In Mexico they call it El Juego de Pelota. The Aztecs called it tlachtli. The Maya called it pitz or pok-a-tak, depending on tribe and dialect. No one knows what the Hohokam or the mound builders called it. Now some say it was the first team sport in human history.
It was played from Central America up to Wupatki in Arizona -- even the mound builders of Middle America built ball courts. There’s a court in Phoenix, next to Sky Harbor airport. I wonder if they could have had a PreColumbian World Cup back in the day?
People tend to think of it as part of ancient history -- museum stuff -- but lately it’s made it into the news:
In the archaeological site of Tonina, near Ocosingo, in southern Chiapas, Mexico, two statues of Mayan warriors were found. They were carved sitting cross-legged with their hands tied behind their backs like prisoners. They were found with two stone ball game scoreboards near the southern end of Tonina’s ball court. Inscriptions showed that captive warriors were sacrificed in a opening ceremony with fire and incense around 695 A.D.
In the Cerro de Teul archaeologial Site in Zacatecas, a stone sculpture of the headless body of a ball player was found at the southwestern corner of its ball court. It’s been pointed out that this may refer to part of the Popol Vuh.
When the Lords of Xibalba called the Hero Twins, Hunapu and Ixbalanque, to the underworld to play the ball game, they decapitated Hunahpu. Ixbalanque managed to bring his brother back to life. As Dennis Tedlock put it in his definitive translation of the Popol Vuh:
Such was the defeat of the rulers of Xilbalba. The boys accomplished it only through wonders, only through self-transformation.
And like the Hero Twins, lots of people are playing the ball game these days. Sometimes they’re just silly adaptations of basketball and soccer to entertain the tourists. Other times they manage to bring to life descriptions of athletic feats that seemed impossible.
I didn’t believe it was possible to score a goal using only the hips to hit the ball until I saw the above clip.
And it’s always done with elaborate costumes, music, dancing. Quite a show. Who knows, it may catch on.
But then it was the noise of the game that got the attention of the Lords of Xibalba, the Lords of Death . . . I’ve got a feeling that we’re going to need more wonders and self-transformation in this troubled world. Maybe re-reading the Popol Vuh is in order.
Ernest Hogan ebooks are coming. Stay tuned for details.