General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 8 May 2021/9 Flower
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The Aztec pole climbing ceremony/game/sport/entertainment


With London hosting the 30th. Olympiad in 2012, it’s worth remembering that a) Mexico hosted the 19th. Olympic Games in 1968 and that b) in the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece there were no ball games (they weren’t considered ‘serious’ enough!) - yet Mexico is home to the oldest recorded team sport with a ball anywhere in the world, and it was very much a game ‘of life and death’... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Some of the goodies at the top...
Some of the goodies at the top...

But let’s start with some of the least known ones: the main picture above shows an annual Aztec pole-climbing ‘ceremony’ - in fact it was a competition between Aztec youths to be the first to climb the pole to get and keep the goodies at the top (flowers, banners, a bird-shaped god figure made of cake, and a warrior’s shield). SNAG! - the pole was heavily smeared with grease, especially near the top...

The ‘Voladores’ (‘flyers’) ceremony: can you spot the musician at the top?!
The ‘Voladores’ (‘flyers’) ceremony: can you spot the musician at the top?! (Click on image to enlarge)

Also involving a tall pole was the ‘Flyers’ ceremony (Voladores in Spanish): but this was no competition. Accompanied by a musician who somehow played a flute and drum while dancing on the tiny platform at the very top, greeting in turn the four cardinal points (N,S,E,W), four brave young men, dressed in bird costumes, climbed to the top, tied their ankles to very long ropes, then ‘flew’ off, head first, from the platform; as it rotated, the ‘dancers’ circled the pole, swinging ever wider and lower (as the ropes unwound) until they reached the bottom. SNAG! - the pole had to be cut the right length as the dancers HAD to circle the pole exactly 13 times, since 13 x 4 = 52, the number of years in the ancient calendar.

Ancient Mexican marbles or jacks...
Ancient Mexican marbles or jacks... (Click on image to enlarge)

More ‘down-to-earth’ (literally) were gentle, homely games similar to our Jacks and Marbles - throwing balls along the ground at another ball or globe in the centre (in later versions a throwing line was marked in), or tossing a small stone into the air, trying to hit clay balls, stones or seeds laid out on a mat. SNAG! - Rarely played for fun, many Aztec games involved betting, often on a serious scale, something the Aztecs LOVED to engage in...

The Aztec dice game of ‘patolli’
The Aztec dice game of ‘patolli’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs inherited a famous board game from earlier cultures called Patolli, very roughly similar to the old game of Ludo (remember?!) No-one knows the exact rules, but the basics involved rolling ‘dice’ (black beans, each with small white spots painted on it to mark its value) onto a reed mat, marked out as the ‘board’, with black lines in the shape of a cross. Often just with two players, the game had connections with the sacred calendar - the board had 4 quarters, each with 13 ‘squares’ on it (remember what 4 x 13 was...?!) SNAG! - Plenty of Aztecs got addicted to this game, and ended up betting all their belongings on it.

The Aztecs enjoyed the 3,500 year old ritual ballgame - a sport ‘of life and death’!
The Aztecs enjoyed the 3,500 year old ritual ballgame - a sport ‘of life and death’! (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst many ordinary Aztec citizens played Patolli, you had to be the son of a noble - and an athletic one at that - to play Ancient Mexico’s most famous sport, a ritual ball game the Aztecs called ‘Ullamaliztli’. The court - shaped like a thick capital ‘I’ - was called ‘tlatchtli’, and the two teams (from 2-7 players on each) had to try and get the bouncy rubber ball from one end to the opposite end, without crossing the centre line. Other ways to score were gradually introduced, like hitting marker stones, hitting the ball through stone rings on the walls, winning points off the opposing team’s mistakes... But the spirit of the game was to keep the ball moving at all costs, as it represented the movement of the sun in the sky during the day. SNAG! - Human sacrifice was closely linked to the game - skull racks have regularly been found very close to ballcourts...

Learn more about the pole-climbing ceremony...

‘Pre-Hispanic marbles, or jacks?’

A little more about Patolli...

‘Oh balls!’

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: No connection at all with Ludo (that we know of). However keep visiting - later this summer we hope to flag up a possible connection between Monopoly and ancient Mexican (board) games! The sacrifice connection with the ball game is tricky but important and indisputable. The game was played on different ‘levels’ (celestial, human, underworld...), and it appears that in post-ballgame ritual sacrifice the victim didn’t have their heart cut out but the head cut off! Decapitation was associated with fertility and renewal (the Aztecs believed the head is home to one of our three ‘souls’) and the head was of similar size and shape to the ball itself. Of course the ‘original’ connection comes from remembering that it was the gods themselves who first a) played the ritual ballgame and b) set life and movement going at the start of our world (‘The Fifth Sun’). Players were thus giving (their own) life in order to a) repay the gods for their own sacrifice, b) help perpetuate life itself, and c) to help maintain all-important balance in the universe (the concept of balance is central to the ballgame: the two equally matched teams, the need to have the opposing team to play ‘off’ [in order to score with the ring], the duality of top/bottom halves of the body - more on this anon...!)