The Ancient Maya Ball Game
Where the story of creation was repeated and celebrated
Ball Court: Copan, Honduras
Scholars believe that in earlier Maya times, the contest was a ritual that represented the fight of the opposing and forces of the universe—life-death, Sun-Moon, day-night, light-darkness—in order to insure balance, continuity and fertility. Some say it was a metaphor for the movements of heavenly bodies, the ball representing the journey of the Sun god passing in and out of the underworld. Because some courts have stone rings on the walls for the ball to pass through, other say it was about the Earth swallowing the sun where the loosers would be sacrificed as a offering to the Sun god to insure his rebirth the next day.
In 2008 my guide on the right told how the ball game bore a strong relation to the Popol Vuh account of creation. I had my recorder going. The following is an abbreviated version of his account.
The ball game was a ceremony of creation. The Hero Twins, Hun Hunahpu and Xbalanque, danced here and woke up the Lords of the Underworld. The owls came and invited them to go to the Underworld. There, they defeated the bad forces and saved their father who was reborn, apotheosized as Orion in the sky. Hunahpu, Hun Hunapu’s son, was reborn and became the Sun. Xbalanque became Venus. And Xmucane, their grandmother, became the Moon. This is how the Maya universe was created.
The shaman, or specialized dancers of the ball game, were men who prepared their whole lives to fight against the bad forces—storms, earthquakes, epidemics, drought—all of which came from the Underworld. The ball represented the movement of the creators. Everything was alive. The ball bouncing up and down represented sunrise and sunset. And when it hit one of the macaw heads placed in the center and the ends of the risers, it signaled the defeat of the bad forces.
Here, Vucub Kakich, the Principle Bird Deity, was reconstructed atop the ball court riser. The central macaw head is below, a side-on view beneath the open-air corbled vault.
Continuing the story, Hunahpu tried to defeat Vucub Kakich—the vein god who fancied himself more powerful than the Sun—using a blowgun. Repeating that event here in the ball court, the players tried to hit a macaw head with the ball to defeat this great bird. He’s shown in the celestial realm, on the highest level of the court. When the ball hit the floor in the alleyway, it amounted to the Hero Twins knocking on the door of the underworld, a demonstration that they had the courage and power to wake the forces of evil to fight against them. When a king engaged in this enactment of good versus evil it was an opportunity for him to assume the persona of a Hero Twin and defeat death. The ancients didn’t look for winners or losers. They wanted a hero, somebody who had the courage to fight against the forces of evil.
Loosers Were Sacrificed
According to the inscriptions, loosers were decapitated, their heads symbolic of the “sacred sun” ball. At Yaxchilan and possibly other places, the heads of war captives were thrown from the top of a long stairway, emulating the rolling of the ball. This was briefly depicted in Mel Gibson’s 2010 movie, Apocalypto.
Here, elite individuals engage in a ball game ritual. The ball (with a glyph inside) is about to connect with the king’s hip and chest deflectors. The horizontal lines are the ball court steps. Black body paint was often worn by warriors. Here, they are warring against the forces of evil. On the murals at Bonampak, bird headdresses were worn by winners, deer was worn by the losers. (Rollout photo courtesy of Justin Kerr)
It was a badge of honor for royalty to be good ball players. It’s reported that after great battles were waged, prisoners were brought back to the city of the victor where they were starved and dragged onto the ball court for a match. With depleted strength, they lost the game—and their heads—but shedding their blood on the court meant dying with honor. One writer suggests “The highest goal of Classic kings seems to have been to capture the ruler of a rival city in battle, torture and humiliate him (sometimes for years), then, following a ball game decapitate him.
Another says, “To capture an enemy and then let him be defeated in the ball game was to let him die with dignity. Royals became apotheosized—made divine—in this way. And the winner captured the loser’s power (the head was seen as the center of power).”
The Ball Itself
Ol, the Maya word for “rubber” is also the word for “heart” and “motion.” The ball was referred to as cahuchu “weaping wood” because of it was made from the sap of a tree. Inscriptions give the size of the ball, for instance, a circumference of “twelve-handspans” is indicated on a vase from Motul de San Jose in Belize. That meant it could be 12-18 inches in diameter. Spaniards also reported that the balls weighed six to eight pounds. And the juice of Morning Glory vine s were added to give them more bounce.
Later, When It Was Played As A Game
The object was to keep the ball in the air without touching it with the hands. Only shoulders, forearms, hips and knees could contact the ball. A goal was scored when the ball bounced off the wall and hit one of the stone markers—or a macaw head at Copan. If it ever went through a ring mounted on the walls—as at Chichen Itza—the person who did it won automatically. Scoring was based on faults: touching the ball with head or hands or feet; failing to connect with the ball; sending the ball out of the court. After one bounce, the other player got to serve the ball. If it bounced twice the other person scored. The first person to reach thirteen points won.
The Mesoamerican ball game provided a formalized context and ritual wherein the mystery of death and the mythology of creation could be repeated and celebrated with an eye to the future. As a contest between the forces of good and evil, arranged so the good—perceived as the Sun god—would prevail and the world would not end.
Game Played Between Brothers To Determine The Heir To The Throne
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 411)
(In this scene, Fire Eyes Jaguar, the protagonist, surrenders his body to Lord K’in, the Sun god by taking a hallucinogenic drug and dawning the Sun god helmet. His brother, Flint Axe Macaw, does likewise wearing the helmet of Chaak Ek’, god of Venus. The “god” with thirteen skulls (points) on the wall at the end of the game will replace their father as the Lord of Kaminaljuyu. “Dark Sun” is a reference to the ball).
AS HAD BEEN ESTABLISHED IN THE SKY—CHAAK EK’, GOD OF the morning star preceded Lord K’in, the sun god, along the White Flower Way— my brother danced onto the alleyway making quick turns, swinging his invisible axe and pounding the ground with his feet to taunt the lords of the Underworld. I waited for him to make a full circle, then followed behind him. Since Lord K’in was believed to prowl at night as a jaguar, I danced him as Red Paw had in Father’s courtyard the night after my presentation. I strutted, crouched and eyed Chaak Ek’ as if he were my prey.
The veil of brightness over my eyes burned even more because of the hundreds of torches that surrounded us. I poked my fingers through the eyeholes to rub them, but it didn’t remove the veil or ease the burning. Watching my brother dance, I had the feeling that I’d done this before.
Lightning flashed and a thunderclap shook the ground. I’d never heard anything so loud, not even in the House of Obsidian. I and everyone I could see had crouched. Just as suddenly, the light tapping on my helmet turned to pounding rain which quickly seeped into the eye- and mouth-holes. Oddly, the padding in my helmet was colder than the rain on my shoulders. My brother danced as if he welcomed it, running the alleyway like a freed deer, turning and leaping over the markers and darting back and forth to the end zones.
Feeling the power of the cheering, I danced jaguar staring, sprinting and pouncing but missing his prey. There came another bright flash and three breaths later a thunderclap so loud I yelled into my helmet. “Ayaahh! Huracan! First Lightning! Here we are! Do you see?” I crouched and stayed still. “Great Thunderbolt! Is this your doing? I said I would have the head of the Iguana. If Lord Tapir and the Iguana are the cloud of death, I will be the destroyer, the cloud breaker. But enough of this rain! Enough of this dancing. Father wants a ball game. Let us begin.”
Chaak Ek’ took a position on the northern side of the center marker, facing the eastern end zone with his hands on his knees. Facing him ten paces away, I took my stance. Keeper of the Ball went to the eastern marker where he held Dark Sun low, between his knees with both hands. To distract me from the pounding on my helmet, I kept repeating out loud, “Thirteen skulls, thirteen skulls, thirteen…” With my eyes trained on the menacing face of Chaak Ek’, words came into my head that shocked me. “Flint Axe, you are standing in the way of my destiny.” It was then that I knew—Lord K’in had entered my body, taken my place. I would never have had such a thought. Where Fire Eyes Jaguar had gone I did not know.
AS HAD HAPPENED IN THE MAKING OF THE WORLD ON the first day, the game began with the rising of Dark Sun from the east. Ballplayers referred to the opening volley as “Comes the dawning.” Chaak Ek’ got under the ball and deflected it off his hip. It bounced toward me. I turned and connected hard with my hip and the ball went out of his reach. It bounced once and rolled across the alleyway. I let out a yelp when the keeper of the count set a white skull on the northern wall.
As the keeper took his stance at the eastern end zone, the rain let up. He didn’t squat very low this time. The ball fell short. I deflected it off my hip and it went low. After one bounce Chaak Ek’ slid under it and connected on the underside of both wrists. I ran and connected high on my hip protector. The impact sent a sharp pain through my ribs, reminding me of Gourd Scorpion and the injury sustained in the Nine Step court. The ball bounced twice before Chaak Ek’ could get to it, so I gained another skull.
On the next round, the onlookers applauded our keeping the ball in play, back and forth without any misses. I tried to keep it high. Chaak Ek’ kept it low, apparently to take advantage of my injured leg. He made an elbow deflection and when the ball hit the ground it rolled. That put a yellow skull on his wall.
Chaak Ek’ connected with a stylish combination of a lunge and hip deflection. I returned it the same way and the onlookers applauded—even more, when he deflected with his knee and the ball rolled between my legs. Another skull for him.
The keeper squatted and turned his back to us. Chaak Ek’ went back and I stayed close. The ball fell short and I connected with both wrists. Chaak Ek’ got under it and butted the ball with his helmet, sending me running. I wasn’t even close.
Spectators in the end zone behind Chaak Ek’ were all a blur. The ball came to him and he connected with a stylish standing twist. I returned it off my hip. He deflected it back and we closed the gap between us. He turned and did a front deflection. On my return, he jumped back and connected with his knee-protector. I dove but missed.
I scored on the next round. Chaak Ek’ took the following two. He was managing better than me to either send the ball where I wasn’t or to hit it so forcefully I couldn’t get to it in time to connect. He was ahead of me by three skulls, but I was learning fast. By playing closer—which he seemed to want—and trusting the nubs on my sandals, I defeated him twice.
Hoping to slow me down, Chaak Ek’ kept deflecting the ball toward the center where the rain was pooling. I wasn’t slipping, so I played close to the marker and kept him on the sides. On a quick turn, he slipped and fell and the ball ran along the northern platform. When he slipped and missed again, I counted the skulls—Lord K’in seven, Chaak Ek’ six.
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