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Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto

What did the Spanish do after the native population collapsed [in the century after the Conquest]? asked Crosshall Junior School. Read what Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto had to say.

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Mexicolore contributor Professor Barbara Voorhies

Games and Other Amusements of the Ancient Mesoamericans

We are much indebted to Barbara Voorhies, Research Professor and Professor Emerita of Anthropology, University of California Santa Barbara (USA), for writing specially for Mexicolore this intriguing article on the history of games in ancient Mexico, some of which now appear to date back several thousand years...

Pic 1: Bernardino de Sahagún
Pic 1: Bernardino de Sahagún

When the Spaniards first encountered Mesoamerican peoples in the early 16th century they were fascinated and at times appalled by the Mesoamerican’s many strange and exotic customs. Some Spaniards, like the friars Diego Durán and Bernardino de Sahagún, recorded many details of the daily lives of these peoples, in particular those of the Aztecs and Yucatecan Maya respectively. These writings provide a wealth of information about the ancient societies of Mesoamerica just prior to and during the societal upheaval caused by the arrival of the Spanish colonizers. One of the many topics of interest to the chroniclers included games and other amusements.

Pic 2: Sahagún with informants (artist’s impression) and detail from Codex Mendoza (fol. 70) showing an Aztec gambler
Pic 2: Sahagún with informants (artist’s impression) and detail from Codex Mendoza (fol. 70) showing an Aztec gambler (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec Games
The best information about diversions in 16th century Mesoamerica comes from the Aztecs, the most powerful society in the region at the time and the one that the Spaniards were determined to transform. Durán (1971:312) says admirably that: “Many of the Indians’ games were extremely subtle, clever, cunning, and highly refined”. The Spanish chroniclers mention many games of skill, and at least two Aztec games of chance. In some cases, very little information is provided about a particular game. This is the case for the game of skill called “pins” or “skittles”. Pins refers to a game like modern bowling but there is no information about the characteristics of the pins themselves or the type of ball used to knock the pins down. Durán (1971:304) merely references the fact that he interrogated a man who “... was a great player of pins, and his vice was such that he played not only on holidays but on workdays.” This individual seems to have been a professional pin gambler who attributed his success in gambling to invoking divine intervention from one of the Aztec deities.

Pic 3: The remains of an ‘alquerque’ board game on the wall of a church in central Spain
Pic 3: The remains of an ‘alquerque’ board game on the wall of a church in central Spain (Click on image to enlarge)

Durán (1971:302) also mentions a game that is thought to be like checkers, with pebbles used as chips. The chronicler explains that both black and while pebbles were used for chips but he does not mention nor describe the game board, if in fact one was used in this game that he calls alquerque, a Spanish term. In Durán’s day alquerque, thought to be an early form of checkers, was played in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. The Aztec game apparently had enough similarities to the Spanish game, with which Durán was familiar, that he refers to it by the Spanish name.

Pic 4: Christoph Weiditz ‘in his sailor’s dress’ (fol. 1, L) and his illustration of two Aztec men playing a pebble game (fols. 11-12, R)
Pic 4: Christoph Weiditz ‘in his sailor’s dress’ (fol. 1, L) and his illustration of two Aztec men playing a pebble game (fols. 11-12, R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Another game that was played with pebbles may have been similar to marbles. All we know about the game derives from a drawing and notations made by Christoph Weiditz, a German artist who in 1529 was present at the court of Charles V of Spain. In the previous year Hernando Cortés, the conqueror of the Aztecs, had returned to Spain with several natives, including a pair of pebble game gamblers. Weiditz noted above the drawing: “With their fingers they gamble like Italians” (Cline 1969:75).

Pic 5: Drawing by Christoph Weiditz of an Aztec log juggler (fol. 15, L) and depiction of musicians and log juggler at the Aztec royal court, Florentine Codex Book 8 (R)
Pic 5: Drawing by Christoph Weiditz of an Aztec log juggler (fol. 15, L) and depiction of musicians and log juggler at the Aztec royal court, Florentine Codex Book 8 (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

The German artist Weiditz also drew a picture of another Aztec entertainer at the Spanish court of Charles V. The entertainer was a juggler who manipulated a log with his feet while lying on his back. Friar Sahagún describes these log jugglers who performed for Aztec rulers: “There were their jesters who provided them (Aztec rulers) solace and gave them pleasure. And (there were those who) rolled a log with their feet thus bringing pleasure in many ways. Their deeds were laughable and marvelous; for with the soles of his feet one man ... made a thick, round log dance with the soles of his feet (while) he lay upon his back and cast the log upward. With only the soles of his feet he did this” (Sahagún 1979:30). Durán (1971:312) adds that the manipulated log was thick and about 9 feet long.

Pic 6: Examples of Aztec rulers sporting their skill with the bow-and-arrow, Florentine Codex
Pic 6: Examples of Aztec rulers sporting their skill with the bow-and-arrow, Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

The chroniclers mention several different competitive games. For example, Sahagún (1979:30) mentions archery contests using bows and arrows, and blowgun hunts in which pellets were used to kill birds. These contests are described as sporting events enjoyed by the Aztec rulers and their entourages, perhaps similar to fox hunts by the British aristocracy.
Another form of amusement was pole climbing, which was done by aristocratic young men at the end of one of the Aztec festivals, in honor of the divinity Xocotl Huetzi (Durán 1971:203).

Pic 7: Preparations for the pole-climbing ceremony during the Aztec festival of Xocotl Huetzi; Codex Borbonicus fol. 28 (detail)
Pic 7: Preparations for the pole-climbing ceremony during the Aztec festival of Xocotl Huetzi; Codex Borbonicus fol. 28 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Prior to the festival a tall tree was cut and brought to the outskirts of the capital city of Tenochtitlán where it was stripped of its bark, smoothed, and sanctified. On the day before the festival this tall pole, measuring 110 to 140 feet high, was erected in the courtyard of the sacred precinct of the Templo Mayor. An image of a bird, made from the paste of ground up amaranth seeds, was placed at the very top of the pole. The pole climbing competition began after completion of the religious rites, which included the sacrifice of many slaves who were impersonators of various gods.

Pic 8: The Xocotl Huetzli festival as depicted by Durán, fol. 276r. Aztec youths try to reach a bird image made of amaranth dough at the top of the pole
Pic 8: The Xocotl Huetzli festival as depicted by Durán, fol. 276r. Aztec youths try to reach a bird image made of amaranth dough at the top of the pole (Click on image to enlarge)

The competitors “... were not worthless or lowly boys - all of them were sons of lords and chieftains, skillful, courageous, and nimble, (eager to) prove themselves in the game of Xocotl, to see whether the god granted them good fortune. As they stood in a row, the signal was given, and they dashed for the pole with spirit, fury, and speed, struggling to climb one after another, getting in each other’s way, tussling so that some fell from the lower part, others from the top, still others halfway up. The most deft climbed as swiftly as they could so as not to be reached by those who followed. Thus the swiftest who reached the bird tore off its head, the second a wing, the third another wing, the fourth the tail. Once the fourth had finished, there was nothing left. There it finished, and these four descended rapidly with great joy and vainglory, as if they were brave men, the chosen ones of the god” (Durán 1971:208).

Pic 9: Annual Aztec ‘pillow-fight’, Florentine Codex Book 2
Pic 9: Annual Aztec ‘pillow-fight’, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Another type of Aztec game that was associated with a particular religious festival involved mock battles (Sahagún 1981: 31-32, 157-158), somewhat reminiscent of snowball fights. The day following the religious rites and human sacrifice in honor of the goddess Ilama Tecutli, people prepared net bags filled with soft material such as flowers of reeds, wool or paper, or else they made bags out of green maize leaves. These bags were attached to long ropes. Sahagún is not entirely clear about this but it seems that men and boys fought mock battles among themselves using these balls, but they also attacked unsuspecting women and girls. Some women, anticipating the situation, took a staff or else a branch of the “devil-fruit-thorn” for defense. At times boys were so rough that it made the girls cry.

Pic 10: Christoph Weiditz’s illustration of Aztec ballgame players at the court of Charles V, fol. 13/14. Weiditz visited the Spanish court in 1529, where these athletes were demonstrating the ball game
Pic 10: Christoph Weiditz’s illustration of Aztec ballgame players at the court of Charles V, fol. 13/14. Weiditz visited the Spanish court in 1529, where these athletes were demonstrating the ball game (Click on image to enlarge)

The competitive games of the Aztecs that most fascinated the Spaniards used a bouncing rubber ball and were played in formal ball courts. Rubber was unknown at the time in Spain, so the balls used in Spanish games were unable to bounce. The Aztec rubber balls were large and solid, rather like small bowling balls (Durán 1971:316). The chroniclers described many aspects of the game of hipball, in which a ball was kept aloft as much as an hour by the players who used only their buttocks and knees (Duran 1971:313). It was a foul to touch the ball with other body parts such as the hand or arm. The ball players only wore their loincloths and leather thigh protectors and gloves to protect their skin from abrasion. The objective was to pass the ball through rings that were affixed to the sidewalls of the court. The players were so skillful that they were highly regarded and given special privileges such as access to the royal court and special insignia.

Pic 11: Ballcourt, from Durán ‘The Gods...’
Pic 11: Ballcourt, from Durán ‘The Gods...’ (Click on image to enlarge)

This game of hipball was played by the aristocracy for recreation and sport. Noblemen were both players and spectators. Gambling was an integral aspect of the game and Durán mentions that the nobles bet “jewels, slaves, precious stones, fine mantles, the trappings of war, and women’s finery. Others staked their mistresses” (Durán 1971:315). It seems that this game was not restricted to the nobility but that there were also professional ball players who lived only for winning the prizes.
These professional non noble ball players were full time athletes whose economic well being depended upon winning ball games. Durán (1971:316 ff) considers the players to have been gamblers who actually worshipped the game equipment. These men bet so heavily that they gambled their homes, fields, corn supplies and maguey plants (Durán 1971:318). They sold their children and even staked themselves to become slaves. Unfortunately, the chroniclers do not say if these professional ball players of the lower classes also used formal courts or whether they played elsewhere.

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)

The Aztec also had games of chance, two of which are described by Friar Durán. Both of these games of chance are dice games. The best known dice Aztec game, called patolli, has been described by several chroniclers, including Sahagún and Durán. In this game the players used dice made from large beans that were marked on only one side. Four to six bean dice were thrown down at the same time and the position of the dice determined the value of each throw. Each player also had a set of pebbles, either blue or red, that were used as counters. Depending on the value of the throw of dice the players moved their counters around a game board. The patolli gameboards were drawn upon a woven mat with rubber or other substance such as pine soot. The chroniclers report that the usual game board was in the shape of an “X” formed by tracks of small squares. The counters were moved along the squares according to the value of the dice throws.

Pic 13: Execution of a ‘patolli’ player. His board, dice, counters and bundle with superstitious objects are being burnt. Historia de Tlaxcala, fol. 241r
Pic 13: 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)

Patolli was a popular game that was played on feast days, and was usually accompanied by heavy betting. Onlookers, as well as the players, bet upon the outcome of the game, and the stakes were often high. Durán (1971:303) says that “When this game was played, such a crowd of onlookers and gamblers came that the players were pressed aginst each other around the mat, some waiting to play and others to bet. It was a remarkable thing to see.” There were professional patolli gamblers who carried the rolled up mat under their arms and the pebbles and dice in a small case as they moved around looking for prospective players. The Spaniards were not sympathetic to the fact that these gamblers stored their equipment on altars where they offered food and incense in order to increase their luck. The specialized deity of dice was called Macuilxochitl (Durán 1971:305), or Five Flowers. He was invoked by the gamblers when they threw out the bean dice.

Pic 14: Split reed dice from Eastern Nahua, recorded by Alfonso Caso
Pic 14: Split reed dice from Eastern Nahua, recorded by Alfonso Caso (Click on image to enlarge)

A second dice game is described only by Durán (1971:302), and not other chroniclers. In this case the objects used as dice were split reeds, probably with one side convex and the other concave, as such objects are used as dice in modern times by some traditional societies (Culin 1907). Each player also had ten pebbles that were used as counters and a game board described as being formed of small cavities “... carved out of a stuccoed floor in the manner of a lottery board”. The player moved his counters around the game board in accordance to the number of reed dice that fell with the hollow side face upwards. The name of this game is not provided by Durán, nor does he say how many dice were used in each throw. It appears that the pebble counters could be forfeited to the opposing player. Gambling was most likely associated with this dice game, although Durán does not state this specifically.

Pic 15: The deity Macuilxochitl as depicted in the Codex Borgia, folio 62. The illustration shows a ball hanging in a net and a patolli game board, along with four drilled bean dice
Pic 15: The deity Macuilxochitl as depicted in the Codex Borgia, folio 62. The illustration shows a ball hanging in a net and a patolli game board, along with four drilled bean dice (Click on image to enlarge)

Other Mesoamerican Societies
Only hints remain about games played elsewhere in Mesoamerica at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 16th century, but this is due almost certainly to the fact that in most cases there are no surviving eye witness histories. The Yucatec Maya apparently were aficionados of the rubber ball game and patolli among others, although the chronicler, Bishop de Landa, does not mention gambling per se.
On which account they were accustomed to have in each town a large house whitened with lime, open on all sides, where the young men came together for their amusements. They played ball and a kind of game of beans, like dice, as well as many others [Tozzer 1941:124].
Also, illuminated manuscripts produced by the Eastern Nahuas (Codex Borgia), and Mixtecs (Codex Vindobonensis I), both of whom were eastern neighbors of the Aztecs, portray Macuilxochitl or his female counterpart Xochiquetzal (Kendall 1980:32), along with depictions alluding to these games. Accordingly, we know from the written historical record that the rubber ball game and patolli were played by other ethnic groups who were contemporaries of the Aztecs.

Pic 16: Late Classic period Maya ballplayer wearing a deer headdress. The ceramic figurine is about 10 inches tall.
Pic 16: Late Classic period Maya ballplayer wearing a deer headdress. The ceramic figurine is about 10 inches tall. (Click on image to enlarge)

The Deep Prehistory of Mesoamerican Games
Archaeologists and art historians have been able to trace the antecedents of some of the Aztec games back into deep prehistory, although some others have not left material traces of earlier societies. Rubber ball games, the patolli dice game, and I have argued the unnamed Aztec dice game appear to have a deep prehistory in Mesoamerica.
Archaeologists and art historians are able to trace the presence of rubber ball games into the deeper past by means of artistic depictions of games and players, game equipment, and the presence of ball courts. At the time the Europeans arrived in Mesoamerica at least one game using a rubber ball was played in a formal court consisting of a long, playing alley flanked by walls or platforms. For example, much evidence survives to indicate that the ancient Maya played ball during the Classic period (A.D. 300-900), and the discovery of rubber balls in an Olmec site dating to the Middle Preclassic period (900-600 B.C.) show that the Olmec played ball.

Pic 17: Modern players of the rubber ball game in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico.  Note the large ball above the player on the ground at the far right
Pic 17: Modern players of the rubber ball game in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico. Note the large ball above the player on the ground at the far right (Click on image to enlarge)

The oldest evidence of a ball game comes from the site of Paso de la Amada on the southern Mexican Pacific coast, where a ball court dating to 1600 B.C. has been investigated by archaeologists. Since several versions of the rubber ball game are played even today in northwest Mexico, we can say that the Mesoamerican rubber ball games have been popular for at least 3600 years.

Pic 18: Cross section of a building at the Maya site of Chichén Itzá showing a bench upon which a patolli scoreboard was inscribed. A drawing of the scoreboard is also shown
Pic 18: Cross section of a building at the Maya site of Chichén Itzá showing a bench upon which a patolli scoreboard was inscribed. A drawing of the scoreboard is also shown (Click on image to enlarge)

Also, patolli game boards have been found with surprising frequency in Meosamerican archaeological sites. At least 25 Maya sites have game boards etched into either plaster floors or in one case on the top of a masonry bench. These buildings may well be the men’s houses that are described by Bishop Landa in the quotation above. In the non-Maya area patolli game boards are reported from probable Late Postclassic sites (A.D. 1200-1520) in western Mexico and in the Basin of Mexico; the Toltec site of Tula, Mexico, a major Early Postclassic center (A.D. 900-1200); the Late Classic and Epiclassic (A.D. 600-1000/1100) Gulf Coast site of El Tajín, Mexico; the Early Classic site (A.D. 250/300-600) of Teotihuacán. This means that the patolli dice game may have been popular for over 1600 years since there are modern versions still being played in Mexico.

Pic 19: (Above) drawing of a White Mountain Apache scoreboard, which is laid out with rocks. Also shown is a central rock onto which the dice are thrown and three stick dice. (Below) the remains of one of the gameboardsow)
Pic 19: (Above) drawing of a White Mountain Apache scoreboard, which is laid out with rocks. Also shown is a central rock onto which the dice are thrown and three stick dice. (Below) the remains of one of the gameboardsow)  (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, in my own recent work at a shellmound site in southern Mexico I have discovered two superimposed constructed floors which have remains of what I suspect are the game boards from the unnamed Aztec dice game described by Durán and quoted above. These remains consist of evenly spaced small holes or cavities that originally were open circles, but most have been partially destroyed. There are at least ten of these figures and several are overlapping as though people returned to the same exact location and remade the game board. The one surviving complete feature has a central depression where a rock was once positioned but was later removed when the floor was abandoned. Modern traditional people of the American Southwest play dice games using very similar game boards, although in some instances they are formed of rocks and in other cases by small little holes poked into the ground.

Pic 20: Walapai dice game scoreboard compared to proposed scoreboard feature at Tlacuachero. The Walapai feature is laid out with rocks, whereas that of the Chantuto people at Tlacuachero consists of small holes poked into a floor
Pic 20: Walapai dice game scoreboard compared to proposed scoreboard feature at Tlacuachero. The Walapai feature is laid out with rocks, whereas that of the Chantuto people at Tlacuachero consists of small holes poked into a floor (Click on image to enlarge)

In particular, the Walapai of Arizona use a gameboard that is very similar in size and shape to the ancient ones I found on the shellmound except that in the Walapai case the gameboard is formed out of rocks (Culin 1907). It has a central striking stone onto which the Walapai players toss their dice, which are made out of split reeds. The players move counters around the gameboard depending on the value of each throw of the dice. These counters are placed between the rocks but in other societies where little holes are used to form the game board the counters are dropped into the holes. The player whose counter first arrives at a “goal” is the winner.
The older of the two investigated floors at the shellmound was built between 2900 and 2800 B.C. This could mean that we now have a record of ancient dice games going back nearly 5,000 years.

References cited
• Cline, Howard F. 1969, Hernan Cortés and the Aztec Indians in Spain. Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 26(2):70-90
• Culin, Stewart 1907, Games of the North American Indians. 24th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington, D.C.
• Díaz, Gisele and Alan Rodgers 1993, The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript. Dover Publications, New York
• Durán, Fray Diego 1971, Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar. Translated and edited by Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
• Kendall, Timothy 1980, Patolli: A Game of Ancient Mexico. Kirk Game Company, Belmont, Massachusetts
• Leyenaar, Teodoro 1992, Los tres ulamas del siglo XX: sobrevivencias del ullamaliztli, el juego de pelota prehispánico mesoamericano. In El juego de pelota en Mesoamérica: raices y supervivencia, edited by María Teresa Uriarte, pp. 369-389. Siglo Veintiuno Editores, México, D.F
• Ruppert, Karl 1943, The Mercado Chichen Itzá Yucatan. Contributions to American Anthropology and History, No. 43, pp. 224-260 Carnegie Institution, Washington, D.C.
• Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de 1979, The Florentine Codex. Book 8: Kings and Lords. Translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. The School of American Research and the University of Utah. Monographs of the School of American Research Number 14, Part IX, Santa Fe, New Mexico
• 1981, The Florentine Codex. Book 2: The Ceremonies. Translated by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble. The School of American Research and the University of Utah. Monographs of the School of American Research Number 14, Part III, Santa Fe, New Mexico
• Tozzer, Alfred M. 1941, Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University Vol. XVIII. Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York (1966).
• Whittington, E. Michael (editor) 2001, The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Mint Museum of Art and Thames and Hudson, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Picture sources
• Pic 1: from Wikipedia
• Pic 2: illustration courtesy of Felipe Dávalos; image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• Pic 3: photo courtesy of Manuel de Diego Flores
• Pix 4, 5 (L) and 10: images scanned from our own copy of Das Trachtenbuch des Christoph Weiditz, Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin & Leipzig, 1927
• Pix 5 (R), 6, 9 and 12: images from 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
• Pic 7: image from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris) scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pix 8 and 11: images from Durán’s Book of the Gods..., public domain
• Pic 13: image special thanks to, courtesy of and by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections
• Pic 14: image scanned from our own copy of Lieve Verbeeck ‘Bul: A Patolli Game in Maya Lowland’, Board Games Studies 1, 1998, Leiden University, p. 94
• Pic 15: image scanned from ‘The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript’ by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, Dover Publications, New York, 1993
• Pic 16: image scanned from our own copy of ‘The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame’, edited by E. Michael Whittington, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2001 (permission applied for to Hudson Museum, University of Maine)
• Pic 17: image scanned from Leyenaar 1992 (see above)
• Pix 18, 19 and 20: images supplied courtesy of Barbara Voorhies.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 19th 2013

emoticon Q. Why did ancient Mexicans often bet their whole lives (or livelihoods) on the outcome of games?
A. They loved to dice with death.

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