Ritual Ballgame: A Popular Pastime for the Maya and Aztec Civilizations
A ritual ballgame was an important part of the culture in most Mesoamerican and South American civilizations. Although the rules varied from place to place, the incentive to win was the same everywhere - to live to play another day.
In both the Maya and Aztec civilization, a ballgame was part of the ritual of religious ceremonies. Every Maya city had a ball court, and the temple complex at Tenochtitlan had one, too. The Aztecs called the game tlachtli. The origins of the game are unclear, and the rules of the game varied from place to place. However, carvings on walls reveal something about how it was played. In one version of the game, two teams assembled on a ball court shaped like a capital I. Points could be scored by knocking the ball into the section across the far end of the opponents’ court.
The ball, made of solid rubber, was about eight inches in diameter – a little smaller and much heavier and harder than a present-day basketball. Players could not use their hands or feet to hit the ball. They knocked it back and forth with knees, elbows, shoulders, and hips. Hitting the ball with your head was unwise, for it could knock you unconscious.
Players wore protective paddings. Even so, injuries were common since one object of the game was to keep the ball from hitting the ground. Players would dive onto the stone floor to keep the ball in play.
Some ball courts had stone rings attached high up on the walls of the court. If a player knocked the ball through one of these rings, his team won immediately. This was a difficult feat, however, for the rings were not much larger than the ball itself.
Some stories about the game say that when a player won the game in this way, he was entitled to take the possessions of all the spectators. Even so, the games drew sizable crowds.
Losers Really Lose
In games played by the Maya, players on the losing team were often sacrificed to the gods. Wall carvings show players kneeling on the court, waiting to have their heads cut off.
This kind of deadly ending to the game was used when one team was made up of prisoners of war. Members of nobility formed the opposing team, and they were bound to win because of the skills they had developed through practice.
Ballgames often had a religious purpose. In some cases the ball court may have represented the sky, in which gods played with the sun and moon. The games may have been meant to celebrate the workings of the universe.
One Maya legend tells of hero-twins who descend into the underworld to play against the lords of death. The gods put the twins through a series of tests. For example, one twin has his head cut off to be used as a ball. His brother puts a gourd in its place and reattaches the head. In the end the twins cheat death by winning the game and returning home.
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