The Popol Vuh, holy book of the Quiché Maya1, contains a story of a confrontation between good and evil, played out in the form of a ballgame. Throughout pre-Hispanic history, this same ballgame has played an important yet mysterious and debated role in the cultures of Mesoamerica, sometimes taking the form of sacrifice ritual, sometimes a game of chance, always symbolic of a timeless struggle between opposing forces, with an outcome governed by supernatural powers in conjunction with human skill and honour.
The Hero Twins
The story in the Popol Vuh begins with an earthly ballgame which disturbs the lords of Xibalba, the Maya Underworld. The Xibalbans, annoyed by the stomping of the players overhead, challenge them to descend into Xibalba for a game. The two brothers, eldest sons of the original humans and creators, accept the invitation, only to be overcome by the Xibalbans' trickery and the dangers of the underworld. The Xibalbans sacrifice the brothers. One brother's severed head is placed in a calabash tree, and from here he impregnates a Xibalban woman by (how else?) spitting into her hand. The twin sons of this woman, who are usually referred to as the Hero Twins, grow to avenge their father's defeat. After displaying their prowess in the ballcourt, they surrender to the Xibalbans, only to fool them by resurrecting themselves as magical vagabonds, finally tricking the Xibalban lords into being sacrificed themselves, using a ruse much like if a modern magician suddenly decided to actually saw a volunteer in half, with no intention of putting the individual back together. In the process, the twins establish the supremacy of the living world over the underworld. This ballgame story is a vital part of the Mayan creation story, as well as a fable of light conquering darkness and life prevailing over death.
As the Hero Twins story and much archaeological evidence shows, the ballgame is associated with sacrifice as well as a confrontation between opposing supernatural powers. The game was also played in a sporting context, not always as a ritual. The game was played in most cases by males on all levels of society. Figurines of female ballplayers have also been recovered from pre-Hispanic sites, suggesting that, although of particular interest to the elite as a means of acquiring wealth and resolving disputes, the game was open to a wide range of participants. Players could compete one-on-one, as well as in teams of up to 11.
The ballcourt itself generally takes the form of an I-shaped pit, with a playing alley and end zones usually with stone hoops. The courts are almost always found near the ceremonial centres of the sites. Spectators could watch the game from benches along the length of the alley, and the court was usually decorated with carvings depicting gameplay and human sacrifice. The players represented in the carvings were shown outfitted with a wooden yoke about the waist, as well as arm and knee guards. Players also frequently wore palmas which protruded upwards from the yoke. These elongated pieces were chiefly decorative in nature but could conceivably have served as protection for the belly. Some carvings show players wearing helmets similar to those worn by modern day fencers. The gear varied in quality and elaborateness, most likely based on the status of the wearer. Victory and valour in gameplay were often ways for players to advance socially, acquiring the right to finer equipment. There is even evidence of members of the elite acting as patrons to favorite players.
Though more than one form of ballgame was played by Mesoamerican peoples, the ballgame that is usually associated with the traditions described here is called Tlachtli by the Aztecs and Pok-ta-pok by the Maya. The ball used in this game was composed of solid natural rubber harvested from native trees. While it was very heavy, weighing up to ten pounds, it also bounced well and was kept in play by being bounced off players' hips, knees, arms, buttocks, or heads, though playing the ball off one's face was not encouraged, as ten pounds of solid rubber could do considerable damage to an unwary nose. Most surviving examples of Tlachtli balls have been recovered from tombs, as the perishable rubber would not likely be preserved in any other environment.
Evidence suggests that games often ended in a tie, though if either team got the ball through the opponents' hoop, they were immediately declared the winners. It is easy to imagine that players scoring in this manner was rare, considering the rules of the game which do not allow the use of hands. For this reason, such a victory was probably a cause of considerable excitement, particularly when gambling was involved. Most of the time, however, teams scored by bouncing the ball into the end zone, or when the opposing team failed to return the ball after the second bounce. The rules and ceremonial significance of the game varied through time and from region to region, but the basic rules of the game seem to be fairly standard.
Religious and Political Significance
The ballgame's connection with sacrifice, on the other hand, is not so standardized. Though in most Mesoamerican cultures the ballgame is associated with sacrifice, in art as well as in legend, death was not always the inevitable outcome of losing a game. It appears that in some cultures human sacrifices were most often carried out on special occasions, for a number of ceremonial purposes which were often as political in nature as they were religious. The religious aspects of these ceremonies could have served any of a number of functions in Mesoamerican society. The practice of human sacrifice in a pre-Hispanic settlement would serve to unify the community under its ruler, as well as signifying religious devotion in its function of paying homage to the gods, a duty necessary for ensuring prosperity and survival. Since the game symbolizes divine struggle, it is easy to see its esoteric connection with the gods, and the playing of the game could be used in a ceremonial, religious function on holy advents or to commemorate special events within the community. In these cases, as in the legend of the Hero Twins, it is very likely that the loser would be sacrificed, either by decapitation or by the removal of the heart. Further evidence of the ballgame's ties with sacrifice are the decorative carvings found in the courts themselves, which often show sacrifice as a theme. For example, some carvings depict decapitated bodies with entwined snakes emerging from the headless neck as a symbol of blood.
The game also had political significance. Wagering was often an extremely profitable practice for elite members of society. It has been postulated that the game was also a way for rivalling factions or cities to confront each other. In such cases, the sacrifice of the losers probably served as an honorable, non-military way to gain the satisfaction of conquering an enemy without engaging them in a war. In a sense, this was a form of personal combat, perhaps similar to the European practice of fighting gentlemanly duels over matters of honour.
The Ballgame in Art
While much of our information on ballcourts comes from the accounts of European observers, there is a variety of Mesoamerican artifacts that have been used to interpret the significance of the ballgame and its accoutrements. Ceramic figurines recovered from sites serve as models for what a ballplayer might have looked like and the role he might have played, and demonstrate to a certain degree how ballgame gear might have been worn. Relief carvings are often found on surfaces of the ballcourt itself, as well as elsewhere in the site, still depicting scenes of gameplay and often sacrifice. These carvings and sculptures also provide some insight into modes of play, outfitting of players, and the religious concepts associated with the game.