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Did you know? A sacred game

Teresa Kendrick

The ancient game of amalla was not mere sport. The ballcourt was a "middleworld" between gods and humans, a battleground for the cosmic tension between life and death, good and evil, sacrifice and rebirth. After all, the Maya Hero Twins -- Hunahpu and Xbalanque -- had outsmarted the Lords of Death on the ballcourt by replacing a severed-head ball with a squash, which broke apart on the Lords of Death. This victory meant that the Lords of Death could not rise above the Underworld as physical beings but only in their non-physical manifestations: rot, disease and famine. Prophesy could also be tested at the ballcourt. Emperor Moctezuma, uncertain whether or not comets presaged the arrival of foreigners and the end of his empire, tested the omens in a ballgame. He lost.

The lively ball was made of latex rubber, indigenous to Mexico's Gulf Coast. It was slightly larger than the modern basketball. The court was masonry, sometimes covered with slick plaster and painted frescoes, and it was in the shape of an I. Stone rings, with openings just wide enough to allow the ball to pass through, hung vertically on each side of the court. The exact rules and scoring of the game are unknown, but opposing players tried to knock the ball through the rings by using only their hips, buttocks and knees. Players wore heavy padding of deerskin around their waists and knees to protect them while they knocked the ball or threw themselves on the ground to prevent it from hitting the floor.

Apparently, the match ended after a team managed to get the ball through the ring. Early Spanish witnesses reported seeing spectators flee immediately afterwards to prevent the winners from collecting their jewelry. Hieroglyphs describe how the losing captains or players would be beheaded, sacrificed to the gods. Winners, in some cities, were beheaded instead. The ballcourt at Chichen Itza depicts a ceremony in which blood spews from a freshly-severed head -- the same court in which a hand-clap produces seven echoes.

No one knows who exactly played the game. Captives and their captors? The nobility? Did women ever play? Was the game embedded in the astronomical calendar? Were the players drugged with hallucinogens? One thing is certain. The game is deeply ancient, dating to the earliest Olmecs who emerged around 3000 BC (or much earlier) on the Gulf Coast. Today, archeologists can define the "Mesoamerican" field of civilization not by language, ethnicity, architecture or any other characteristic but, rather, by the ballgame. Rubber balls have been excavated as far north as Phoenix, Arizona, and the courts extended as far south as Honduras. Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayas, Zapotecs, Miztecs, Aztecs and others encountered their gods -- and their destinies -- on the ballcourt.

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This Did you Know provided by Teresa Kendrick.


Published or Updated on: February 15, 2004 by Teresa Kendrick © 2008
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