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Mesoamerican ballgame

The Mesoamerican ballgame was a sport with ritual associations played for over 3000 years by the peoples of Mesoamerica in Pre-Columbian times, and in a few places continues to be played by descendants of the area Amerind inhabitants.

As might be expected with a game played over so long a timespan in several different nations, details of the games varied over time and place, so the Mesoamerican ballgame might be more accurately seen as a family of related games. Some versions were played between two individuals, others between 2 teams of players.

The games shared the characteristics of being played with a hard rubber in a court shaped like a capital letter "I".

The game was called tlachtli by the Aztec and tlaxtli by neighboring central Mexican peoples, ulama in Sinaloa (where it continues to be played), and poc-ta-tok was a Yucatec Maya name for the game.

Every Pre-Columbian ruin of any size in the area contains at least one ballcourt, often several. Ancient cities with particularly fine ballcourts in good states of preservation include Copan, Iximche[?], Monte Alban[?], and Uxmal; the grandest ancient ballcourt of all is at Chichen Itza.

While the game was played casually for simple recreation, including by children for play, the game also had important ritual aspects, and major formal ballgames would be held as ritual events. The game between competing teams of players could symbolize the battles between the gods in the sky and the lords of the underworld. The ball could symbolize the sun. In some of these ritual games, the leader of the losing team would be decapitated as a human sacrifice. His skull would then be used as the core around which a new rubber ball would be made. The Popul Vuh, what is often called "The Maya Bible", has long sections relating stories of the ritual ballgames between the Hero Twins and the Lords of the Underworld.

Ball players and the ballgame are a common theme in Mesoamerican art.

Reccomended Reading:

  • The Sport of Life and Death - The Mesoamerican Ballgame edited by E. Michael Whittington, Mint Museum of Art, Thames & Hudson, 2001

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