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Mexicolore contributor Eric Taladoire

The mother of all ballgames...

We are delighted to present, as the Olympic Games begin in London (July 2012), this introductory essay by Ask the Experts Panellist Eric Taladoire (Professor Emeritus, Archaeology of the Americas Department, Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France) on the world famous ritual ballgame from ancient Mesoamerica. We are most grateful to Professor Taladoire for writing this article specially for us.

Pic 1: Foreboding in the Florentine Codex prior to the Spanish Conquest: Moctezuma’s emissaries return with bad news...
Pic 1: Foreboding in the Florentine Codex prior to the Spanish Conquest: Moctezuma’s emissaries return with bad news...  (Click on image to enlarge)

The morning is chilly, in Tenochtitlan, in these early days of 1519. Fresh snow crowns Popocatépetl. This doesn’t prevent top officials gathering around the Teotlachco, the great ballcourt. The well publicised ballgame will be a great event, pitting the Mexica tlatoani Moctezuma against his friend Nezahualpilli, the king of Texcoco. The stakes are high: rumours have been pouring into the metropolis of the arrival of strangers. From the faraway lands of Tabasco, runners have brought news of fierce battles between Maya warriors and invaders, sometimes mounted on huge deer. From the Gulf coast, Mexica spies boast having seen great houses floating on the sea, with numerous human beings on board. Could they be Quetzalcoatl’s followers? The Ce Acatl commemoration year is near. The game will decide the fate of the Empire. It is a matter too serious for the Mexica bookmakers to decide. Only the highest authorities can bet. Convinced of impending doom, the disillusioned Nezahualpilli is ready to stake his kingdom. Moctezuma hopes to be able to prevent the invaders travelling to the capital.

Pic 2: Moctezuma (L - detail from painting by Antontio Rodríguez) and Nezahualpilli (R - detail from Codex Ixtlilxochitl, folio 108)
Pic 2: Moctezuma (L - detail from painting by Antontio Rodríguez) and Nezahualpilli (R - detail from Codex Ixtlilxochitl, folio 108) (Click on image to enlarge)

Shortly before noon, Moctezuma and Nezahualpilli make their solemn entrance, followed by renowned players, Cantonatl and Becam among them. Soon, the game starts, both kings running for the bouncing ball, trying their best to send it back to the opposite side. After a few exchanges, they return to the ‘royal box’ and leave it to the hips and forearms of their chosen players to decide the fate of the party. Slowly, Nezahaualpilli’s team gets the upper hand. They win a first raya, then a second. At the third raya, the third winning point, the omens will decide: the invaders will enter Tenochtitlan. An astounding jump from one of Nezahualpilli’s players sends the heavy ball out of range of the other team. The crowd cheers. Texcoco wins. Both kings stand aghast: the gods have decided: Cortés’ army will enter Mexico.

Pic 3: Model of the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 3: Model of the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

This narrative is, of course, utterly fictitious, and, as usual, any resemblance with existing persons would be completely coincidental. Unless...! According to Spanish chroniclers, this ballgame DID take place in Tenochtitlan, shortly before the arrival of Cortés on the coast of Veracruz, and it was divinatory, to discover if the Mexica gods were indeed on the invaders’ side. The pre-Hispanic ballgame, the tlachtli or ullamaliztli, was not a sport: it had a deep religious and ritual significance. The teotlachco, the ballcourt, was located in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, just west of the main temple. Its position corresponds to the direction of the underworld, sunset, where the sun enters darkness, night, to reappear next morning. The game is linked to the daily and annual course of the Sun, who provides fertility and life. As such, the game offers a parallel with the ruling monarch’s sacred duty.

Pic 4: Restored section of the ballcourt, Takalik Abaj
Pic 4: Restored section of the ballcourt, Takalik Abaj (Click on image to enlarge)

The first known ballcourts were built during the Middle Preclassic (1500-300 BC), at Paso de la Amada, in Chiapas, then at Takalik Abaj, El Ujuxte, in Guatemala. Slowly, the game became more popular, and by the Late Preclassic (300 BC-250 AD), most Mesoamerican people were already playing: ballcourts are documented in the Maya area, in Veracruz, in Central and West Mexico. Strangely, no court has yet been documented for any Olmec site, yet the very name Olmec means the people from the land of rubber. Without rubber, no ball, no game! The ball, that weighs about 4 or 5 pounds, is made of solid rubber, and bounces very high. But, given its weight and size, it is very dangerous and it can wound, or even kill a player, if he makes a mistake or a wrong movement. Players can only strike the ball with their protected forearm (arm ulama), or the hips (hip ulama), without using hands or feet. They play almost naked, wearing only a leather loincloth, to protect their hips and buttocks, and sometimes a glove to cover their hand when they have to lean on the ground to catch a low ball.

Pic 5: Ceramic ballgame model from West Mexico
Pic 5: Ceramic ballgame model from West Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

It is of course difficult for archaeologists to understand the game, to determine the rules, how to score. Luckily, beside the ballcourts proper, we can also rely on a vast array of evidence. Ballplayers are frequently represented on stelae, panels, ceramic vessels, paintings from numerous Mesoamerican civilisations. From West Mexico, but also from other areas, some 50 three-dimensional representations of the ballgame provide vivid images of ballplayers and ballcourts. We often forget that Mesoamerican civilisations were literate: in the Mixtec, Zapotec or Nahuatl pictographic manuscripts, more than 150 ballcourt representations document the game, its symbolic value, its meaning. Lastly, the Spaniards were fascinated by the game, at least until they understood its religious meaning: they left us vivid descriptions - even if many times it’s difficult to understand what they mean... It was so new to them that their texts need complex analysis.

Pic 6: Hip ball game (after Ted J. J. Leyenaar)
Pic 6: Hip ball game (after Ted J. J. Leyenaar) (Click on image to enlarge)

Despite its richness and diversity, this corpus would remain useless, if the game had not survived in a remote area of Mexico until today. In the state of Sinaloa, ulama remained alive. Even if there are no formal ballcourts, as in pre-Hispanic times, people still play, allowing us to understand how to play, and how to score. It proves easy to compare a player’s position with its pre-Hispanic counterpart. For instance, many pre-Hispanic ballplayers wore only one glove. Contemporary ballplayers always lean on the ground with the same hand, according to their position in the court. This proves the value of comparing ancient representations with modern. Similarly, understanding the scoring has always been problematic. But, from ethnographic data, we know that faults (such as not sending the ball back, or allowing it to go out of the court) are called rayas. The Spanish chroniclers use the same word. A raya means that, when a fault occurs, the losing team must play in a reduced area, indicated by a mark on the playing field. We know, then, that points are scored when the players let the ball out of the field, when they fail to send it back... Even if we must remain careful when using such ethnographic data, comparative analysis gives us a better understanding of the game, during its pre-Hispanic heyday.

Pic 7: Ballcourt at Monte Albán (Late Classic)
Pic 7: Ballcourt at Monte Albán (Late Classic) (Click on image to enlarge)

Basically, the game involves two opposing teams composed of one to several players, in an architectural court. Each team occupies one half of the court. The court consists of a long, narrow playing alley, where the players move around, between two lateral buildings. Each structure includes a sloping wall, from which the ball can roll back to the playing field. The slopes sometimes fall to the alley floor with a low vertical wall, high enough to allow the players to catch the ball with their hip. Sometimes, a small bench substitutes this vertical surface. Low cornices crowned the slopes, to prevent the ball from bouncing out of the court. The spectators probably stood on top of these lateral structures. The playing alley of most ancient courts is usually open at both ends, and the unskilled players would stand there, to prevent the ball from getting out of reach. A “lost” ball meant a fault, as in tennis. With time, ballcourts adopted an enclosed form, with end structures, which gave them their traditional ‘I’ shape, as illustrated in the codices (see pic 8).

Pic 8: Ballcourt, Codex Borbonicus
Pic 8: Ballcourt, Codex Borbonicus (Click on image to enlarge)

The game involved sending the heavy ball back and forth, with hips and buttocks, sometimes with the forearm, each team trying to send the ball out of reach of their opponents. Points were scored when a team failed to send the ball back, or let it fall on the ground. Other points, when a player struck the ball with a forbidden part of the body. Ethnological data indicate that the score of both teams varied simultaneously, as in tennis. For instance, a team could score two points, and then lose the third; then its score would go back to zero, while the other team would score one, and so forth. The scoring system could make the game last for hours, before one team scored the necessary points to win. The best players would obviously stand in the alley, while others helped them at both ends, whether open or enclosed. It seems that faults sometimes led to the part of the alley occupied by the offending team being reduced in size, crowding the players into the remaining space.

Pic 9: Ballcourts at (clockwise from top L): Uxmal, Tenam Puente, Tikal, Mixco Viejo,
Pic 9: Ballcourts at (clockwise from top L): Uxmal, Tenam Puente, Tikal, Mixco Viejo,  (Click on image to enlarge)

Ballcourts, whether open or enclosed, can be found in almost every important city of Mesoamerica. Usually, they stand close to the main temples, in the heart of the city, but in the lower part of the sacred precincts. Up to now, some 1,800 courts have been registered. Most cities can count on one or two ballcourts, such as La Milpa, Tonina, Yaxchilan... But some cities, such as Bonampak or Motul de San José, do not own one. We don’t know why. At the medium-size centre of La Joyanca, no court has been registered, but a nearby small site owns one. In the Tonina valley, besides two courts in the city centre, several others are located in minor groups, such as Mosil or Petulton. Recent researches in Belize revealed the presence of ballcourts in very small sites, such as Chau Hiix. This remains to be explained, but we cannot rule out the idea that those courts might have been training areas, where ballplayers could play without the social and ritual implications of the main games.

Pic 10: The great ballcourt at Chichén Itzá
Pic 10: The great ballcourt at Chichén Itzá (Click on image to enlarge)

If most cities boasted one or two courts, a few frantically built large numbers. Six courts have been registered at Tula, Chichen Itza has 13, El Tajin almost 20, and Cantona, 24! This does not correspond to any kind of Olympic games. More likely, each court belonged to some socio-political entity living in the city. It tied the game to a ruling family, or to a specific group, as documented at Chichen Itza, where several distinct entities were living together. Strangely, the huge metropolis of central Mexico, Teotihuacan, did not have a single ballcourt. It seems that the Teotihuacanos favoured another ballgame with sticks, that we know very little about. Ongoing excavations at the Citadel have disclosed what could be an old court abandoned before Teotihacan reached its heyday. But we still need further research to understand fully why Teotihuacan preferred another game to the already booming tlachtli. At all events, at the peak of Teotihuacan expansion, tlachtli seems to have dwindled, except in regions where the metropolis’ influence was minimal, as in West Mexico, central Veracruz, or Cantona.

Pic 11: La Corona panel: a Late Classic ballplayer (L); hip ball game, Sinaloa (after Ted J. J. Leyenaar) (R)
Pic 11: La Corona panel: a Late Classic ballplayer (L); hip ball game, Sinaloa (after Ted J. J. Leyenaar) (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Teotihuacan’s fall around 600 AD marks the ballgame’s heyday. More than half of all known ballcourts were built during the Late Classic, between 600 and 900 AD. The game’s popularity lasted until the Conquest, and even after, in remote areas, where the Spanish domination wasn’t as strong, as in northern Mexico.
What could be the explanation for such popularity, for so long a period of time? As mentioned above, the most ancient courts were built around 1200 BC, the Spaniards saw the game in 1521 AD, and it remains alive in 2012. More than three millennia of existence! How could a game last so long?

Pic 12: Tikal ballgame grafffiti
Pic 12: Tikal ballgame grafffiti (Click on image to enlarge)

A game? This is the term coined by the Spanish chroniclers, in reference to medieval ballgames, such as pelota vasca, because they largely failed to grasp its roots, or its religious significance. This doesn’t mean that tlachtli wasn’t a physical activity, with its rules, and its special features. As mentioned already, the players had to train, maybe in smaller courts. And sometimes, as in minor sites in Oaxaca, warriors played to pass the time, as well as to build up their strength. But the game has a deep ritual and religious significance.

Pic 13: Tonina ballcourt marker
Pic 13: Tonina ballcourt marker (Click on image to enlarge)

Ballcourts are always located in the city centre, among other prominent buildings: temples, palaces, and elite residences... They are often decorated with sculptures, projecting heads inserted into walls, and paintings, while stone markers define the alley axis or centre. The markers usually represent the king that built the court. The king himself is frequently represented in ballplayer attire, as in Copan, or on the steps of the Yaxchilan stairway. At Tenochtitlan, Moctezuma II played against Nezahualpilli, and Moctezuma I against the king of Xochimilco. Tlachtli clearly formed part of the activities of the élite; it was a privilege of the highest ranks of Mesoamerican societies. It also means that the game was profoundly intertwined with beliefs and rituals.

Pic 14: The ‘I’-shaped ‘teotlachco’ in the sacred precinct at Tenochtitlan (L); drawing of the ballcourt at Chinkultic (R)
Pic 14: The ‘I’-shaped ‘teotlachco’ in the sacred precinct at Tenochtitlan (L); drawing of the ballcourt at Chinkultic (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Obviously, its meaning must have changed through time and space. The game played by the Preclassic Maya, at Cerros or Pacbitún, in the deep tropical forest, differs from its counterpart at La Quemada, in the arid valleys of northwest Mexico. Even so, it is possible to establish some universal features, common to most courts. As mentioned above, ballcourts are generally located close to pyramids and palaces, at a lower level, as in Copan, Uxmal, Tonina or Tenochtitlan. The pyramids are the home of the gods and the ancestors; the king lives in the palace. The ballcourt stands for the doorway to the underworld, the world of death, darkness and rebirth. At Tenochtitlan and in other sites, the ballcourt is located west of the twin pyramid, in the direction of the setting sun.

Pic 15: Codex Aubin: decapitation scene (top); decapitation: bas-relief from Chichen Itza (after Marquina) (bottom)
Pic 15: Codex Aubin: decapitation scene (top); decapitation: bas-relief from Chichen Itza (after Marquina) (bottom) (Click on image to enlarge)

Besides, ballgame iconography frequently depicts sacrificial scenes, mostly through decapitation. From the neck of headless players at Chichen Itza, at Aparicio flows of blood are transformed into flowers, vegetal growth, and maize. Decapitation is linked with maize, but also to maguey cultivation. The game can then be interpreted as a fertility ritual. Through the game, the king confronts the forces of the underworld to obtain fertility, and the rebirth of vegetation, of staple food. Throughout its long history, tlachtli remained firmly rooted in Mesoamerican cosmology and daily life. Even after the Spanish conquest, when native religious beliefs began to dwindle, the game retained its agricultural meaning, in remote communities, allowing its survival and rebirth till our days, up to the Olympic games in Barcelona or London, the World Cup in South Africa.

Pic 16: Gathering ‘hule’ (rubber) (L); ballgame player - illustration by Miguel Covarrubias based on the Codex Maglabecchiano
Pic 16: Gathering ‘hule’ (rubber) (L); ballgame player - illustration by Miguel Covarrubias based on the Codex Maglabecchiano (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, without tlachtli, Cantona or Bekham would not have been the ballplayers we know today.

1) RUBBER - from the rubber tree! (Castilla elástica) - see pic 16.
2) Pictures - all courtesy Eric Taladoire, except -
• Pic 1: image scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro facsimile edition of the Florentine Codex, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 2l, 3, 10: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2r: Codex Ixtlilxochitl image scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition published by ADEVA, Graz, Austria, 1976
• Pic 4: from Wikipedia
• Pic 8: image from the Codex Borbonicus (original in the Bibliotheque de l’Assembée Nationale, Paris); scanned with permission from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 16r: image (detail) scanned from The Aztecs: People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, University of Oklahoma Press, 1978.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 26th 2012

emoticon Q. Why were there no reserve players?
A. In those days nobody could afford hip replacements...

‘Oh balls!’

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