General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Nov 2017/5 Eagle
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Article suitable for older students

Professor Eric Taladoire

Question for March 2016

After the ballgame, did they perform the sacrifice(s) straight away...? Asked by Wessex Primary School. Chosen and answered by Professor Eric Taladoire.

Artist’s impression of a Maya ballgame
Artist’s impression of a Maya ballgame (Click on image to enlarge)

To begin with, the ballgame was obviously an important ritual,
frequently ending with sacrifices, but it was also practiced in other contexts. For instance, ball courts have been found in minor sites, in small garrisons (in Oaxaca, for instance), and of course, we must surmise that, in such contexts, tournaments did not end with sacrifices.
Secondly, ballplayers had to train, so that numerous games were probably organized for practice, tournaments, without the truly ritual consequences.
Third, we know, through Maya epigraphy and through the ethonohistorical data, that Maya or Aztec kings did play the game for fun, for political reasons or as divination. This is the case for Moctezuma himself, but also for many others kings. We know, besides, that those games did not involve human sacrifices, since many of those kings remained alive and quite active, even if they had lost.

Codex Aubin: decapitation scene (top); decapitation: bas-relief from Chichen Itza (after Marquina) (bottom)
Codex Aubin: decapitation scene (top); decapitation: bas-relief from Chichen Itza (after Marquina) (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

We must keep in mind, then, that the ballgame did not involve systematically human sacrifice.
Albeit, the most important games, in ritual contexts, ended probably with ceremonial sacrifice through decapitation. Of course, sometimes, the victims were the losing players, but we must also contemplate the possible existence of other symbolic victims, such as captives or slaves. In this context, the sacrifice was probably performed directly at the end of the game, in continuity with its ritual meaning, even if this is quite difficult to assert. But the close proximity, at least in the Postclassic (Tula, Tenochtitlan), between ball courts and skull racks (tzompantli) implies their functional links. The whole ritual (game and sacrifice) would be complete and significant if performed in continuity.

Picture sources:-
• Top picture: courtesy of and © Steve Radzi/Mayavision
• Bottom picture: images courtesy of Eric Taladoire.

Professor Eric Taladoire has answered 5 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs have hospitals?

Did they have medical teams on hand [in the ballgame] in case there were injuries?

How many people watched the [ball]game?

After the ballgame, did they perform the sacrifice(s) straight away...?

Would they have carried on playing the ballgame if it was pouring with rain?

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