such a heavy ball through this ring? Well, in most cases, they didn’t. In case a player managed to throw the ball through the ring, which was rare, the team was declared the instant winner. Players from either team were not allowed to use their hands or feet to hit the ball. They could use their thighs, hips, or knees. The game was played in a capital “I” shaped ball court. 

The game was violent in the sense that the heavy ball could easily injure players. Players would wear protective gear such as helmets, pads, and yokes around their midsection to protect them from the impact of the ball. Some players would also wear headdresses. 

When and Where was the Mayan Ballgame Played? 

Mayan Ballgame is also known as pok-ta-pok because of the noise produced by the rubber ball when it hits the ground or the players. It was a popular sporting event during the Mayan times throughout Mesoamerica. The sport originated some 3,700 years ago in Southern Mexico and is the oldest known sport in the Americas. The game was extremely popular and widespread – from being played in parts of Central America and South America to the Caribbean and even the present-day states of Arizona and New Mexico in the US. 

If you’ve ever visited the famous Mayan city of Chichen Itza, you would have come across large stone courts where the game was played. There are as many as seventeen ball courts in Chichen Itza with The Great Ball Court being the largest playing field in all of Mesoamerica! With a size of 551 by 230-feet, it is twice the size of a modern American football field! That is absolutely amazing! The two parallel walls are 26-feet high. The ball court is architecturally unique – you may have heard people going on about how this ball court is acoustically perfect. A whispering gallery allows noise to be communicated between temples located 460 feet (or 140 meters) apart!  

Panoramic view of ball game court at Chichen Itza

The Mayan ballgame was not solely a way for the Maya to entertain themselves. It was a sacred game for them. Pok-ta-tok can be traced back to the time of the Olmecs and the Aztecs and was a religious, political, and social activity in most pre-Colombian cultures. It played a key role in Mesoamerican mythology.

What Does Legends Have to Say about the Mayan Ballgame?

Mesoamerican ballgame was not an invention of the Maya. The Maya believed in the existence of a place called Xibalba (“the place of fear” or the underworld) which lay under the ground and sea. Xibalba had nine perilous levels ruled by twelve Gods of death – responsible for disease and affliction. This place for the dead was believed to exist side by side with the place for the living i.e. life here on Earth. To put in simply, Xibalba was the afterlife. It was a place where the spirits of the dead would go.

According to the Classic Maya origin story told in Popol Vuh, famed twins Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué, sons of the slain Maize God, played the game with the lords of the underworld. They beat the gods of the underworld. The lords, obviously, became angry at losing and sacrificed the winners (the “Hero Twins”). The twins were brought back to life by the gods of the sky. They were reborn and emerged from the underworld as the sun and the moon. The ball court became a place of transition – a place between the stages of life and death. The game became an ancestral tradition during the rise of the Mayan civilization. The overcoming of death by the Hero Twins symbolized rebirth, fertility, and  it was seen as the triumph and victory of good over evil. 

The Maya considered the ball court to be a portal to Xibalba. The game was used for warfare, to settle territorial disputes and hereditary issues, and to predict the future. Prisons of war would be forced to pay rigged games that led to their inevitable death. 

Ball court used by the Mayans to play an ancient game Mayan ruins in Coba, Mexico.

So who exactly was sacrificed in the Mayan ballgame?

It is believed that the winning team was the one sacrificed. This is not mere speculation. Pre-Columbian books such as the Codex Borgia and stone friezes on walls in Chichen Itza and El Tajin portray the head of one team’s captain being cut off by the captain of  the other team or by the priest. 

If this really was the case, then it would mean that the teams volunteered to play. If a team won, it would be sacrificed to the gods and a great amount of honor would be bestowed upon the player and their families. On the other hand, one must wonder, what happened to the losers of the Mayan ballgame? Well, they would spend the rest of their years leading a life of shame and perhaps even of slavery. 

Another version of the legend exists in which the winners kill the losers and cut off their heads.  If we go by this version of the story, then it is the losing team that is sacrificed. According to Mayan mythology, the blood from the decapitated head escaped in the form of snakes. It is this scene that is depicted on the walls in Chichen Itza. During the time of the Aztecs, decapitation was a frequent end for the losers. 

Every Game Didn’t Result in Human Sacrifice 

The topic of human sacrifices at the end of the Mayan ballgame is often a hot topic in pop culture and honestly an oversimplification of what went on here. Here is why:

  1. As per Spanish records and the codexes, the Maya and the Aztecs used the ballgame to solve various disputes and wars, to predict the future, and to make decisions regarding politics and rituals. 
  2. Pok-ta-tok was also often played when the Maya were celebrating, feasting, or gambling i.e. rejoicing as a community. 
  3. Not every ballgame resulted in human sacrifice. If that had been the case, the Maya civilization would have quickly destroyed itself. It is, in fact, more likely that human sacrifice took place as the final play in the war ceremony i.e. the victors and losers of the war would play against each other. Inevitably, it was the winning side that won the ballgame, too. The losers would be sacrificed by the winners. 
Close-up of the ring where the ball should go through. Photo from Chichen Itza

The Mayan Ballgame Today

    For over a decade, active attempts have been made to revive the lost tradition of playing the Mayan ballgame. Of course, today no human sacrifices are involved. The game is a fascinating one and the fact that it is making a comeback should definitely be something to celebrate! Many young people, especially in parts of the Yucatán Peninsula, have begun to play the game as a way of honoring their pre-Hispanic identities. 

Safe to say, the Mayan ballgame is not merely a sporting event – it is a way of learning about the Mayan civilization and the truths that shaped the everyday lives of the Maya. Would you like to witness the Mayan ballgame first hand? Well, in that case, we suggest you head over to the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular Show when you’re in Cancún next time! It is hands down the best show on Mexican history and folklore before the arrival of the Spanish. Represented by over 300 performers and artists live on stage, it takes you through the pre-Hispanic era to the time of the Spanish conquest, colonial times, Independence, the Revolution, and finally to present-day Mexico. There is a wonderful segment on the Mayan ballgame that is a must-see! You can purchase your tickets here and if you have any questions, you can also add your comments below. 

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