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To increase their chances of winning...
To increase their chances of winning...
... the Aztecs placed their grinding stones and griddle upside down at home! (Source: Florentine Codex).
Mexicolore contributor Dr Nicholas James

The Aztecs, patolli and gambling

We are indebted to Dr. Nicholas James, an independent scholar, consultant in the presentation of history and archaeology, writer and lecturer, for this in-depth study of patolli, an ancient Mesoamerican board game that held a particular fascination for the Mexica (Aztecs). It was a game also played by the Maya - reflected in some of the illustrations kindly drawn for us by artist Steve Radzi...

Pic 1: The Aztec game of patolli, according to Fray Diego Durán
Pic 1: The Aztec game of patolli, according to Fray Diego Durán (Click on image to enlarge)

To know what games people enjoy and why tells us a lot about their whole way of life. Especially telling is the mood in which they play. In a famous study of Bali, Clifford Geertz explained how spiralling emotion and wagers turn cockfights into “a Balinese reading of Balinese experience” in general, “a story they tell themselves about themselves”.
According to the early Spanish investigator, Diego Durán, the Aztecs’ “most common game” was patolli, a board game. It is too simple, though, just to say that they enjoyed it. In Tenochtitlan, their great capital city, they probably had mixed feelings about patolli. To understand that is one way to understand the most distinctive feature of the city’s life and its turbulent history.

Pic 2: The famous ritual ballgame, played by all great ancient Mexican civilisations
Pic 2: The famous ritual ballgame, played by all great ancient Mexican civilisations (Click on image to enlarge)

The Ball Game was well known too. It was played by teams along a court. In Tenochtitlan, if not elsewhere, people would bet on the results. Yet, since this sport was restricted to nobles, leading soldiers and some professional players, it was probably less of an everyday favourite than patolli.

Pic 3: ‘Several people could play at once...’
Pic 3: ‘Several people could play at once...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Although early pictures of patolli show pairs at play (eg, pic 1), Father Durán states that several people could play at once. The goal was to come first in moving a set of pebbles from one end of the board to the other. Patolli was usually played on a mat but a board could be just traced out on the ground. The board was marked with 60 or 70 places for the pebbles. The places were of four kinds, apparently with distinct effects on the pebbles’ progress. The moves depended on the results of tossing dice. The dice could be made of dried beans.

Pic 4: ‘Crowds of onlookers would soon gather round....’
Pic 4: ‘Crowds of onlookers would soon gather round....’ (Click on image to enlarge)

It was easy to start a game by just rolling the mat out. Crowds of onlookers would soon gather round, records Durán; and, to add to the fun, alcoholic drink was often on hand.
Some players would call on Macuilxochitl, god of games, to help them. Indeed, spectators and, evidently, the players themselves would often get worked up enough about how the dice were falling to bet on the results, as they did with the Ball Game.
Patolli was sociable, then; but it could be serious. For many, indeed, the betting may have been the game’s key feature. Some, we are told, gambled themselves into servitude. That could explain the observation in our first direct account of the game, from the Spaniard, Bernardino de Sahagún, that “heads were constantly split open”, “Just as ... on the ball court”. Where the Ball Game itself was dangerous, the trouble with patolli must have been fights over cheating or swindles as the stakes rose.

Pic 5: A patolli player gambles his clothing; Codex Mendoza, folio 70r (detail)
Pic 5: A patolli player gambles his clothing; Codex Mendoza, folio 70r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The early records by Sahagún and Durán disdain the betting and even the game itself as contrary to good sense and, indeed, social order. It seems to have been regarded as a distraction from the hard work that Aztec elders recommended. Parents warned children about the gambling. To be sure, the Spaniards may have emphasised the bets in order to discredit patolli as part of a way of life in need of conversion to Christian values. Yet, along with the remark on injuries, Sahagún records that the Aztec king did try to control the game, as though to prevent a craze from getting out of hand.

Pic 6: Patolli board carved on stone, Structure 5G-4-1st, Tikal (late Post-Classic Maya), excavated by Marshall Becker
Pic 6: Patolli board carved on stone, Structure 5G-4-1st, Tikal (late Post-Classic Maya), excavated by Marshall Becker (Click on image to enlarge)

Most of what we know about patolli (and the rest of Aztec life) relates to the capital. Archeologists claim to have found patolli boards from periods well before the Aztecs as far away as Maya country (see pic 6). Alfonso Caso did discover that the game was still known among the mountains northeast of Mexico City in the 1920s; and one unconfirmed report claims that a version of it persists there today. So patolli was probably not confined to Tenochtitlan in the Aztec era. Yet we can surmise that it was mainly there that the game was such a favourite, more than in the villages and smaller towns. For the betting would help to explain its popularity; and Tenochtitlan was the sort of place that seems to encourage it. Ancient Rome was the same, and so is many a city today.

Pic 7: An Aztec game of patolli being overseen by the deity Macuilxochitl. Codex Magliabecchiano, p. 48
Pic 7: An Aztec game of patolli being overseen by the deity Macuilxochitl. Codex Magliabecchiano, p. 48 (Click on image to enlarge)

What is it, then, that encourages gambling? Several answers have been suggested, each diagnosing anxiety: psychology; philosophy; sociology. It seems that certain types of personality enjoy risk or the appearance of risk; and that men are more apt to gamble than women. In either case, the alcohol, no doubt, undermined Aztecs’ caution. As for philosophy, Inga Clendinnen suggests that the Aztecs treated the game as a test of fate, trying to resolve some of the uncertainty that they sensed in so much of their lives. Caso, likewise, considered that the game’s arithmetic had astrological connotations - hence invocations of Macuilxochitl. Social scientists concur that persistent gambling is a response to uncertainty but they tend to argue that the causes are economic or sociological. It would make sense, then, that (except in betting on-line today) more intense gambling tends to occur not at home but in places where anyone can go. In that regard, the crowds help to confirm that patolli was typical.

Pic 8: ‘The main streets - probably the very places where patolli was usually played for bets...’
Pic 8: ‘The main streets - probably the very places where patolli was usually played for bets...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Tenochtitlan must, indeed, have worried many of its inhabitants, especially in public places such as the main streets, which - probably the very places where patolli was usually played for bets - were more anonymous and less predictable than traditional neighbourhoods. For, in the two centuries up to the Spanish Conquest, the city had grown twentyfold, presumably in large part through immigration. Several trades flourished but, as the economy adjusted unevenly to the conditions, there was evidently a growing proletariat or ‘precariat’ of less skilled workers prone to unpredictable spells of joblessness and hunger. Even the well-to-do were wary of the throngs around them. Downtown Tenochtitlan was tense. By the later 1400s, that was its most distinctive feature - and surely a fundamental cause of Aztec attacks on the rest of Mexico.

Pic 9: ‘There was special excitement in the unlikely event of tossing a bean that landed balanced on end!’
Pic 9: ‘There was special excitement in the unlikely event of tossing a bean that landed balanced on end!’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Was a win at patolli admired as insight about fate, then, or as a sign of the gods’ favour? Or was it, rather, that the suspense, in casting the dice, was charged with the hope of improving one’s lot? The chance seemed slim, no doubt, but perhaps, at least — unlike the predictable prospects of village life — it did look like a chance.
Some players carried their mats about, we are told, looking for challengers. They were addicted. There was special excitement in the unlikely event of tossing a bean that landed balanced on end!

Pic 10: ‘Some players carried their mats about, we are told, looking for challengers...’
Pic 10: ‘Some players carried their mats about, we are told, looking for challengers...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec leadership was evidently preoccupied with social order (although Sahagún’s later accounts of patolli did not repeat the remark about injuries). There was preaching about respect, and the government tried to support that with rules on public behaviour - including, apparently, patolli. Nobles did play; but the government was probably more concerned to discourage the poor from imagining that they could gain fortune by luck rather than steady toil. Was there also worry about whether they could afford to gamble?

Pic 11: Execution of a ‘patolli’ player. His board, dice, counters and bundle with superstitious objects are being burnt. Historia de Tlaxcala, fol. 241r
Pic 11: Execution of a ‘patolli’ player. His board, dice, counters and bundle with superstitious objects are being burnt. Historia de Tlaxcala, fol. 241r (Click on image to enlarge)

There was an option likelier than gaming to yield wealth and standing. It was warmly approved by the authorities. It was less fun than patolli, however, and its dangers were direct: joining the army.
That option ceased, of course, for most men, with the Spanish Conquest and destruction of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The new rulers claimed to have stopped heavy gambling at patolli but what really put an end to it was probably job opportunities, of which, up to the 1550s, there were many more than under the Aztecs. To be sure, the work brought fresh anxieties but those were not to be relieved by betting.

Pic 12: The game of patolli, Florentine Codex Book 8, showing the game board, four bean dice, and several precious objects (copper bells, a jade bead and quetzal feathers) that are being wagered
Pic 12: The game of patolli, Florentine Codex Book 8, showing the game board, four bean dice, and several precious objects (copper bells, a jade bead and quetzal feathers) that are being wagered (Click on image to enlarge)

As for patolli, Durán spotted it on a church floor during a sermon in the mid 1500s. It is unlikely ever again, though, to have been played with the intensity of Tenochtitlan. There, we can imagine, patolli often became ‘an Aztec reading of Aztec experience’.

SOURCES:-
The best account of patolli remains Alfonso Caso’s ‘Un antiguo juego mexicano: el patolli’, El México antiguo 2 (1927) pp. 203-11; but this article (in Spanish) is difficult to find. Sahagún and Durán, the main ‘chroniclers’ of the later 1500s, describe the game roughly. Durán is the most helpful: Book of the gods & rites and the ancient calendar (1971), ed. F Horcasitas & D Heyden, University of Oklahoma Press, pp. 302-7; and, for patolli in church, see p. 220. On regulation, see Sahagún’s Primeros memoriales, ed. TD Sullivan et al. (1997) University of Oklahoma Press, p. 198; and, for the injuries, p. 200 there.
Sahagún does not mention the injuries in later versions of his report but both he and Durán do show how difficult Tenochtitlan was. Clendinnen reviews many of their observations in Aztecs: an interpretation (1991) Cambridge University Press, where she considers patolli on pp. 144-7. JL de Rojas describes the city in Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire (2012) University Press of Florida. For jobs in the mid 1500s, see Charles Gibson’s The Aztecs under Spanish rule: a history of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico, 1519-1810 (1964) Stanford University Press, pp. 221-3.
For sociology of gambling, see JF Cosgrave’s introduction to his collection, The sociology of risk and gambling reader (2006) Routledge. On Rome: JP Toner Leisure and ancient Rome (1995) Polity, Chapter 8. Geertz is in Daedalus 101 (1972), ‘reading experience’ on p. 26: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/001152605774431563.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Image from Durán’s Book of the Gods...:public domain
• Pic 2: Illustration by and courtesy of Steve Radzi/Mayavision
• Pix 3, 4, 8, 9, 10: Illustrations - commissioned specially for Mexicolore - by Steve Radzi/Mayavision
• Pic 5: Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the 1938 James Cooper Clarke facsimile edition, London
• Pic 6: Photo courtesy of Archives of the University of
Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, USA - special thanks to Marshall Becker and Alex Pezzati
• Pic 7: Image from the Codex Magliabecchiano scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, 1970
• Pic 11: Image from the historia de Tlaxcala: special thanks to, courtesy and by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
• Pic 12: Image rom the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 06th 2015

emoticon Q. Did the Aztecs play any board games?
A. You bet they did!

‘Games and Other Amusements of the Ancient Mesoamericans’

Steve Radzi’s website

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