Curiosities & Oddities

How the Mayans played Ball


Dear Reader,

As far as research tells us, the Mayans didn’t play football. They played hip ball. They had their own unique way to play with each other as a form of entertainment and to show respect to the gods.

Stanito traveled to Yucatán and Quintana-Roo for you, dear Reader, to investigate this ancient game.
So today we are going to learn how, why and when the Mayans performed this remarkable ball game in ancient times 🙂

The game sort of looked like this:

Maya_athlete_ball_Game_stanito_Mexico

This the picture of a poster I found in Tulum, not far from Chichén Itzá.

Before we explore the game techniques and rules, let’s talk about the basics.

This Mesoamerican ball game is the oldest known team sport in the world ever recorded and it was found among the Pre-Columbian cultures of Central America, like the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs. It was brutal because it was a religious ritual that eventually required human sacrifice at the end of the match. The Mayans called it Pok a Tok and the Aztecs as Tlachtli.
Like balls game of nowadays, they used a rubber ball of about 35 cm in diameter. The ball was rubber-like but more solid than  our basket ball and it could weigh a lot more. This made the game a lot more brutal and difficult as if they threw the ball hard enough they could easily kill other players (it must have hurt really bad… :/ ).

This is the stadium or game court. It was impossible to take a photo without the tourists unfortunately...

This is the stadium or game court. It was impossible to take a photo without the tourists unfortunately…

Players wore protection for their heads, elbows and knees, and also, precisely because they hit the ball with their hips they used to wear special belts on their waists and chest to make better bounces.

If you were watching the game in the stadium you would see that there were two stone hoops or rings in the center of the court on either side.

stone_hoop_maya_ball_game_chichenitza_stanito

stanito_stone_hoop_maya_ball_game_chichenitza_stanito

Stanito is pointing at one of the stone hoops in the game court of Chichen Itzá, Yucatan.

The goal of game was to push the ball within those rings using only the hip as Stanito is demonstrating in the next photo.

stone_hoop_shot_maya_ball_game_chichenitza_stanito

Stanito is showing how players must have shot the ball in the stone hoop.

When a player did manage to get a ball through a ring, that usually ended the game (others say that the game would end with the Sun marked a line drawn by the judge).
You had a ball court (stadium in our present time), two teams of players, a judge tower and a line where the Sun would mark the end of the match. It should have looked like this:

Photo from siloam.net

Photo from siloam.net

Score though also included when opposing ball players missed a shot at the vertical hoops placed at the center point of the side walls or if they were unable to return the ball to the opposing team before it had bounced a second time (negative score).  The team with the most points won.
The teams would play until the judge raised his hand and blow a horn once the Sun had hit the finish line and the game would be over by claiming the winning team.

What happened after victory?

About for the outcome or end of the game I find myself in a pickle. According to sources and documents, at the end of the game one of the two teams was to be sacrificed to Xibalba, the Underworld. Some say it was the loser team while other say it was the winner team.

judge_maya_ball_game_chichenitza_stanito

This is where the judge used to sit and watch the game. He would have determined when the game was over.

The most popular version says that the Mayans sacrificed the winners because they would be a perfect gift to the gods. Therefore it is thought that it was an honour for the players to die for Xibalba.

Another version would see the loser team being sacrificed to the gods. They were bound together, hands tied, decapitated and then hurled down the stairs of a temple.

I know what you must be thinking, why would players do their best if in the end they were sacrificed?
Well, it this is the right version then the only explanation I can think of is that for players it must have been an honour to die for Xibalba as their souls would continue to endure in the Underworld.
But if the version of the loser team is the right one then, well then you can understand why players did their best to win!

Final Sacrifice:

Either way, Dear Reader, one of the team was to be sacrificed at the end of the game. They were decapitated and later thrown into Xibalba, the Underworld.
This is what Xibalba looked like:

Xibalba_underworld_cenote_maya_ballgame_mexico_stanito

This is the cenote in Chichen Itzá and it’s what the ancient regarded as Xibalba, where the sacrifices ended up.

I assume players that ended up thrown in it never came back. Again versions here differ a little:
a) Players were first decapitated, later thrown down the temple stairs and then thrown into Xibalba.
b) Players were taken to the edge of Xibalba and them simply thrown into it. They were tide with ropes so I assume they drowned to death.

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3 replies »

  1. Thank you for your posting. My 9 yr daughter and i were in Cancun October 16-27. We were looking on line for her school report about our trip and found your pictures and history about the area. Your writing has inspired her to follow your format for her report! (I’m so glad, because of course, what mom suggested made her roll her eyes).
    Thanks again!
    Lorena.calvillo@gmail.com

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