Posts Tagged ‘Ball Game’

the Olmecs, c.1400BC-400BC

March 25, 2010

The earliest civilization we have a record of is one we call the Olmec culture. They left behind no written texts for us to tell us what they were like. (There are some written fragments but not enough to build a history – much less a language – on.) Apart from the archaeological remains and the memories passed down by their neighbors we have no real knowledge of them or their culture.

Still, many historians believe they were the creators of the calendar used later by the Maya and the Aztec; in fact, by all the civilizations of Mesoamerica. That the earliest calendar notations were after their heyday and in the border region where the Maya civilization arose clouds the issue. So, until the certified authors of the calendar can be verified, I shall continue calling it the Mayan Calendar.

The forerunners of the Olmec are assumed to have passed over the Bering land-bridge from Asia, 15,000 to 12,000 BC (or so). The earliest group has been termed the Clovis people from their earliest known site in New Mexico. Some authorities take a dim view of claims of sites that pre-date Clovis. Virginia Steen-McIntyre, and the team she joined at Hueyatlaco (not to be confused with Hueyapan, now Tres Zapotes), an archeological site in Valsequillo, Mexico, determined the site to have been built around 250,000 BC.

This debate will not be settled any time soon, I am certain, even though the pro-Clovis group is holding their own at the moment. Others are finding sites that push the envelope backward as well.

Regardless of earlier sites, the earliest actual civilization we know of is the Olmecs. We know little of their society as all they left us were some large stone heads and other artifacts. Even so, most scholars still attribute the calendar to this mysterious group as well as the ball that is used by all the later cultures that survived in the region: Toltec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and the Maya.

Early celestial observatories can be traced to the Olmec civilization as can the ball courts. The rubber balls came from the region of the Olmecs and the culture’s name comes to us from the Aztecs who called them the “rubber people”.

Perhaps new discoveries will tell us more about this mysterious and yet influential people.

the Maya and Their Place in the Sun

March 20, 2010

Much of what we know of the Maya culture has been gained in the last few decades. Before that time all we had to go on was the remnants of the tribes living in Central America today and the scant records left us by the Spaniards who conquered the region over four centuries ago – the few conscientious priests who decided to spare a little of the culture from the flames of the Inquisition.

A lot of the early period of the Maya is cloudy and only just now coming to light as archaeologists are finding new sites, so the field is in flux. The theories of their origins is constantly changing because of this new inflow of data, but a few basics can be listed.

First, their civilization is the one that has left more written records than any other and, secondly, their descendants still maintain a cultural cohesion greater than the other ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. It is perhaps these two facts that give us a clearer view of the Maya than their predecessors and neighbors.

In many respects they are similar to ancient cultures around the world: agricultural orientation, a multitude of gods, and an intense interest in the movements of the planets in the heavens.

Their differences set them apart from other cultures beyond Mesoamerica: varieties of a ritual ballgame, ritual bloodletting, an intricate multi-part calendar, the lack of domesticated animals, and no evidence of wheeled vehicles. These qualities were also represented in the other civilizations of the area. Whether the Maya invented any of these things is still in debate, but none deny that the Maya were the first to utilize all these and create an extensive culture.

Did the Maya invent any of the calendars they lived by? Some think their Olmec predecessors should be credited with it but though the oldest dated fragments lie beyond the standard Maya area, the oldest lie beyond the Olmec territories as well. Until data can be found assigning authorship to others, I would prefer to continue calling it the Mayan Calendar.

And though the Maya have left us a few written records, the full understanding of their temple inscriptions has been slow coming. The work of Linda Schele and others finally cracked the barrier to more completely reading the temple inscriptions. We learn more daily.

Meanwhile satellite images are helping uncover Mayan cities in Guatemala today. All this will give us further insight into these mysterious people and the calendar they have left us. Some finds in the Puuc region have pushed the inception of the Maya culture back almost a thousand years.

Who knows what they will find next about this amazing civilization.

the Midnight Sun

December 26, 2009

How could the Sun actually go out?

Personally, I don’t think it could happen in the short time we have remaining, but I could be wrong. But this is not about what I think, it’s about what the Maya said.

In their famous Tale of the Hero Twins, they are visiting the “Underworld”. The Underworld has been referred to as the realm of the dead and as the world of night. The one puzzling statement concerning this is that the Underworld has a Sun, the Jaguar Sun. He is also referred to as the Sun of Night.

How can there be a Sun at night? Isn’t that what is supposed to separate day from night: the Sun?

One of the Hero twins wears a jaguar pelt – tawny fur covered with black spots – and his brother wears bits of the fur with black spots glued onto his skin.

Why the reverence for the jaguar and what does it have to do with the night? Or the Sun for that matter!

Let’s turn again to a different source: “the Book of Revelations” from the Holy Bible. From book 6, verse 12: “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood”.

What is this “sackcloth of hair” that the Sun comes to resemble? It is the same as a burlap sack, not really black but darker in color than one would expect the Sun to be. The color of burlap is tawny and, very oddly, resembles the color of a jaguar pelt.

So I think this means the Sun will not completely extinguish but will become covered with sunspots, enough so that the light will be diminished greatly. Its aspect will resemble a jaguar’s pelt: a sackcloth of hair.

And, as the light will be greatly diminished, the “Jaguar Sun” will be the “Sun of Night” or the underworld.

Far from being some sort of fantasy, it appears the ancients had actually witnessed such a thing occur. This, believe it or not, seems to be history though unlike anything you would find in a history text. The ancient myths can be telling us exactly what happened to them in the past and through the Calendar warning us of its re-occurrence.

From the event itself, they must have realized that within the solar orb lay the answer to when it would happen again. The ancients began studying the cycles – how they knew which would lead them to the repeat performance I cannot fathom – and from this derived when the present Sun would diminish again.

They required no psychic to foresee a meteor or cometary impact, no fortune-teller to warn of a pole-shifting event, no mystic to call for universal enlightenment. All they needed was mathematics and the power of observation.

Pythagoras in ancient Greece and Newton in renaissance England both hypothesized that God created the world with certain patterns and that through a complete comprehension of the numbers and the patterns, one could know God.

I am certain that either of those two worthies would have felt at home working with the Maya on their calendar-creating project. Both of them did what the ancient Maya did: study the cycles of the world and the universe around them to discern the pattern.

That pattern is a warning to us concerning the true nature of our world and its place in the cosmos. The New Age prophets may have been right about the coming enlightenment but I think it will come through a better understanding of the universe and the path to the divine rather than something as transitory as aligning with the center of the galaxy.

Spirituality and physical are two insuperable parts of the whole. The Maya knew this and they tried to tell us in the best way they could.

the Ancient Ball Game

December 7, 2009

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?

the Olmec Heads – a tentative identification

December 7, 2009

The most famous remnant left to us of the Olmec culture of ancient Mexico is the giant heads carved from basalt. Well, the heads and the famous Mesoamerican Ball Game. Their name is not known to us except from the Aztecs, who called them “the rubber people” because of the rubber ball used in the game. But more on that later, this is about the heads.

Most scholars think the giant Olmec heads (20-50 tons each) were representations of rulers wearing ball-playing helmets or famous players of their even more famous Ball Game.

But why only the head? Why not show the entire form of the ruler or ball-player?

My own thought on the matter is that the Olmec were not picturing rulers of any Earthly realm. The heads are depictions of the gods. The strange markings on each one’s helmet differs one to another and reminds me of the differing glyphs used to depict their gods in written texts. One even has the jaguar pelt reminiscent of the Hero Twins.

They believed the planets were gods, and they knew the planets were spheres. That is the why they pictured them as round head-spheres. Just like the planets. It could also add another level of interpretation to the Hero Twins myths where, a couple of different times, the player loses their head but the head continues talking.

Round heads, round planets, round rubber balls… But normally one does not see the planets bouncing around. Usually, they continue their graceful motion through the zodiac unimpeded.

But it brings to mind a theory presented to us by Immanuel Velikovsky: the planets were thought of as gods because of their independent motions. That does not refer to their motion in an orderly fashion around the Sun, it referred to the planets “leaving their courses”.

Some of the dire prophecies about 2012 mention that very thing. (see previous entry where mention is made of Merlin’s prediction for the future)

With all this concern over heads, and planets, and bouncing rubber balls, it makes one wonder again what their ancient ball game was really all about.