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The Ball Game in Mesoamerica

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The given paper is designed in order to discuss the origins of ballgame and its meaning in Mesoamerica. The topic is essential because games have been an important part of human culture for thousands of years.  Since very old times various civilizations competed on the field of sports, and their sports were based on individual tests of ability and power.

The ball game in Mesoamerica


The ballgame was an essential part of the every day life of a number of civilizations. A lot of courts were found by the investigators. The rules of ballgame were really different with each civilization. The main ideas and theories were however similar. Two teams of players played the ballgame with a firm rubber ball that sometimes had up to 8 pounds. The area for playing may have different dimensions, but they all were constructed as a hollow or walled area. The biggest area for ballgame could be seen in Chichen Itza. It is has the length of 545 Feet and the width of 70 meters. The aim of the play was to pass the gear through stone circles which were on all sides of the playing area just by means of hips.

The ballgame was not just the first ordered play in the history of sport, starting his history 3,500 years ago. It also has a vital religious sense because it represents the fight of the sky and underworld Gods or the struggle between day and night. It is extensively established that the winner team got congratulates and prizes. For the losers, the result was much more impressive. Sometimes they were even killed.

After the coming of the Spanish, the ballgame was prohibited by the conquistador because it was considered to be a heathen ceremony. However the game continued to exist and was played in central Mexico. Ball areas were found in the places of living of many civilizations such as the Toltec Olmec, Aztec and Maya. (Henderson 1997)

The origins of the ballgame

 The history of the sports team which played a rubber ball traces the roots back to 1500 B.C. This happens in the New World on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.  Far away, in the sultry jungles, games with balls were played by the Olmec rules, kings of Mesoamerica’s first

great nations. From there the ancient custom of ceremonial games, with competitive groups of people, playing balls, gambling, ceremony actions, heroes, architecture went all the way through Mexico, to the American Southwest, Caribbean islands and perhaps up the Mississippii River into North America. It was one of the main elements of ceremony and worldly life in the first New World civilizations.

The game was played by all main nations of Mesoamerica.  The Olmecs, the Zapotecs, Aztecs, the Maya and Toltecs took part in the game and the rituals associated with it. More than 200 oval play areas were found in the region from the Mexican border to the south of Arizona. Baquedano wrote:

“The ballgame (called ullamaliztli in Nahuatl) was practised in Mesoamerica (see map) from the Preclassic period (c. 1200 BC) to the Spanish Conquest in 1519. It was played by two sides with a solid rubber ball in specially made courts (tlachtli) (see Figure 1). Its purpose was mainly ritual but there was also a public sporting spectacle accompanied by gambling. It frequently led to sacrifice of the defeated. In this chapter we will first mention several interpretations put forward by modern scholars and then discuss the religious significance and symbolic aspects attributed to the Mesoamerican ballgame–mainly the promotion of agricultural fertility.” (Baquedano 95)

No less than two kinds of this ancient game now exist and are used in modern Mexico. In Sinoloa and Oaxaca the hard rubber balls are now produces and teams greedily play game against each other in township streets and city areas.  In the North-West of Mexico, Sinoloa people play a ballgame Ulama that is directly related to the game of the Aztecs they played at the time of the Spanish occupation. In Oaxaca a different game also connected with prehispanic activity is played with a hard rubber ball that is pushed using a leather glove with nailheads.

In the North of America the Lacross play was treated as a very significant aboriginal game of the Native civilizations.  This main team sport, played initially with a leather ball and a number of throwing racquets, could have its ceremony beginning in Mesoamerica.  It was a well-liked religious and viewer affair among northern Indian clans previous to the coming of the European attackers.  It is reported by early researchers and scientists as being played by groups of anyplace from 7 to 700 warriors on huge open playing areas.  Similar to its analogue in Mexico, sport game was connected to ceremony, religion, and spieling for high stakes. 

The ballgame spread

            From its beginning just about 1500 B.C. in the tropical forests of Gulf Coast Mexico, the ballgame was spread by Olmec traders along trade roads to other areas of early Mesoamerica.  After the Olmec peoples had disappeared the game continued to be a symbol of Precolumbian Mesoamerica. Ballgame was popular with by all the prehispanic civilizations.  In Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras and right through Mexico itself, shiny white ballgame areas, colored with gleaming colors were created in many ancient towns for sport games and different rituals.  Near A.D. 700 the ballgame was brought to the South-West America. There the teams were played the game on oval areas by growing Hohokam civilization. (Szadkowski 2007)

Traces of the ballgame could be found in all these areas. In the Olmec heartland huge stone heads of players were found at the ancient areas.  Some of them are bigger than 9′ in height, others are smaller, but all have the defensive helmets and are considered to be images of Olmec kings.  Additionally, many stone statues portray people wearing solid ballgame or girdles or yokes. In the peoples that lived after the Olmec, stone things connected with the ballgame were also created and clay statuettes wearing ballgame belongings are famous in the ceramic art.  Their weighty defensive gloves, girdles and kneepads undoubtedly determine them as ballgame players and they give apparent facts for a 3000 year history of the ceremony games. (Szadkowski 2007)

Ballgame stakes

Very often ballplayers risked their lives, wellbeing and status on the result of games and viewers had main stakes in sports through gaming and betting on the outcome of competition.  It was as factual in very old Mesoamerica as it is nowadays; just in the prehispanic age risking your life on the sport was accurately true.  In the last part of the ceremony competition the head of the crushed team really lost his head.  In pictures from Precolumbian books like Codex Borgia and on engraved stone borders decorating the corresponding walls of wonderful ball play areas in Chichen Itza and El Tajin, the execution of one team head by the head of another group, or by a priest, is undoubtedly illustrated. The customary tool of sacrifice was a special knife made of obsidian that was the sharpest knife existed in the Precolumbain world. It plainly and promptly dispatched the defended fighter He was considered to be sacrificial oblation, or possibly messenger to the requesting gods.

At the same time as a sacrifice was an important part of the Precolumbian sport game and team members in the great ritual courts at city centers should have been well informed of the opportunity of death with the obsidian knife, other important stakes were also attached to the sport.  Regardless of defensive wearing, wounds from the hard rubber ball were frequent and ballplayers were usually carried seriously hurt from the ball play areas to be attended by doctors.  However the risk was in fact thought to be not worth mentioning in comparison to the glory got by the best players.  Spanish chronicles state that these proficient sportsmen frequently became the escorts and intimates of rulers and were rewarded with honors and unique rights at court.  Most pleased of players was the one who really managed to put the ball through the one of the stone circles situated at the center of each wall of the area.  Typically the game was successful for a team if this was done because the passing of the ball through the circle was so hard that when the team managed to do that the game was finished and:

“The man who sent the ball through the stone ring was surrounded by all.  They honored him, sang songs of praise to him, and joined him in dancing. He was given a very special award of feathers or mantles and breechcloths, something very highly prized.  But what he most prized was the honor involved: that was his great wealth. For he was honored as a man who had vanquished many and had won a battle.” (Whalen 1996)

Betting was an important part of the competition and players and viewers gambled on the result of the match. Henderson tells us about the troubles that usual gambling by community of low position may result in:

They … gambled their homes, their fields, their corn granaries, their maguey plants. They sold their children in order to bet and even staked themselves and became slaves to be sacrificed later if they were not ransomed. (Henderson 1997)

The nobles, who could not lack the riches to reimburse their betting debts, played and visited the game just to have a rest.  According to Duran (p.318) it was necessary to have the support of great prosperity in order to become a member of a sport team. Kings even sometimes played the ballgame for kingdoms, like Axayacatl, ruler of the Aztec, who got his yearly prosperity against that the king of Xochimilco.

The members of playing team as well gamble on the play.  Additionally, at least at the time of the Aztec age, the winning group could collect means through a custom that, at the close of the competition, let them run into the crowd of viewers and grasp jewelry like rich clothes and accessories from the viewers.

Ballgames ancient meanings and rituals

The Mesoamerican ballgame springs from cosmic vision and holy beliefs of the prehispanic civilizations.  Despite the changes with the time into a more material sport performance, the game kept its continuing spiritual meaning for members and viewers.  The sense of the game unquestionably changed over the space and time.  The most widespread explanation sees the movement of the ball in the area as the movement of celestial bodies in the sky.  The ballgame is considered to be a struggle between the sun, and its invigorating principle of light, with the stars and moon which symbolize the principle of darkness. The contrasting forces of life and death, good and evil, dark and light, day and night are representatively played out on the ballgame area. (Henderson 1997)

Closely related to this vision of the ballgame is the cult of richness, the lasting need of agricultural civilization for the productivity of the soil that closely connected with the life-giving warmness and brightness of the sun. Human offering by cutting head is a returning topic connected with ballcourts and ballgame descriptions. The blood that flows from the decapitated captain can be seen as enriching the earth or maybe as a proposition of maintenance to the sun in its battle struggle the night. (Whalen 1996)

In 1972, Esther Pasztory stated that “the ballgame symbolized the death and rebirth of the sun. The path of the ball represented metaphorically the daily and yearly trajectories of the sun; the ballcourt was the underworld, and also the night sky traversed by the sun between sunset and sunrise” ( Pasztory 1983: 124). (Baquedano 99)

Marvin Cohodas ( 1975) tells us that “the ballgame was performed on the equinoxes to influence, by sympathetic magic, the sun’s descent into and subsequent ascent, reborn from the underworld.” (Baquedano 100)

In the Maya area this cosmic fight is found in the creation of the legend about two brothers who play a ballgame in the hell struggling with the gods of death and disease.  After their win in the fight with the forces of the hell they flied to the sky, where the first became the sun and the second – the moon. (Henderson 1997) This famous play of the brave brothers was played again on the ballgame areas of the Classic Maya age by Maya rulers equipped as ballplayers.  In the last act of the sport game, the champions sacrificed their noble enemies, who were taken captive in struggle in preparation for the dramatization of the affair, thus strengthening the power of the winning kings. In the Maya the ballgame area was treated as the entrance to another world. (Henderson 1997)

The Maya version of the ballgame at the time of the Conquest is described in the Popol Vuh, and its role in the mythology of death and sacrifice is demonstrated. More a mythico-religious ritual than a sport, the game usually culminated in human sacrifice, normally decapitation. Thus it can be treated as a formal means of selecting the best qualified ‘victim’, i.e. the loser. The cult may have served purposes of divination and the prognostication of extraterrestrial events, but through time it was increasingly manipulated for worldly political purposes as well. (Baquedano 102)

No matter what the understanding of the game is and how it changes over time, we can be sure that it was connected with the complicated rites and ceremonies.  Fast and temperance in sexual activity were necessary for ballplayers before the game and other necessary preparations contained invocation of priests and other special prayer and makings special gifts in order to insure the win.  (Henderson 1997)

Ballgames in modern world

Now we started realizing that survivals of the Precolumbian game with balls still present in Mexico. No less than two kinds are played by contemporary indigenous nations; one of them can be met in the Oaxaca Valley and the other is present in northwestern Mexico. These days in the Mixtec area of Mexico, a ballgame that springs from the prehispanic ballgame is still played by people.  (Mccomb 2007) The game can be met in the highland vale of Oaxaca however, it is also played in different places where Mixtec and Zapotec peoples that came from Oaxaca live.  The ballgame is an analogue of the old Mesoamerican ball game. In the contemporary state of Sinoloa, situated in the North-West of Mexico, a present kind of the very old game of Ullamalitzli is now played.  It is called Ulama, and this name even springs from the Precolumbian Aztec game name (ullamalitzli) and hard rubber balls are cautiously created to be used by the playing teams. (Szadkowski 2007)


For more than 3000 years the game with ball was really a game of rulers and one of the most remarkable symbols of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.  In modern Mexico the inheritance of this prehispanic ritual is kept in Mixtec ballgame and in the Ulama game.  Nevertheless, not only in Mexico but all over the contemporary world, we continue the Precolumbian history by taking part in team sport games played with balls.

Works Cited

Duff-Cooper, Andrew, ed. Contests. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

Henderson, John S. The World of the Ancient Maya. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Mccomb, David G. Sports in World History. New York: Routledge, 2004. Questia. 16 May 2007

Szadkowski, Joe. “Ballgame Played the Old-Fashion Way.” The Washington Times 11 Nov. 2001: 5. Questia. 16 May 2007

Whalen, Michael E., and Paul E. Minnis. “Ball Courts and Political Centralization in the Casas Grandes Region.” American Antiquity 61.4 (1996)

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