The Hero Twins:
In Maya mythology, the Lords of Death summon twin brothers Xbalanke (shh ball on kay) and Hunahpu (hoo naw poo) to the underworld. By day, the boys must play ball against the Lords of Death, and by 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 secretly exchange the head-being-used-as-a-ball for a pumpkin. When the Death Lords try to hit the pumpkin (which they think is Hunahpu’s head) 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, find the skull of their dead father buried in the ball court and resurrect him as the Maize God. This resurrection metaphorically reenacts the process of how seemingly dead corn kernels come to life and sprout new plants. Their work done, the Hero Twins rise into the sky 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.
Since 1400 BCE, some say even earlier, a team sport using a bouncy rubber ball was played in Mesoamerica. Not surprisingly, it originated in the rainforests of the tropical lowlands where the rubber trees grow. This game had many names. The ancient Maya called it Pitz, the Aztecs called it Ōllamaliztli, and in English it is often called Pok-a-tok or Pok-ta-pok. Whatever the name, it was hugely popular across all of ancient Mesoamerica. Just like sporting events today, games were a noisy spectacle with fans cheering on their teams, eating snacks, placing bets, jeering at their opponents and getting loud with maracas, bone rasps and conch shell trumpets. However, unlike modern fixtures, 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
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 an upper case letter 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 by 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.”
There is a misconception that the object of the game was to hit the ball through the stone hoops that can sometimes be seen in the sidewalls of ballcourts. These are believed to be score markers. When 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. So, in essence, it wasn't the point of the game, but would be roundly celebrated on the rare occasions it did happen. In fact, most Maya ballcourts 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, Ōllamaliztli). Ulama is a bit like tennis, but with no net and no rackets. Each team is confined to their own half of the court, and players using their hips to hit the ball 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 a video of it being played on the right.
This is how the ancient Maya wrote "Pitz". Interestingly, "pitz" can also mean beautiful. So, despite what football (soccer) legend Pelé said, Pitz was the original beautiful game.
The story of the twin brothers is graphically carved on the wall of the great ballcourt 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 whether one side - winners or losers? - was 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, 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.
Lesson plans and activities to download
How do we know this?
Excavations of Maya sites have found ball-courts in almost every ancient Maya city. Moreover, depictions of the game and its players have been frequently found carved on stone panels, painted on pots and even modeled in clay dioramas (see right). These archaeological finds show us what the players looked like, the composition of the teams and the keen interest of the spectators. 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 never 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 K’iche’ Maya sacred book). It was first written down in K’iche’ Maya (using our alphabet) from oral accounts, somewhere between 1554-58. It was later copied and translated into Spanish in 1701. This translated copy still exists.
At the time of the Spanish conquest the game was still being played across Central America. The Spaniards were intrigued by the game and several authors (including Friar Diego Duran mentioned above) wrote descriptions of the Aztec version of the game. Cortez even sent a troop of ballplayers to Spain to give the 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
In Jaguar Stones ,Book One: Middleworld, Max & Lola find themselves at the ballcourt in the city of Itzamna. Hermanjilio briefly explains the rules of the game, although we should point out that our understanding of the game has progressed since we wrote the books. (One of the exciting things about studying the Maya is that new discoveries are made every year. This means that archaeologists are constantly revising their thinking as new evidence comes in.)
We had a chance to update the rules of the ballgame in Jaguar Stones, Book Three: The River of No Return. In this book, the Death Lords view Max & Lola as the modern representation of the Hero Twins and therefore challenge the two to a game. This nail-biting ballgame takes place at a strange underground hotel run by the Lords of Death and follows the traditional rules of the game. However, as far as the cheating Lords of Death are concerned, following the rules is optional and 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 no 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
Maraca playing fans attend a noisy ballgame.