the Ancient Ball Game

One of the most prevalent things in the Mesoamerican world is the ball court. A game played – almost impossible to score – where the loser actually loses his head. At least, so the modern interpretation goes.

There seems to be an unusual prevalence of the head in the Mayan literature of the Hero Twins. The father of the Hero Twins lost his head which then spit into the hand of a girl, who then became pregnant with the Hero Twins. The pair grew to journey to the Underworld and beat the game to “resurrect” their father – as some sources say: free him to be reincarnated. During the ensuing Ball Game one of the Hero Twins loses his own head, which is used for the game ball for a while until replaced by a gourd.

Perhaps the tale is mixing metaphors. On one hand, giving some basis for belief in reincarnation, and on the other: describing cosmological events.

So, is the tale of the Hero Twins really a cosmological story? The head that spits to impregnate the young goddess sounds much like a “god” figure (i.e. planet – round like a head; see the previous post on the Olmec heads), so where in the cosmology is a “god” killed and spits to impregnate another that gives birth to twins?

Are they compressing a couple of suns into one here or what? And how does this relate to the classic Ball Game?

“In prehistoric Mexico, the ball bouncing between the players on opposing teams represented the sun struggling to rise out of the night sky and then falling again at the end of the day, as well as a changing of the seasons.”

“Fertility is a theme of the ballgame from the earliest times; for example, Formative period ballplayer figurines – most likely female – often wear maize icons. The theme of solar movement is tied to fertility and the bouncing ball is thought to have represented the sun, and the sacrifice of a ballplayer represented the death of the sun, which would then be reborn. In its inherent duality, the game appears as a struggle between day and night, and/or a battle between life and the underworld. The stone scoring rings are said to signify sunrise and sunset, or equinoxes. Courts were considered portals to the underworld and were built in key locations within the central ceremonial precincts.”

Here, the interpretations about the ball relate it to the movement of the Sun and specifically it’s struggle against the darkness of nighttime.

The Hohokam, early inhabitants in Southern Arizona, as well as the Sinagua, in Northern Arizona, seem to have had ballcourts. The one at Wupatki, near Flagstaff, AZ, appears to be the northernmost example of the ballcourt.

While living in Northern Arizona, I had the good fortune to come across another apparent ball court in the National Forest there. It was a long depression ringed with stones – not as deep as the ritual ballcourts so perhaps this one was used only for recreation – about seventy-five feet along each side with rounded ends.

What is puzzling is that there are no ritual ballcourts at that greatest of ancient cities, Teotihuacan. But murals there show that several ball games were played there for recreation, even if not for ritual purpose: a two-player game in an open-ended masonry ballcourt and a game with teams using sticks on an open field whose end zones are marked by stone monuments.

So there were various versions of the game over the centuries from something resembling field hockey to something similar to soccer. Modern scholars assume the “hip-ball” version to be the most widespread variety.

It seems to have been more than a simple sport to the Maya and Aztecs. The Maya saw the game as a battle between the lords of the underworld and their earthly adversaries, the Aztecs saw it as a battle between the forces of night led by the moon and the stars. Both are cosmological and mythological in orientation, but what interpretation

So how far was the ballgame spread? And where did it come from? And, more importantly, what did it really mean?

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