Teacher Resource: Maya Ballgame
The Maya ballgame (pok-ta-pok) was only one type of several played throughout Mesoamerica, from the Preclassic period to the Spanish conquest. The game was not only a sport, but also had ritual and political connotations.
The Maya ballgame and its associated ballcourts have been symbolically linked to the movement of the sun and moon, which are related to seasonal agricultural fertility. Other explanations concern politics and warfare; to legitimate the succession of a king, to mark boundaries or as a substitute for war.
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.
Variety of ballgames
There were a variety of ballgames played according to region and time period. Thus ballgame symbolism appears to be related to the political and religious situation of the area in question.
At least three types are known during the Classic period (AD. 300-900) in the Lowlands; the hip-ballgame, the hand-ballgame and a stick-ball type.
Accordingly, different rules, rituals and associated paraphernalia were attributed to these games. Thus care is needed and it is important not to make a general conclusion regarding the Maya ballgame.
It was during the Classic period the ballgame achieved its greatest importance, and the majority of Maya ballgame sculpture was carved. Information can be extracted from the ballcourts themselves, surviving panels and reliefs, figurines, painted ceramic vessels, ballgame attire and other associated paraphernalia.
Ballcourts were often located within ceremonial centres and, usually, each important site had a ballcourt. 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.
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 hands or feet.
The ball could be passed between players on the same team. 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 they were quite advanced chemists as well!
The Popul Vuh
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. It is the story of a people, a compendium of myths, legends, and history. It 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 Myth of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, includes a ballgame played in the underworld. These twins became great ballplayers and were 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 Hero Twins and are seen as tricksters, they are partly clowns and partly culture heroes. 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.
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The ballplayer – Aj Pits
ball is played – ballgame – pitsaj
Further online resources
A travelling exhibit organized by the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte. Interactive website where pupils can learn about Maya culture and sites, how the ballgame was played in different areas, what was worn during the game, as well as both watching and playing the game. http://interactiveknowledge.com/ballgame
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.
Comments by Teachers
The ball game part is great – we tried to play it in PE. Thank you.