The Hero Twins:
In Maya mythology, the Lords of Death summon twin brothers - Hunahpu and Xbalanke - to the underworld. During the day, the boys must play ball against the Lords of Death and during the night they endure a range of seemingly impossible tests.
One night Hunahpu is decapitated by a bat. The next day the Death Lords use his head as the ball and Hunahpu replaces his missing head with a pumpkin. At some point in the game, the twins switch the ball and pumpkin without the Death Lords noticing. When the Death Lords try to hit the pumpkin it explodes covering them with pumpkin seeds. As pumpkin seeds are symbols of life, the joke is literally on them.
In the end, the brothers defeat the Lords of Death, resurrect their dead father the Maize God and rise as the sun and moon.
Given this mythical context, ballgames were often held as ritual events. Players would descend down between the sloping walls onto the court and symbolically enter the underworld to re-enact the defeat of the Lords of Death.
Mesoamerican ballgame is know by quite a few names. The ancient Maya called it Pitz, in modern Yucatec it is Pok-a-tok and the Aztecs called in Ōllamaliztli. Whatever the name, it was hugely popular across all of Mesoamerica. Just like a football match today, games were a spectacle with fans cheering on their teams, making noise, munching on snacks, placing bets and following every moment of the action. However, unlike our sporting events, the Maya ballgame also had an important spiritual dimension. It was directly connected to the myth of the hero twins and metaphorically represented the struggle between life and death.
The Game of Life & Death
A panted drinking vessel shows ballgame spectators in the bleachers with bark paper headdresses shouting and making a racket with maracas and bone rasps.
Photo by Justin Kerr K5435
Playing the game:
Across the Maya region and in every time period, most ball courts had the same basic design. They had a rectangular playing field 20 to 30 meters long with sloping embankments along either side. At each end, the playing field opened up to give the court the shape of a Roman capital I.
No one knows for sure exactly how the game was played in the classic Maya period. However, for the most common version of the game, we do know that the game was played one on one, or in pairs or groups of equal strength. At the beginning of the game, the ball was thrown into the court by hand but then could only be struck on the hips or thigh. The dangerously heavy balls were made of solid rubber and could weigh anywhere between three and eight kilos. It would be like playing with a very bouncy watermelon. There were also other versions of the game where forearms, rackets, sticks, or hand stones were used to hit the ball.
Friar Diego Duran who wrote a history of the Aztecs writes "It was a highly entertaining game and amusement for the people. Among them there were those who played it with such skill and cunning that in one hour the ball did not stop bouncing from one end to the other, without a miss, [the players] using only their buttocks [and knees], never touching it with the hand, foot, calf, or arm.
The object of the game was not to get the ball through the stone hoops that are sometimes placed in the wall on the sides of ball-courts. Friar Diego Durán quizzed Aztec elders about them. They told him that if the ball were to go through the hoop it would be truly exceptional and the whole game would stop and whoever did it declared the victor. In essence, it wasn't the point of the game, but would be roundly celebrated if it actually did happen. In fact, most Maya ball-courts don't have hoops at all.
A version of the ballgame called Ulama is still played in Mexico today. (The name Ulama comes from the Aztec name for the game which was Ōllamaliztli). Ulama is kind of like tennis without a net, where instead of using a racket you use your hips to hit the ball. Each team is confined to one half of the court. The ball is hit back and forth. Points are scored if a team fails to return the ball, or if it is hit out of bounds. You can see it being played on the right.
This is how the ancient Maya wrote "Pitz". Interestingly, "pitz" can also mean beautiful. So, despite what Pele said about football/soccer, Pitz really was the beautiful game.
The story of the twin brothers is graphically craved on the wall of the great ball-court of Chichen Itza. It shows a kneeling decapitated ballplayer with blood spurting from his neck in the form of snakes. (see right) His skull is also depicted inside a large ball.
Carvings like this have led to a lot of lurid speculation about wether the winners, or losers were sacrificed after the game. While some ballgames most certainly involved human sacrifice, most did not. A number of painted vessels commemorate games played between friendly kingdoms. In these cases, as in many instances when the ballgame was played, none of the players would have been sacrificed.
A recreated ball-court at Xcaret, Yucatan
Playing the modern game in Sinaloa, Mexico
Drinking vessel celebrating the
ballgame between the kings of
El Pajaral and Motul de San Jose.
Ballgame Resources for Teachers:
Hero Twins / Myths
How do we know all this?
Excavations of Maya sites have found ball-courts in almost every Maya city. Moreover, depictions of the game and its players have been frequently found on carved stone panels, painted pots and even in 3D clay models (see right). These archaeological finds show us what the players looked like and the composition of the teams. Sometimes the associated inscriptions tell us who the players were, when they played, what the occasion was and even the size of the ball used. Unfortunately they don't tell us how the game was actually played.
The story of the Hero Twins who play ball against the Maya Lords of Death is told in the Popul Vuh (the Quiché Maya sacred book). It was first written down in Quiché Maya using our alphabet from oral accounts somewhere between 1554-58. It was later copied and translated into Spanish in 1701. This copy still exists.
At the time of the Spanish conquest the game was still being played across Central America. The Spaniards were intrigued with the game and several (including Friar Diego Duran mentioned above) wrote descriptions of the Aztec version of the game. Cortez even sent a troop of ball players to Spain to give the Spanish court of Charles V an exhibition of this exciting game in action.
The ballgame in the Jaguar Stones series
Clay ball-court model showing a game in action surrounded by spectators. Note the relative size of the ball and the lack of ball-court rings.
Mexico, Nayarit, 200 B.C. - A.D. 500
photo courtesy of Lacma.org
When Max & Lola find themselves at the ball-court in the City of Itzamana in Jaguar Stones Book One: Middleworld, Hermanjilio briefly explains the rules of the game and the role of human sacrifice associated with the game. He tells them what archaeologists thought at the time we wrote the book, however we now know that what he said was wrong. One of the exciting things about studying the Maya is that there are new discoveries every year. This means that Mayanists are constantly revising their thinking as new evidence comes in. The Maya ballgame is no exception.
We had a chance to update the rules of the ballgame in Jaguar Stones Book Three: The River of No Return. As the Death Lords view Max & Lola as the modern representation of the Hero Twins it was inevitable that they would challenge the two to a ballgame. In book three, there is a nail-biting match that takes place at a stange underground hotel run by the Lords of Death. This game follows the tradition rules of the game, though as far as the cheating Lords of Death are concerned, following the rules is optional. Things don't end well for anyone.
Max and Lola get a chance for a rematch in Jaguar Stones Book Four: The Lost City. This game takes place on the Day of the Dead at Fenway Park - the hallowed grounds of the Boston Red Sox. It's like a game you've never seen before, and of course, the Death Lords still cheat.
Classic "I" shaped ball-court - Mixtec Codex Colombino.
Illustration from Jaguar Stones Book Four: The Lost City
the Powerpoint presentation of this page