STONE BALL COURT IMAGERY: And You Thought Pro Football Was Life And Death!

Well over 1000 stone ball courts have been identified or excavated throughout Mesoamerica.  These important ceremonial structures have been identified in many ancient and diverse cultures from Nicaragua to Arizona in the American Southwest (Although this identification has sometimes been challenged.  Some attributed "ball courts" in the Southwest and sites in Northern Mexico that are much later in time may be converted kivas or ceremonial structures of other intent, even if converted later on, although this is also in dispute.).  Not only does the appearance of similarly constructed stone ball courts cover a vast distance in cultural space, they also cover at least three thousand years of time as well.  In fact, the enigmatic game itself has undergone a current resurgence of play among many Central American peoples, as various groups attempt to rediscover or reestablish the unknown rules of the game--if not, fortunately, the often dire consequences for the participants, which the sculptural and graphic descriptions left by the original practitioners sometimes indicate.  As someone who has always been fascinated with the function of ancient stone structures, both within and outside of their designated cultural contexts, this writer has recently turned more significant attention to these unusual ball courts, especially after visiting several in the Yucatan recently, and what they might mean beyond their stated goals (no pun intended).

This is not a new interest, however.  Since first having visited the alleged ball court enclosure at Wupatki ruins in Arizona nearly forty years ago and being struck by the absolute symmetry of its construction and its supposed ties to distant structures of similar purpose in Mexico, and as someone who spent a great deal of his adolescent and even adult life (too much some might say) engaged in the activities that go on as games within the boundaries of such carefully laid out places myself, I have always had an abiding interest in the prehistory of game playing and the larger purposes and functions such incredibly labor intensive structures must have implied from both an archeological and anthropological perspective.  More recently, a visit to the greatest stone ball court of all, the great court at Chichen Itza, and several others in the northern Yucatan area, rekindled a deeper interest in "playing the game", so to speak, from a more informed perspective than I have in the past.  Subsequent research into more recent detailed archeological and epigraphic discoveries about these critically important and wide-ranging cultural phenomena leads me to suspect that there is still much to be done to understand both the true meaning of the game itself and the unique places in which it was played, and continues to be played as undoubtedly the oldest "ballgame" known.


 We as Americans, at least at times, seem to be almost obsessed with our addiction to "The Game", in whatever form it might take.  Some might view this as a means of escapism from the drudgery of common lives, while others might go so far as to imply that "The Game" is a metaphor for our culture history, rites of passage through life, etc.  Certainly, this has become the case with football (the American version that is--although the other futbol can surely be seen as equally important in those many other cultures that turn to it as a culturally unifying, or divisive, force as the case might be).  Even at the moment of this writing the second biggest concern in our nation after the economy might be whether or not the NFL season is going to be canceled this Fall.  The dread and mutterings of cultural doom if such an unthinkable thing were to happen have almost reached the point of causing panic in the cities that possess a pro team, not to mention what it might mean nationally.  In addition, we are in the midst of the NBA championship series, the NHL championship series, and the seemingly endless baseball season is just reaching its high point.  And this is only the professional games!  Colleges down to pee-wee league endeavors at all levels also demand our attention and analysis on a never-ending basis.  Further, the eruption of "Fantasy Leagues" in recent years has given those who are unable to participate themselves a more direct and vested interest in the games than ever before and even allowed the making of money--surely our greatest cultural achievement--to filter down to every level as more new interest in the minutia of the games and the people who play them assume an ever-increasing role in our society.  To quote one of our more famous sports/cultural icons, Vince Lombardi: "What the hell is going on out there?"

Is this something altogether new for us--or is it something we can look to the past for answers to in order  to see what happened in other places when cultures with violent backgrounds and expansionist behavior began to relate their past to a more sedentary lifestyle?  From Roman gladitorial games to the sacrificial rites of Mayan and Aztec ball games are we merely on a well-trodden path that other, similar cultures have laid down for us to follow?  Are we the most obsessive game players in history, or are we simply the most recent manifestation of a common societal trait in advanced cultures where militarism and other institutionalized forms of violence reach such a point that the civil leadership must devise control mechanisms--either through politics or religion, or both--to contain the danger of such behavior spreading randomly among the urban populations, where it might possibly engulf the leadership class in some unforeseen way?

  Yet when it comes to present obsessions with "The Game" we may only be beginners when we look at the absolutely critical role that the playing of the ball game itself might have meant to countless Mesoamerican peoples for more than two thousand years.  To them it was not  only a form of entertainment, no doubt, but also a reflection of their very existence and the connection with their past, present, and future.  Imagine, if you will, going to church "on any given Sunday" and having the minister (or more properly the "high priest) say, instead of something like "take out your hymn books and turn to page 200" perhaps something more like "take out your gloves and assume your proper positions there in the center aisle.  I will throw out the ball in a moment, but first let us pray and pay homage to my ancestors, who have brought to you all the benefits you now enjoy!"  While this may sound absurd on the surface, it may not be so, if say a thousand years from now we are still playing football and it continues to grow in its cultural status and importance at the same rate it has up to this point.  And what if the game itself had been originally created as a means of reaffirming and educating an illiterate populace as to the myth of their very origins (their religion itself) and--more importantly--the critical position and justification that the current leadership of that culture had assumed as part of that myth and hoped to maintain over that populace?  Can one not actually begin to imagine the point out there in our own distant future when the President of the United States and the Commissioner of the NFL become one and the same person--and for the reason that their function is equally critical to our society?  That is a question beyond the scope of this little discussion.  However, we can take a look at one aspect of such cultural practices, namely the Central America ball court and game, and see what, if anything, we can learn here.  First, I will beg the casual reader's indulgence to give a brief background on the importance of that game to the peoples who played it for over two thousand years.


Beginning in Olmec times, and perhaps even earlier, the ball court became a central feature of the architecture of the main ceremonial complexes of most Mesoamerican cities and even smaller permanent dwelling places.  With rare exceptions ( early Tikal and Teotihuacan to the north, possibly) ball courts of various sizes, but following the same basic plan of a linear plaza surface faced on opposite sides by ascending walls of different lengths, are found throughout the region.  (Note: the reader need only go to Google and search stone ball court images to see a vast array of these structures.)  Much recent work on the associated imagery and calligraphy throughout the Mayan region has shed a great deal of light on the historical sources of the famous Popul Vuh recorded in post-conquest times as to the critical significance these ball courts played in the recounting of the basic and most important Mayan origin myth.  Without going into too great a detail on the particulars of this myth, I will attempt to acquaint the reader with the most basic summary of the importance of this story--with apologies to those far more competent than I to provide such information, especially those less salient features dealing with astronomical significance of various importance.

For the Maya, the game existed before the present creation (the fourth one as those things go, and the one soon to come to an end in 2012, and which is causing so much disturbance among those only casually involved in Mayan cosmology and chronology).  Two brothers, the ancestral Maize gods, were dedicated players of the game in their earthly existence between the underworld and their cosmic home.  They caused so much noise in their playing on earth that they disturbed the lords of Xibalba (shi-bal-buh).  These nine lords of the underworld then lure the two brothers into their realm, and through a series of contrived challenges manage to sacrifice the two by beheading them.  Their bodies are buried under the earthly ballcourt, perhaps as a warning sign to others.  The head of one brother, however, is hung in a gourd tree (tree imagery is critical to the understanding of most Mayan mythology, even more so than in many other cultures).  A daughter of one of the Xibalba lords ignores her father's orders and goes to see the head in the tree for herself.  The decapitated maize god engages her in conversation, draws her in close, spits in her hand, and she becomes pregnant (of course!).  She flees to Middleworld to escape the death sentence delivered by her father for her and her unborn, where she then gives birth to the Hero Twins, sons of the maize god.  (Note:  The hero twins are a key feature of many cultural origin myths and this commonality is undoubtedly a feature of near universal celestial implications, depending on which sky gods (usually planets) are involved.  (Note also: The writer explored this twin theme himself somewhat in a rudimentary fashion in the first novel of The People of the Stone saga, THE STONE BREAKERS.)

At any rate, the grown twins ultimately find their father's and uncle's ball playing equipment and take up the game themselves with the same potential results.  However, when they are also lured to the underworld they are able to overcome the trickery of the Xibalba lords by allowing themselves to be sacrificed (by fire) in a manner that will insure their ability to be reborn soon thereafter (by water).  This is ultimately accomplished, they then imprison the evil lords confining their powers to the dark regions, dig up their father's and uncle's bodies from under the ballcourt, and restore their heads thus giving them new life.  The reborn Maize gods are then  relocated back to the cosmos (the constellation Orion) from whence they originated, where their sky parents' and the hero twins' grandparents (two much older gods, possibly pre-agricultural deities in the region's cosmology) are then able to make the maize dough from which all humans are first created.  At the same time both the cosmic and earthly three-stone Mayan hearth are put in place (in Orion's belt) signifying the critical role of maize in the rise of the Mayan culture from its pre-agricultural roots and the connection of the two maize gods to the past and the present.  The hero twins--and the three-stone hearth--then become the earthly embodiment of the central importance of both maize with the ball court as symbol of its origin to the Mayan people.

The playing of the ball game and the sacrificial rites which ultimately develop in association with it are most often seen by Mayan scholars as a celebration of life overcoming death.  The ball game becomes the ritual for this and the ballcourt itself becomes the place where the reconnection with the important dead ancestors, both human and divine, takes place.  This is done to insure the continued importance of the rulers, who through their actions of personal bloodletting and warfare to overcome their enemies (and sacrifice of them as visual proof of their potency), are the only ones powerful enough through their earthly actions to summon forth the critical spirits of their lineage ancestors as well as the various deities who provide for the needs of their people.  It is a theme repeated throughout central America for two thousand years, and was one that grew in importance with each subsequent ruling power's ascendancy and every new city state and growing population that emerged.  The ball court was constructed to simulate the crack in the back of the cosmic turtle (in Orion again) or the crack in the  "snake mountain" of origin (thus pyramid building for use of the living power and a resting place for his lineage), both of which were variously seen as the entry point into the underworld and the place from where the great Life Tree sprang.  The snake, another hugely important symbol throughout, is the passage between the world of the living and the dead--a birth canal as it were--whose mouth is often depicted with humans or gods emerging from it, or as the central visual and decorative motif of the ball court (at Chichen Itza, for example) and other critically important ceremonial doorways, often found in pyramids with important individual or lineage burial chambers within.

  But is the ball court only the imagery of and the place where rebirth happens, where death is overcome, as it was by the Hero Twins?  Is it just the place where the revered gods or ancestors can be recalled from the underworld by the proper playing of the game, including some form of trance-inducing blood sacrifice by the king ---the thing the Maize gods prize above all other offerings (a theme also explored in THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT, the fifth novel in The People of the Stone saga, also with Mayan connections.)?  Or is there more, something less obvious, which many scholars immersed in Mayan iconography and mythology overlook about the ball court and the game itself?  Certainly, the apparent death and sacrifice rituals are important, but are they given too much credence by those who "never played the game"?  In reading various professional accounts of all this, there is a nagging suspicion that something is missing, that there was something more here.  As an archeologist myself, I know how easy it can be to miss seeing the forest from looking at too many trees, for too long, and in too much detail.  As a lifelong "ball player" myself, I can also appreciate the almost religious aspect with which many players devote significant portions of their life to a "game".  (I can easily recall the many times I used to say from my own experience that "basketball is not a game, it is a religion to those who have played it at a high level over many years".)


THE BALL COURT STRUCTURE:   Ball courts are constructed as a linear capital "I" with other structures at the base and top of the cleared area optional, especially in the smaller ones, where space is a problem.  Two steep walls parallel an open playing plaza.  Usually, but not always (the great court at Chichen Itza being the main exception) a smaller, sloping stone bench is attached to each wall.  Somewhere along the upper wall, a stone circular ring with an opening hole is attached, presumably for the rubber ball to pass through.  (Here the reader is strongly encouraged to search out the Google images referred to above).  The overall effect is seen as a "crack" in the surrounding surface--the great portal that connects the underworld to the heavens and through which all life: animal, human, and divine pass and interact.  The spirits of whomever are summoned forth by the actions and sacrifices of the players on important ceremonial occasions, even to the point of beheading or strangling the participant(s), just as in the original myth.  We can only assume that on other occasions, possibly, the court was used for practice games (After all, this must have been an extremely difficult game to master given what is seen in the murals, especially if one's life perhaps hung on the outcome. Even gladiators must have practiced some.), or was even at non-ceremonial times perhaps played purely for the entertainment of the ruling class, or even the general populace.  Especially skilled players (pros) must have enjoyed some special status or privilege even.

My first look at the Wupatki ballcourt in Arizona left me with the distinct visual image of a different kind of opening, however, and not one to the underworld.  The obvious reference to the female vulva has been noted by others, but mostly overlooked I believe.  If the snake that connects the underworld to the living one is a passage through which dead ancestors are brought back, could it not more readily be seen as a birth canal through which New Life is passed from the underworld.  The narrow opening into the walls surrounding many courts is also suggestive of such an interpretation.  Is the ballcourt a place merely of initiating rebirth or can it also be viewed as a place of conception as well?  If this is so, then perhaps, we should look more at the game itself for answers and symbolic images than merely judging the results of the game or the status of those who played it by what the particular game outcomes generated.

PLAYING THE GAME:  Which came first--the game or the myth?  A difficult question to answer, but one that seems critical to the understanding of the entire process I believe.  Perhaps a look at our earlier comparison with American football might be appropriate.  Those of us who have followed the evolution of this game over the last fifty plus years can easily see the development of this cultural phenomenon to one that has taken on, and might well continue to take on, almost "mythic symbolism" in its own right (Military themes such as "he is such a warrior", blitzkreig, aerial attack, field general, trench warfare, and so on are common football expressions).  Mesoamerican ball might have originated from just such a simple game in which some unique but essential elements of the militaristic society occurred.  First, consider the ball itself. It is made of rubber (or latex more properly), a substance unique to that region.  Without this essential substance in all likelihood the game would not exist (despite some who have suggested that at times the game was played with the sacrificed heads of the participants, much as in the original Maize gods myth.  If so, this was surely a late development, even if it did occur.) However, since latex comes from an important tree, and trees are an essential element to local life origin myths throughout the region, the importance of this unique substance cannot be overlooked.  Further, latex in its original form could be seen as bearing a striking resemblance to that male seminal fluid that is most essential in the conception and birth process.  The letting of blood during later rituals (most often extracted from the penis of the reigning "lord" by the way) could be seen as emulating this process, especially as it regards the growth of the myth of "watering the new corn" with the vital fluids (blood) of the participants on a grand scale, as required by the insatiable maize gods (and maize plants as requiring water).  If the ballcourt is the female vulva and labia in its obvious visible parts, could not the round ball of latex being passed through the narrow circular opening of the wall ring be seen as the ultimate act of conception with the earth mother goddess by those male (as far as we know only men played the game) participants.

 Therefore, the maize god is not just resurrected from death with each act of fertilization, but like the newly planted corn is conceived anew and watered with the best efforts and the lifeblood of the players, or those ruling lords who actually caused the game to be played.  Remember also the original myth of the maize god's head spitting into the hand of the young woman to conceive the hero twins. The obvious identification of the ball and the head, with fertilization, is too easy to pass up.  One might even go back in time and look at the great enigma of the classic Olmec stone heads here as associated with the place where the ball courts themselves originated. Could not the strange head gear often noted on these stone heads not also have been part of the game "uniform"?  (It would also be interesting to know if the actual ballplayers were encouraged to engage in sex or absolutely forbidden it before playing the game--something the existing stone scripts cannot tell us.)  Could not the narrow passage into the "female" court (clearly evident in the Wupatki images) by the "male" players be the initiating of the act of conception, and the successful passing of the latex ball (as seminal fluid) through the circular opening then be seen as the formal completion of the act of fertilization itself. (Most scholars studying the game do believe that, in the absence of known rules, a single such successful "goal" being scored very likely ended the game!).  At  Chichen Itza, as one example, the actual stone rings on the ball court wall through which the latex ball is passed are adorned with intertwined snakes--themselves often a symbol of the birth canal connecting the two world's of those living and those not. The liquid image of the latex ball, along with the associated symbolism of the heavenly Milky Way, the most powerful of ALL Mayan cosmic imagery associated with the original myth, cannot be escaped by even the most prudish Mayan scholar, or so it would seem, even if the shape of the ballcourt itself eludes them.

If we look at the actual playing of the game from the perspective that it might possibly have started as a real game and little else, then it would seem that we need to build the various elements that the ultimate game becomes in a more logical, step-by-step process--at least before we attach all the mythic elements that developed to it in their full-blown cosmic manifestations, as if they were already there at the conception of the original game.  Players play for Life not Death, I firmly believe.  While resurrecting or summoning important lineage ancestors from the underworld to serve the needs of the living was, no doubt, an important later aspect of the game, it is just possible that the game itself--and just as importantly the amazing stone structure that surrounded it--was conceived and built as a celebration of new life from the moment of the beginning of it--the fertilization of the earth Mother by the sons of the cosmic Father--with maize always at the center--and not just as a reinstatement or rebirth of life by those who originally brought forth such a unique and long-lasting cultural phenomenon. The more we reinterpret such universal origin myths and their subsequent ceremonies, the more we see that there is really very little new on Earth--or under the Heavens!  The "playing fields" of life are almost always more than they appear to be.  After all:  "Its not whether you win or lose, but How you play the game."

As always, the reader's, critiques, or comments are strongly encouraged.  Just log on to our easy to access website and click on comments to this article to add your own thoughts.  Your ideas or suggestions are important and no question is too irrelevant to ask.



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