The Mesoamerican Ballgame
July 19, 2007 5:52 PM   Subscribe

The Mesoamerican Ballgame was central to the culture of pre-Columbian Central America, with Mayan kings using ah pitzlaw (he the ballplayer) as one of their royal titles. It is played with a rubber ball, which sometimes had human skulls for cores. The object of the game was to get the ball through a vertical hoop. Called many names throughout history, pitz, ulama and juego de pelota, this game has been played for 3000 years. Though usually a form of recreation, sometimes it would be played for ritual purposes, with the players of the losing side being sacrificed. [more inside]
posted by Kattullus (21 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

"O mighty Quetzalcoatl, look with favor on our sacrifice unto you! We offer you these, our second-best ball players!"
posted by Legomancer at 6:31 PM on July 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post. This is a fascinating topic.

Aw, man, the main link doesn't include the VI. There's a ball court here, the only one in the Lesser Antilles, I think.
posted by ibmcginty at 6:41 PM on July 19, 2007

If ever a sport cried out for performance enhancing drugs, this was it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:12 PM on July 19, 2007

Thanks for this. Well-executed website full of not-so-distant historical facts. For some reason I was just thinking about this game the other day while driving to work. Connection?
posted by spaceproject at 7:16 PM on July 19, 2007

I forget where I read this, but I think some scholars think that it was the winning side that won the honor of being sacrificed.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 7:23 PM on July 19, 2007

Cool! I've been the ball court at Copan in Honduras. The place is full of all kinds of energy. Great post and great reading.
posted by Eekacat at 8:40 PM on July 19, 2007

The ball game was played with different rules and different ball sizes at different times. The vast majority of the ball courts are small, and have no there is no way to get the ball through the ring.

What the rules were are not really known. In no case was the winner sacrificed. The losers sometimes were, but probably not often. Sometimes captives were forced to play, but probably were drugged or otherwise handicapped.
posted by Xoc at 9:09 PM on July 19, 2007

Some other links:
posted by uncanny hengeman at 9:10 PM on July 19, 2007

Man this whole time I was waiting to hear what the whole point of the game was.

It said somewhere in there that the game is still played in some places today. Do they just make up their own rules? I understand that the rules varied throughout history, but I would assume they need a better starting point than "hmm maybe they had to keep the ball off the ground?"

Still a very interesting post though, I liked it.
posted by Defenestrator at 10:17 PM on July 19, 2007

I bet a lot of modern sports would pose the same problem — given a ruined arena and a few preserved bits of equipment, it would be pretty tough to work out the rules.

Imagine looking at the remains of a baseball diamond and trying to figure out how baseball worked. Were the bases targets? Was the club a weapon? — and if so, why was only one player armored? There was a ball, but where the hell was the goal?
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:23 PM on July 19, 2007

with the players of the losing side being sacrificed.

Am I the only one that would start watching modern day sports if this was the case?

It seems like a laudable practice.
posted by oxford blue at 12:26 AM on July 20, 2007

I took my daughter to see this at the New Orleans Museum of Art and it was called the "oldest game." One aspect that spoke volumes about the physical abilities of the players was - they wore STONE hip guards for blocking and they looked like they weighed about 70 lbs. If this comes to your museum, you ought to go see it. Facinating!
posted by winks007 at 5:29 AM on July 20, 2007

The stone hip guards that are commonly seen in museums are actually funerary articles. The open end of the piece represents the jaguar, which in Mayan mythology could lead you to the underworld. The actually hip guards were made of leather and rubber.
posted by anansi at 5:49 AM on July 20, 2007

"I forget where I read this, but I think some scholars think that it was the winning side that won the honor of being sacrificed."

That's actually what I was told as well when I visited the ball field at Chichen Itza.
posted by JaredSeth at 7:26 AM on July 20, 2007

That's actually what I was told as well when I visited the ball field at Chichen Itza.

Public Service Announcement: Do not believe anything you are told by tour guides. Sometimes they know what they're talking about, sometimes they're misinformed, sometimes they just make shit up. It's sort of like Walking Wikipedia, except there's nobody to edit it.

Nice post! Now, if only we could institute public sacrifice for losing at MetaFilter...
posted by languagehat at 8:01 AM on July 20, 2007

I'm so glad Eakacat said that. I had the weirdest feeling in the ball court at Chichen Itza, energy, maybe that was it.
The game was also so physically gruelling.
posted by Wilder at 10:00 AM on July 20, 2007

"Watch a ballgame" it says! I expected grunting actors leaping around after a ball, and possibly pretending to be sacrificed in a bloody and grueling manner. It's a load of photos of a bit of stone! And why wasn't there a Speedball II - Brutal Deluxe style computer game waiting for me when I elected to play the game? Oooo....historical facts, those capture the thrill.

I want my penny back. WAH!!!
posted by howfar at 10:40 AM on July 20, 2007

With all due respect to Kattullus and the post, this link is not directly related to the ballgame, but snsranch posted a song yesterday to Metafilter Music (which he invited me to collaborate in), and we used phrases in Quiche in it, so it shares the Mayan theme with this post, that's why I thought anyone commenting in this post could be interested in hearing it.

The link goes to MefiMusic, so I hope no one will be upset for it. The song is called Kumätz (snake, in Quiche).
posted by micayetoca at 11:59 AM on July 20, 2007

A snake in quiche? I prefer bacon.
posted by howfar at 12:14 PM on July 20, 2007

Seconding what languagehat mentioned. Typically the "opposing" team was made up of captured warriors and were usually killed at the end of the tourney.

languagehat, might you have the time to listen to Kumätz? I would love to hear a comment from you about it, as it is an attempt to recreate the sounds of the Maya. Judging from your previous comment, this might be right up your alley.

Anyone interested in further reading on this topic, or the Maya in general should check out the Popol Vuh. There are many great stories in there!

Thanks for the great post!
posted by snsranch at 7:35 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

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