Cultures & Traditions
The Mesoamerican Ball Game
The ball game (Olamaliztli in Classical Nahuatl, pitz in Classical Maya) was centrally important in Mesoamerican ideology, most notably that in the Maya area. Every major city of the Classic period had at least one ball court, and many larger centers had several. The ball courts were a replica of Creation Mountain, placed at the base of the mountain, as the clefted abyss was at the base of the first true Creation Mountain. There they played ritual ballgames with their sacrificial victims, highborn lords who were taken in battle. Although the Mesoamerican ball game had many different forms, it was consistently played with a solid natural rubber ball hit with the hips. Pre-Columbian ball courts have been found throughout Mesoamerica, as far south as Nicaragua, and possibly as far north as contemporary Arizona. Though the ball courts vary considerably in size, all have long narrow alleys and side-walls, allowing for bouncing of the ball.
We have few eyewitness accounts of the Maya game, which was still played in the highlands of Guatemala when the Spanish arrived, and for that reason, we know little of the rules for scoring and winning. The Maya played a with a solid rubber ball about the size of a soccer or bowling ball, and though it was very heavy (about eight pounds), it was not hollow. Players were not allowed to use their hands to keep the ball in motion—only their hips, thighs, or upper arms. We presume from the sheer number of ball courts in Maya cities that the Maya played the sport on many occasions and that most Maya played or watched the game. However, for the Maya of the Classic period, the ballgame was a deeply sacred ritual, and not only a popular sport but a political event that had many levels of meaning and often involved human sacrifice. Though it is debated whether the losers or winners of the ballgame were victims, the resulting sacrifice from the ballgame provided blood to promote fertility and nourish the earth.
The Maya were reenacting the mythic ball game played between the Hero Twins (gods of life/fertility) and the gods of the Underworld (death). In Maya mythology, the Hero Twins played the game to save their father (First Father/the Maize god), and the Hero Twins were victorious over the Lords of the Underworld. The playing of the ballgame was thus more of a ritual than a sport, a form of ritual performance, the reenactment of this significant mythological event. Gods, too, were thought to play the ballgame, and thus it represented an appropriate means of contacting the supernatural. Men played the game, but the gods determined the outcome. We often see images of the ball game performed by groups of nobles wearing masks, impersonating various deities. The most impersonated divine ball player is the so-called ‘old deer god,’ recognizable for his man-deer traits. He is a god of hunting and feasting and closely associated with the Underworld. Impersonation played a major role in the Classic Maya religious life. Some rituals required kings and nobles to assume the images and the identities of particular gods, although impersonating a deity is not merely acting on his or her behalf. Rather, it signifies that a human being becomes a temporal embodiment of the divine character that possesses the impersonator and acts on his own will. Ball game imagery was an essential element of the Maya concept of representing royalty in monumental art, and hieroglyphic inscriptions frequently praised the king’s valor as a master ball player.
Gallery text [Veracruz], A. H. Meadows Galleries.
Carol Robbins, Label text [1973.35], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.
Carol Robbins, Label text [1983.148], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.
Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Cylindrical vessel with ball game scene (1983.148)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 46.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Read more about the Mesoamerican ballgame.
Learn more about research on ancient rubber making processes in Mexico and Central America.
Watch a video about the Mesoamerican Ballgame and a Classic Veracruz yoke, with Dr. Rex Koontz and Dr. Steven Zucker.