The Maya Ballgame and its Associated Symbolism

The Maya ballgame (pok-ta-pok) was only one type of several played throughout Mesoamerica, from the Preclassic period to the Spanish conquest.  Though obviously a sport, the ballgame also had a strongly ritualised component, which corresponded to different time periods and regions.  The Maya ballgame and its associated ballcourts have been symbolically linked to the movement of celestial bodies, especially the sun and moon, which are related to seasonal agricultural fertility.  These interpretations are further linked to the depictions of sacrifice (decapitation) and trophy head paraphernalia associated with the game.  Other explanations concern politics and warfare; to legitimate the succession of a king, to mark boundaries or as a substitute for war.  While these interpretations give us deeper insight into aspects of the ballgame, it must be remembered that they are only tentative hypotheses, without factual verification.

Maya civilisation can be divided into three geographical regions; the Northern Lowlands, including Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo (of which ten sites with ballcourts are known), the Central Lowlands which spreads from eastern Tabasco and northern Chiapas, through northern Guatemala, Belize and western Honduras (of which a hundred ballcourts have been reported).  Lastly, the Southern Highlands, which is somewhat aberrant due to Mexican influence, includes Chiapas and southern Guatemala (three hundred reported examples of ballcourts) (Leyenaar & Parsons, 1988, 62).  Not surprisingly, in such diverse environments, a variety of ballgames were played.  At least three types are known during the Classic period in the Lowlands; the hip-ballgame, the hand-ballgame and a stick-ball type (Cohodas, 1991, 251).  Accordingly, different rules, rituals and associated paraphernalia were attributed to these games.  Examples would be the predominance of the stone yoke with palma and hacha in the Southern Highlands, and the orientation in this area of ballcourts to east-west rather than north-south orientation, which occurs in the Maya Lowlands.  Thus care is needed in stretching particular evidence to make a general conclusion regarding the Maya ballgame.

The Classic period (AD. 300-900) will be mainly discussed in this paper, as it is during this time the ballgame achieved its greatest importance, and the majority of Maya ballgame sculpture was carved (Cohodas, 1978a, 87).  Information can be extracted from the ballcourts themselves, surviving panels and reliefs, figurines, painted ceramic vessels, ballgame attire and other associated paraphernalia.  Yet there is difficulty in dating the archaeological materials, particularly regarding the site of Chichen Itza, which is critical in the study of ballgame symbolism.  As none of the site’s structures or reliefs can be dated exactly, there has been debate over attributing the Great Ballcourt and its reliefs, to the Maya, due to the existence of Toltec architecture.  Yet Cohodas in comparing designs and structural features with those of Late Classic Lowland Maya structures at other sites, concludes that the ballcourt may date to the middle seventh century AD., and supports a Maya invention, with later Toltec influences, such as the ball rings (1978b, 109).  Concerning ethnohistorical sources, the Popul Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya written in the middle of the sixteenth century, is the sole account known that refers specifically to the Maya ballgame.  Nevertheless, as there is a nine century gap between the book and the Classic Maya, it is questionable whether it can be used to determine the state of the Classic Maya ballgame, or in revealing the symbolic aspects of the game for which it has often been used.

The practicalities of the Maya ballgame are as follows; the court was divided into two halves by a line perpendicular to its long axis, and opposing teams faced each other across this dividing line.  Such ballcourts were often located within ceremonial centres and usually each important site had a ballcourt, an exception being Dzibilchaltun (Scarborough, 1991, 140).  Unlike many Mesoamerican ballcourts, the Maya ones were open ended and without ring markers.  Furthermore the Lowland Maya wore heavy body padding and belts, rather than stone yokes (if these were worn at all during the game), or attached hachas and palmas.  The ball; a rubber sphere which is depicted in various sizes, could be hit with the elbows, hips and knees but never the hands or feet.  According to Cohodas, a point was scored for one team when the opposing team failed to return the ball before it bounced a second time, or when the ball reached the opposing end zone (or when thrown through one of the two stone rings, a later addition) (1978b, 31).

The idea that the head contained certain physical/psychic powers of the owner that could be transmitted to another person when preserved, was prevalent throughout Mesoamerica, and other areas of the world.  Bishop Diego de Landa in his account of the Yucatan Maya mentions that, “They used to cut off the heads of the old lords of Cocom, when they died, and after cooking them they cleaned off the flesh and then sawed off half the crown on the back, leaving the front part with the jaws and teeth … they kept these … holding them in great reverence and respect” (Tozzer, 1941, 131).  In addition, “if the victims were slaves captured in war their master took their bones to use them as a trophy in their dances of victory” (Ibid., 120).  Welsh, in his study of Classic Lowland Maya burials, found support for these assertions.  Several burials at Uaxactun, Tikal, Altun Ha, Dzibilchaltun and Altar de Sacrificios, showed the removal of facial bones and/or skulls from the deceased, in his opinion, being retained for worship or as a trophy (1988, 120).  Such heads, or replicas are often seen as parts of necklaces, on belts, or more significantly as hachas attached to the yokes of ballgame players, particularly in the Southern Highlands (see Proskouriakoff (1950), for a catalogue of these).   The bodiless head appears to be one of the most common items among Classic Maya paraphernalia, as glyphs for numbers, names and places, and in pictorial scenes, particularly on painted ceramic vessels of apparent Underworld scenes (Robicsek, 1981).

As the Popul Vuh is often utilised in understanding the symbolism behind the ballgame, particularly in reference to decapitation, a brief synopsis of the myth of the “Hero Twins” will be recounted.  The great ballplaying brothers 1 Hunahpu and 7 Hunahpu were summoned by the lords of Xibalba, to a ballgame in the Underworld.  However, the gods won the game by deception and sacrificed the two brothers, hanging 1 Hunahpu’s head on a calabash tree, to proclaim their victory.  Later, the daughter of an Underworld lord walking past the calabash tree, spoke to the head, which spat in her hand, miraculously impregnating her.  She fled to earth and bore twins, whom she named Hunahpu and Xbalanque.  These twins became great ballplayers like their father and uncle, and were also summoned to a ballgame by the Underworld lords.  In their first game, the lords tried to use a skull as a ball, to which the Hero Twins refused.  However, they had to undertake several trials in various Underworld houses, in which one, the “House of Bats”, Hunahpu was decapitated.  The lords hung his head over the ballcourt and announced that it would be used as the ball at the next match.  Yet Xbalanque fashioned a temporary head for his brother’s body and persuaded a rabbit to impersonate the ball, so he could retrieve Hunahpu’s head and restore him whole.  The twins then let themselves be sacrificed but were able to reappear in the Underworld, entertaining as magicians in dismembering animals and humans then reviving them.  Such a feat was enacted on the Underworld lords, though obviously they were not revived.  Subsequently the Hero Twins rose into the sky as heavenly bodies, namely the sun and the moon, or the sun and Venus (Schele & Miller, 1986, 243-245).

One can hardly fail to notice that human sacrifice, more specifically decapitation and use of the head as a trophy, figured predominantly in the Underworld ballgame. Though decapitation is often linked to ballgame sacrifice, it was only one method of several used in the Maya world, heart sacrifice figures largely in other contexts.  Gillespie points out that the Popul Vuh does not depict decapitation as the cause of any of the players deaths, of the two decapitated ballplayers, one was already dead when decapitated, and the other did not die when decapitated (Recinos, 1952, 118 & 153).  Therefore decapitation must refer to more than the method of sacrificial execution.  Gillespie speculates that decapitation was related more to dismemberment than sacrifice; the court’s four directions representing the four limbs of a body, and the ball representing the head, which interlinks with these divisions by its movement between them (1991, 345).  On whether a skull was actually placed inside the ball however, is questionable.  In agreement with Leyenaar and Parsons, skull balls depicted in art only symbolised the death connotation of the ball and the game itself (1988, 85).  However, human sacrificial scenes associated with the ballgame are quite rare, the depictions on the Yaxchilan steps and Coba ballcourt panels, do not portray the victim in ballgame clothing, nor is a knife shown, as seen in the reliefs at Chichen Itza.  Furthermore, only two Early Classic cylindrical tripods portraying a decapitation scene are known from the entire Maya lowlands, compared to the twenty-two found in the Tiquisate region, Guatemala (Hellmuth, 1987b, 15).  Therefore it appears such symbolism is culturally restricted, adhering more to the Southern Highlands where Mexican influence is apparent.

Much of the ballgame symbolism surrounds the relationship between the movement of the ball during play and that of the sun, ballplay being a major ritual activity to influence the ascent and descent of the sun.  Furthermore, the ballgame was a symbolic reenactment of the struggle between day and night, thus it symbolised the daily and seasonal journey of the sun and other celestial bodies, such as the moon, in their cyclical descent through the Underworld and ascent into the sky (Gillespie, 1991, 319).  As mentioned in the Popul Vuh, the Hero Twins were depicted as the sun and moon playing against the lords of the Underworld (Recinos, 1951, 163).  Moreover, the sacrificial ceremonies which climax the ballgame were represented by the image of the decapitation of the defeated player, symbolising death (and eventual rebirth) of the sun or moon.  Cohodas relates this imagery to the relief panels on the benches of the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza.  He asserts that most of the central figures in their attire represent manifestations of the sun in the Upperworld, in the Underworld, and passing from one region to the other.  The decorations of each of the Great Ballcourt temples also depict such imagery.  The sun is represented as a figure seated on a jaguar throne within the sun disk, when descending through the surface of the earth at the western horizon.  When it approaches the nadir of its journey through the Underworld, the sun is depicted as a flaming deity.  At the exact nadir, as a reclining figure, and when it begins its ascent, it is depicted as a young warrior.  As the sun approaches its zenith in the heavens, it is shown with a jewelled serpent (1978b, 245-6).

Other heavenly bodies, such as Venus, have been symbolically linked to ballgame imagery.  Leynaar’s interpretation of the decapitation panel at Chichen Itza, is that the teams symbolically represent the Underworld and the other celestial planet Venus.  Supporting evidence is that all members of one team wear waterlily headbands (an Underworld symbol), while most members of the opposite team wear spiral or cross-sectioned shell pectorals (a documented symbol of Venus) (1988, 83).  Other associations come from Yaxchilan, Step VII, where the star symbol is the hieroglyphic text between the player and two dwarves, who each have a prominent star sign on their arms.  In addition on Step VIII, one of the players wears on his chest a monster, who has a quadripartite badge (Venus monster) stuck onto its tail (Hellmuth, 1987a, 410).  It should be noted though, that all these interpretations are speculative, any or all could be the actual case.

A second major symbolic theme proposed for the ballgame is agricultural fertility, which is inextricably linked to solar symbolism, being a seasonal phenomenon that is marked by the periodic movements of the sun and moon.  The Popul Vuh can be used as an allegory; in the planting of grains in the soil (the twins descent into the Underworld), their germination (the defeat of the Underworld lords), and finally their growth and flowering (the twins reemergence as sun and moon/Venus) (Moser, 1973, 39).  In using Cohodas’ aforementioned imagery, if the ballgame was played in the dry season, perhaps at the vernal equinox, it would force the sun into the Underworld shortly before maize kernels were planted.  Likewise, if the game was played in the rainy season, perhaps at the autumn equinox, it would allow the sun to rise, just as the first ears of corn began to ripen (Cohodas, 1991, 255).

Several examples can be given in support of this theory, such as Monument Three at Santa Lucia, Cotzumalhuapa, which depicts a ballplayer offering the severed head of his opponent to a solar deity, and Monument Four, depicting a ballplayer wearing a head skin on his left hand, while raising his right arm up towards a sky/vegetation deity (Moser, 1973, 20).  The Chichen Itza panels illustrate six serpents and a flowering vine sprouting from the severed neck of the loser.  Also, several Early Classic cylindrical tripods from the Tiquisate region, Guatemala, depict decapitated ballplayers with snakes rising from their necks, the snake being significantly associated with fertility and agriculture in Mesoamerica (Baquedano, 1990, 106).  Hellmuth mentions a further associated link; the hunt, as deer headdresses were the most common form of head attire, in ballgame scenes (1987a, 330).  He suggests that the ballgame included rituals associated with the successful hunt, though he acknowledges that deer headdresses were also worn in numerous non-ballgame situations.

An alternative interpretation of the ballgame’s function is in legitimating the succession of a king, conforming with much of Maya public sculpture.  Structure thirty-three at Yaxchilan, which celebrates the accession and reign of Bird Jaguar (AD 752), features ballplaying scenes on eleven of the thirteen blocks which make up the tier.  Three of the central blocks repeat a single image; the Yaxchilan lord strikes a human whose neck is broken, then the body is bound into the form of a ball and thrown down a flight of stairs.  A similar scene can be observed on Altar Eight at Tikal (Schele & Miller, 1986, 249).  Kingship can be further linked with warfare, as ballcourts often functioned as a setting for military imagery, perhaps being a forum for opposing groups to compete for social and political status.  The Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan, records the dynastic history of the kingdom in the context of war related iconography, of which Step forty-four, twice, records the name of a ballcourt glyph (Schele & Freidel, 1991, 300).  Scholars have viewed the Copan marker as depicting a Mexican outfitted player, due to the “Mexican” Tlaloc hacha, kneepad and yoke he is wearing, against a Maya outfitted athlete.  Though in agreement with Hellmuth, the marker could just as well represent a different sociopolitical faction, as the “Mexican” wears a skull-pectoral around his neck, an insignia which was worn only by a limited group of Maya kings (1987a, 297).  Lastly, a warrior cult, with an emphasis on battle scenes, is depicted in the designs of the Upper Temple of Jaguars at Chichen Itza, though it appears to be distinct from the ballgame cult.

Finally, the ballgame’s sociopolitical function has been linked with segmentary lineage organisation (Fox, 1987, 244).  According to Fox, the Popul Vuh’s ballgame myth relates historically to the Quiche Maya emigration from northern Yucatan into central Yucatan, and northern Guatemala during the fourteenth or fifteenth century.  He states that the “Hero Twins” myth may be “an analogy of migration, warfare, victory and eventual unification with the enemy, which characterizes Quichean political history” (1991, 233).  For the Quiche, certain political events were framed within solar-based calendrics, not only did the broad sequencing of their political expansionism relate to the four cardinal directions, but so did their segmentary sociopolitical organisation, with specific lineage groups ascribed to specific directions.  The ballgame was played in the centre of their community, by opposing factions, and the ballgame ritual cemented the joining of new “ethnic” segments into the segmentary states (1987, 244).  While this is an interesting theory, Fox stretches the interpretation somewhat when he tries to identify scenes in the Popul Vuh with actual geographical areas.  An example can be seen in his linking the Underworld’s “House of Knives”, to the stalacites and stalagmites in the caves in Sierra de Alta Verapaz (Ibid., 250)!

In conclusion, there seems to be a variety of Maya ballgames, according to region and time period.  Thus ballgame symbolism appears to be related to the political and religious situation of the area in question.  Such symbolism centres around mythical, agricultural and calendric cycles, regarding the sun, moon and other celestial bodies, such as Venus.  Decapitation of the defeated player, that appears to be a usual outcome of the ceremonial game, was paramount in maintaining these cosmic cycles and the regeneration of life.  Other ballgame interpretations concern dynastic succession, warfare and segmentary lineage organisation.  One needs to remember though, that these interpretations are tentative hypotheses, no more than that, particularly as they rely heavily on the Popul Vuh, which was far removed in time from the Classic Maya.  Yet, these ideas are useful in the way they interact with one another and give us greater insight into why the ballgame was so pervasive, in not just the Maya world, but throughout Mesoamerica. 

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