Ballgame – Pok-ta-Pok
Did you know that the Maya played the earliest team sport in the world?
It was a ballgame using a rubber ball and the players could only hit the ball using their hips, elbows or knees! They were never allowed to use their hands, feet or head!
Dr Diane explaining the Maya ballgame at Iximche, a Maya city in Guatemala
The winners or losers of the ballgame were sacrificed.
Neither the winners nor losers were sacrificed during the Maya ballgame, with the exception of a game that took place instead of going to war against a city. In this instance, teams from both cities would play each other and the leader of the losing team may be killed, although often they were allowed to live as long as the losing city would supply the winners with a quantity of jade, obsidian or other special goods.
- How to Play the Game
- The Popul Vuh (Maya book of creation)
- Activities for Children
- Resources to Download: Lesson Plans, Powerpoints and more
- Other Resources on the Ballgame
How to Play the Game
The Maya ballgame (pok-ta-pok or pitz), was only one type of several played throughout Mesoamerica. Ballcourts were often located within ceremonial centres and usually each important site had a ballcourt. It is not played anymore by the Maya today.
How to pronounce Pok-ta-Pok:
The ballgame and its ballcourts have been linked to the movement of the sun and moon, which are related to agricultural seasons. The game was played for fun, during festivals or special events such as a ruler becoming king, or to replace war.
Looking at ballcourts as well as paintings of ballplayers on vases and clay figurines, archaeologists can give some information about how the game might have been played.
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. The Maya wore heavy body padding and belts.
The ball; a rubber sphere which is depicted in various sizes, could be hit with the elbows, hips and knees, but never the head, hands or feet.
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).
It is thought that the rubber ball was produced by mixing latex with juice from the morning glory vine, which contains a chemical that makes the rubber less brittle and more bouncy.
So the Maya were quite advanced chemists as well!
The Popul Vuh
The Popul Vuh is the story of Maya creation and includes the great myth of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These twins became great ballplayers and were summoned to a ballgame by the Underworld Lords.
Learn how to pronounce:
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 had his head chopped off!
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 Popul Vuh, a 16th-century text from Santa Cruz Quiché in highland Guatemala, is seen as the great literary work of the Quiché Maya.
Unfortunately, this has led to the common misunderstanding that Maya people used a skull as a ball. In particular, people see the ball with a skull on the middle on the wall of the ballcourt at Chichen Itza as evidence of this, when really the depiction is a re-enactment of the Popul Vuh, not a reality.
Activities for Children
Why don’t you try making one? Or why not try playing the game?
Play the Maya Ballgame!
What you will need:
How to play:
- Using the school gym or the playground, divide the area in half by a line perpendicular to its long axis.
- Get into two teams of 5. The opposing teams will then face each other across the divide.
- Agree on the point system that is a point can be scored when the ball reaches the opposing end zone.
- Agree on penalties too, for example when the opposing team lets the ball dribble and it has to be picked up and thrown again, or a team hits the ball with their hands or feet.
- Play Pok-ta-Pok!
Remember the ball can only be hit with the elbows, hips and knees, never the hands or feet.
Resources to Download
These resources were written by teachers on a CPD trip with me to the Maya area. You can download these below.
*Please note – you may need to use your personal, rather than your school’s email address to download these files, as some schools disable the ability to receive items from outside their domain.
You can access the complete scheme of work for a small fee, in the form of a donation to the charity Chok Education, which supports the education of Maya children.
Examples of ballcourts
Further Online Resources
A video showing a re-enactment of a Maya ballgame that you could try in P.E.
Popol Vuh: The Creation Myth of the Maya
The Popul Vuh was the sacred book of the Quiche Maya written in the middle of the sixteenth century. This video portrays the myths included in this book. This video is animated using actual Maya artwork found on pottery and murals.
The Maya Vase Database
Includes a photographic essay on the Popul Vuh using Maya artefacts and paintings on vases, as well as images of the ballgame such as the one at the top of the page.
The Popul Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya: Victor Montejo. Groundwood Books, 2009. For ages 9-12.
Wrathful and kindhearted gods, giants, mortals, jaguars and colourful birds are some of the characters and creatures that inhabit this creation story. Children will enjoy this accessible retelling of a story that has largely been unavailable in English. Vivid characterizations, tales of revenge and forbidden fruit, tests of wit and strength and explanations of why deer have short tails and monkeys live in trees are all here.