General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Jul 2018/2 Rain
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Image from the Maya Creation Story from Living Maya Time

RESOURCES: Maya creation story and the ballgame

One of the best resources on the web for studying the ancient Maya has to be the ‘Living Maya Time’ site, published by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, USA. Very carefully researched and beautifully presented, it is a treasure-trove for teacher and pupil alike. Viewable in English and Spanish versions, the site contains entire sections on the Maya people, Maya Sun, the Calendar, Corn and Maya Time, a unique glossary of words and terms, map, videos, games and challenges, a superb resources listing, AND - all the images on the site you can download, as hi-res files, and use for educational purposes. We include two of them here... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The Maya Maize God rises from the earth (a turtle), helped by his sons the two Hero Twins
Pic 1: The Maya Maize God rises from the earth (a turtle), helped by his sons the two Hero Twins (Click on image to enlarge)

The creation story of the ancient Maya, retold centuries later in the Popol Vuh sacred book of the Maya, involves struggles between heroes and underworld lords, several attempts by the gods to create humans out of wood, clay and eventually maize, tricks and challenges, the playing of the ritual ballgame, the birth of the sun and the moon, and plenty more. We have our own resources and listings on the creation myth, the ballgame and on the Popol Vuh (remember our Maya Links page...) but would strongly recommend you visit the Smithsonian website.

Pic 2: The ancient Mesoamerican ballgame, depicted in part of a mural by artist Diego Rivera (picture source unknown)
Pic 2: The ancient Mesoamerican ballgame, depicted in part of a mural by artist Diego Rivera (picture source unknown) (Click on image to enlarge)

National Geographic are now producing some fine resources of their own on the Maya. Follow the link below to see a reconstruction today of the ancient ballgame and to hear of attempts to involve women as well as the next generation in keeping the tradition alive. By reading the article itself - and following the links highlighted in the text - you will learn about the ‘recipe’ for rubber - that only the Maya knew - to make the ball bouncy, and about the different versions of the game in ancient Mesoamerica, and see a 3,000-year-old rubber ball...

Illustration of the ball court at Copán, Honduras, by Tatiana Proskouriakoff
Illustration of the ball court at Copán, Honduras, by Tatiana Proskouriakoff (Click on image to enlarge)

Here are a few ‘key points’ about the famous ritual ballgame:-
• Over 3,500 years old
• Oldest recorded team sport with a ball anywhere in the world
• Played by all great ancient Mesoamerican cultures
• Each people had its own particular version: the rules changed through time and space; men and women’s versions existed
• Maya name was Pok-ta-pok; Aztec was Ullamaliztli
• Minimum of two, maximum of seven players on either team
• Classic shape of the ballcourt was a capital ‘I’
• Archaeologists have now discovered around 2,000 ball courts throughout Mesoamerica
• Skull racks are usually found near ancient ball courts, telling us that human sacrifice was linked to the ballgame
• Sacrifices involved decapitation rather than heart removal
• Most scholars now agree it was the LOSING team (or captain) that was sacrificed
• The ball court was a sacred space
• It was gods who first played the ballgame
• The ball represented the movement of the sun (god)
• The ball weighed over 1.5 kilos
• Key rule: the players could not cross the centre line, only the ball
• The game was linked not just to cosmology but also to agriculture, fertility and renewal
• Rulers placed bets on the game; it served as a way to diffuse tension within society and between rival city-states, sometimes settling disputes without resort to war
• Common to all versions: players had to hit the ball with their hips, protected by a tough leather belt

Illustration of the Acropolis at Copán by Tatiana Proskouriakoff: see if you can spot where the ball court is...! Open to get the answer.
Illustration of the Acropolis at Copán by Tatiana Proskouriakoff: see if you can spot where the ball court is...! Open to get the answer. (Click on image to enlarge)

• The hoops - which were only just bigger than the ball! - were a late addition
• Oldest version: aim simply to get ball from one end of the court to the other
• Ballcourts were usually located near the centre of the town/city
• Game was invented not by the Maya but by the Olmec (‘People of Rubber’)
• Most - but not all - ball courts were big; Maya ones were bigger than Aztec ones
• Biggest ball court of all at Chichén Itzá (which actually had 13 courts in total)
• 4 corners (painted different sacred colours in codices) represented 4 world directions or quarters
• Other rules: ball must not bounce more than twice before being returned; you LOST points if you a) used wrong part of body, b) sent the ball out of court, c) missed a shot, d) failed to return ball within two bounces...
• The ball was about the size of an adult human’s head, and both were believed to have a life/spirit of their own
• Some believe the ballgame itself was a symbolic attempt to control cosmic forces, and (bit like quidditch) was played at different ‘levels’
• Some courts had vertical walls, some had sloping ones
• Winning team given great privileges, including the right to take jewellery and other goodies from the spectators
• In the later version (with hoops), if the ball went through the hoop - end of the match. Winner takes all! Successful player treated as a hero for rest of life! Best players positioned near centre of the corridor.

Copán illustrations scanned from An Album of Maya Architecture by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1963.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 17th 2018

‘Have any ancient rubber balls been found?’

Our section on the ritual ballgame

‘When the ballgame is/was played at night, wouldn’t the burning rubber ball give off poisonous gases?’

The Living Maya Time website
Click HERE to see the video on the Maya creation story
Click HERE to see the National Geographic video on reviving the ancient ballgame
‘The Rubber Ball Game A Universal Mesoamerican Sport’ by Christopher Jones, Penn Museum, 1985 (scholarly!)
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