Myth Made Flesh - The Maya Ballgame
by Liam Rogers
Originally published at Lughnasa 2002
The Maya culture was remarkable. From before the time of Christ until at least the ninth century (when many of their cities seem to have collapsed - although several lasted until the arrival of the Spanish, and the last city was inhabited until 1700 CE), they built dozens of great cities throughout the tropical forests of Guatemala, Hondurus, Belize, and Mexico. The ruins of these cities continue to impress us with their sophisticated architecture; from the great palaces of their rulers, to the pyramids and temples to their numerous and mysterious gods. Also within the vast ceremonial centres of these cities are to be found the ballcourts where the ritual ballgame was played.
Almost all pre-Columbian peoples from El Salvador up to the high Mexican plateaus seem to have played a form of ritual ballgame. The earliest record of the game is amongst the Olmecs on the island of La Venta in the marshlands of the Rio Tonala (Mexico) around 1000 BCE, and it continued to be played up to (and beyond) the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and the remaining Maya in the sixteenth century CE. Amongst the Maya, the game had deep ritual significance.
The game was played on a paved court closed in on two sides by sloping banks, wider areas at each end gave the whole area the form of a flattened 'H'. On the sloping side walls were 'goals' formed by poles or rings.[Stierlin, 2001] From scenes depicted on Maya vases, it appears that two teams had to propel a heavy ball of gum through the 'goals' using only hips and buttocks, and if the ball touched the ground penalty points may have been incurred.[La Fay, 1975] Relief carvings, vases and figurines show that the players wore thick protective belts and ceremonial headdresses, and also attest to the probable decapitation or cardiectomy of the losing side.
At least one ballcourt can be found at almost every Maya site, usually surrounded by temples, stelae, and altars. At the Toltec-Maya city of Chichén Itzá stands the largest ballcourt in Mesoamerica. Here, the six ballcourt reliefs all show decapitation scenes and nearby a platform carved with human skulls skewered on stakes may have been where the decapitated heads of the losers were displayed.[Coe, 1993]
The ballgame, however did not totally end with the Spanish conquest. According to Carlson, some fifteen variants survived Spanish repression. Survival may be due to the enjoyment the players get from the game (sacrifice no longer plays a part!) and the audience enjoy betting on the outcome. Teams from Sinaloa, accustomed to playing on flat, unfenced courts were invited to try out the ancient ballcourt at Xochicalco at the spring equinox in the late 1980's. Wearing cotton padding under a traditional deerskin loincloth, they tried to propel the hard rubber ball through the goal hoops. They found the sloping sides made the game easier to play, and one of the players remarked: "Now we know how our ancestors played".[Carlson, 1990]
The Hero Twins
The early colonial (seventeenth century) mythic cycle of the Quiché-Maya, the Popol Vuh, appears to share stories with the Classic period (c.300-900 AD) Maya and perhaps even with the proto-Classic era. Reliefs, glyphs, and stelae from the classic cities show the themes that were later incorporated in the Popol Vuh.
One important part of the Popol Vuh, that casts much light on the significance of the ballgame, concerns the adventures of Xbalanque and Hunahpu - the hero twins.
The twins' father and his own twin brother (Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu) play the ballgame incessantly on a ballcourt that is said to be on earth but also to be the path to Xibalbá - the underworld. The racket they cause irritates the two primary death gods Hun Came (meaning 'One Death') and Vucub Came ('Seven Death') who gather together all the gods and demons of death and disease to plan how to kill the elder twins. They then send messenger owls to invite the twins to play ball with the death gods in Xibalba.
Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu face a series of tests on their way to the underworld ballcourt, finally being given cigars and torches and being told to burn them in the House of Gloom and yet have them intact by the dawn. Of course they fail, and the death gods sacrifice them and bury them within the underworld ballcourt. As a token of their victory they place Hun Hunahpu's severed head in a barren tree.
Magically, the tree fruits with calabash gourds. An underworld maiden, Xquic (or 'Lady Blood'), hears of the tree and goes to visit it. Wondering out loud whether to pick fruit from the tree, she is surprised to hear Hun Hunahpu's decomposed head tell her not to, as the gourds are skulls. When she still wants a fruit, his skull spits upon her hand, impregnating her.
When her father hears she is with child, he demands that she be sacrificed to the Lords of Xibalbá and the messenger owls come to take her to be killed. However, Xquic convinces them to spare her and so the owls give the death gods a mass of tree resin instead of her heart. They burn the resin and are entranced by the smell, and whilst they are distracted the owls take Xquic back to earth.
Xquic then goes to see Hun Hunahpu's mother and claims to be his wife. His mother sets her a test to prove herself to be telling the truth - Xquic must gather a netful of maize from a field containing just one maize plant. When Xquic comes back laden down with maize, Hun Hunahpu's mother accepts that the maiden is telling the truth and is bearing her grandchildren. Xquic then gives birth to Xbalanque and Hunahpu.
Just as their father and uncle before, the twins annoy the death gods with the constant pounding noise of the ballgame. Once more the messenger owls are sent to invite them to Xibalbá, and the twins face the same hazards as their father and uncle did (unlike them, however, the hero twins manage to trick the death gods into revealing their names). Eventually, they too are sent to spend the night in the House of Gloom. The wily twins attach red macaw feathers to the torches, and use fireflies on the cigars, to make them seem alight. In the morning, the amazed gods find the torches and cigars still intact, and invite the twins to play the ballgame against them. The twins eventually let the death gods win.
That night more tests are set, but the twins pass them all. Finally they are sent into the House of Bats until dawn. The bats are vicious creatures with knives for noses, and the twins hide within their hollow blow-pipes for protection. Unfortunately, Hunahpu peeps out to see if dawn is coming, and the killer bat Camazotz whips off his head. When Hunahpu's head is delivered back to the underworld ballcourt, the Gods and demons of death rejoice.
However, just before dawn, Xbalanque calls upon all the animals and birds to come to him with an item of their food. They all arrive with berries, leaves, and such. Finally the coati brings a large squash which Xbalanque places on Hunahpu's neck. Magically the squash acquires Hunahpu's features, and he can see, hear, and speak again. Thus restored, he accompanies his brother to meet the death gods at the ballcourt.
The surprised gods then play the twins, using Hunahpu's real head as the ball. Xbalanque strikes the head so hard that it flies off into some nearby woods, startling a rabbit.
As the rabbit scampers off, the death gods momentarily think it is the head. While they are distracted, Xbalanque retrieves his brother's head and puts it back on Hunahpu's neck. Then they continue to play with the squash - which still shows Hunahpu's features. When Xbalanque allows the 'ball' to fall, the squash bursts open as squashes do. The shocked death gods are thus humiliated.
The twins are shown a huge pit of fire and asked to jump over it. Realising that their moral victory would not stop the gods until they have killed the them, they leap into the pit and are killed. Their burnt remains are then ground up and thrown into the river.
Five days later the twins are resurrected as fish-men, and, disguised as itinerant performers, they return to Xibalbá. Their amazing dances entrance the Xibalbáns, and eventually the death gods Hun Came and Vucub Came ask the twins to dance for them. Then the gods ask them to perform some tricks. The twins are asked to sacrifice a dog and bring it back to life. This they duly perform, and repeat the trick with a human. Then Xbalanque decapitates his brother and tears his heart out - and promptly reanimates him.
The death gods are amazed, and ask (foolishly) for this trick to be performed on them. Xbalanque then kills one of the death gods and leaves him that way. The twins then reveal their true identities. The other death god is terrified and begs for his life. The twins say they will kill him and all the other Xibalbáns unless they are told where their father's and uncle's remains lie. They find out where the corpses are buried within the underworld ballcourt, and spare the Xibalbáns' lives. But the twins tell them that Xibalbá and the gods of death and disease will never be powerful again.
The twins then converse with the remains of their father and uncle. They tell them that they will always be respected and worshipped, then Xbalanque and Hunahpu rise to the heavens where they become the sun and the moon.[Taube,1993] Carlson , however, feels that the seventeenth century Popol Vuh may not accurately reflect the beliefs of the ancient Maya in this respect, and claims there is good evidence that the ancient Maya associated Hunahpu with the planet Venus. Astronomy may back up this claim: "Venus (Hunahpu) behaves like a brother to the sun (Xbalanque), either rising before it at dawn or setting after it at dusk. The complete cycle takes 584 days ... five 584-day cycles of Venus equal eight 365-day years. The Mesoamericans constructed an eight-year almanac based upon the interlocking Venus-sun cycles."[Carlson, 1990] Maya art also tends to show the moon as a goddess, making Venus (the Mayan planet of war) a more likely candidate for Hunahpu's celestial counterpart.
Because of their 'harrowing of hell', descendants of the Maya continued to see Hunahpu and Xbalanque as gods of the dead well into the colonial period.[Coe, 1993]
The Resurrection of the Maize God
In Maya art of the Classic period it is clear that the hero twins' father, Hun Hunahpu, is a form of the maize god. Karl Taube describes how the ancient Maya depicted him: "This deity is depicted with a flattened and elongated forehead, often accentuated by shaved zones delineating patches of hair on his brow and the top of his head. The elongated and shaved head imitates a ripened ear of corn, with the capping tuft of hair representing the silk at the tip of the cob. The removal of the ear from the stalk at harvest represents his decapitation..."[Taube, 1993]
On Classic Maya pottery the hero twins are often pictured with the maize god. An eighth century CE bowl illustrates the resurrection of Hun Hunahpu as the maize god. He is assisted by the twins, who are identified by their name glyphs. The turtle shell that their father rises out of symbolises the earth (in ancient Maya cosmology the turtle often serves as a metaphor for the earth floating upon the sea). Xbalanque (on the right) pours water from a jar to ensure the sprouting of the corn.[Coe, 1993] On another vessel, the maize god arises from a turtle carapace assisted by a pair of Chac figures wielding lightning weapons. Chac is the Mayan rain god, and in a myth still circulating amongst modern Mayans a pair of Chacs (the twins in another form?) created maize by splitting a rock with lightning.[Taube, 1993]
"...the resurrection of the maize god by the hero twins and the Chacs adds an important insight into the underlying meaning of the journey of the hero twins in search of their father. In addition to vengeance, their mission is to resurrect him from the underworld and thus bring maize to the surface of the earth. But this episode probably concerns more than just the origin of corn. In the Quichéan Popol Vuh, the search for maize immediately follows the vanquishing of Xibalbá and the partial revival of Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu. This maize is the source of the modern race of humans, the people of corn. Thus, for the Classic period, the elaborate underworld journey of the maize god and his sons ultimately concerns the origin of people - the creation of mankind from corn."[Taube, 1993]
The Ballgame and the Maya Cosmos
The twins are not only connected to the ballgame in the Popol Vuh, but also in Classic Maya art. A stone marker from a ballcourt at the Maya city of Copán (in Honduras) represents Hunahpu playing against a death god.[Taube, 1993. On the square in front of the ballcourt here is a series of monoliths - inscribed stelae and altars. These constitute a "a characteristic ritual complex" according to Stierlin . Stelae, altars, and temples often flank Maya ballcourts, stressing the religious and ritual nature of the game. On a Late Classic ballcourt marker, found near Chinkultic in highland Chiapas (Mexico), is a death god striking the ball with his hips. Incised on the ball is the head of Hunahpu - probably a scene from the story later to appear in the Popol Vuh when the death gods play ball with Hunahpu's head. Taube  suggests that "these ballcourt markers reveal that the Classic Maya re-enacted in actual ballcourts the mythical game between the hero twins and the lords of Xibalbá."
If this was the case, and the game was a cosmological re-enactment of the myth of the underworld journey of the hero twins, the ballcourt would appear to be a kind of liminal space linking earth with the underworld. In 1979, a cave was discovered in Guatemala that contained remarkable Maya art from the Classic period - when George and David Stuart explored the caves for the first time, they found a glyph representing the date of June 30th 741 CE. Amongst the Maya caves were seen as being entrances to Xibalbá, and Naj Tunich, as the cave is known, contains several representations of ballgames in action. Dr George E.Stuart describes first encountering one such piece of ancient Mayan cave art: "Brightly visible one figure stood casually beside a column of glyphs, gazing. The object of his scrutiny was a stair-step pattern of black lines representing one side of a ballcourt. A black ball seemingly was bouncing from its surface. Facing the ballcourt and spectators, a player knelt in full regalia - headdress, kneepads, and chest-padding."[Stuart, 1981] Another ballplayer in this cave is considered by Michael Coe  to be Hunahpu. He is shown by another ballcourt wall that a ball (topped with a glyph representing the number nine - the number of levels in Xibalbá) is bouncing off. In Naj Tunich are depictions of ball games, conch shells (which carry associations with the sea - often a metaphor for the underworld - where the sun daily dies and is reborn), and dwarfs. "Dwarfs occur again and again in Classic Maya sculpture and vase painting. From our knowledge of Maya iconography, they appear to be connected with celestial gods. For example, at Yaxchilán, a major site to the west on the Mexican side of the Usumacinta River, dwarfs appear in a bas-relief as stars watching a ball game. Perhaps in Naj Tunich they have the same role. At any rate, they form a link between ball game, underworld, and sky. In the cave of Taj Tunich, it may be that the Maya sought to memorialize the interrelated motifs of life, death, and the cosmos."[Stuart, 1981]
In the Popol Vuh, the twins are also responsible for killing the monster bird Vucub Caquix (Seven Parrot), who may be represented by six macaw-headed markers on the sides of Copán's Great Ballcourt.[Cortez, 1997] This bird had falsely claimed dominion over the sun and moon and was terrorising all living creatures. By killing it, the twins re-estabished cosmic order. Vucub Caquix was shot out of a fruit tree (and is depicted with the tree in Maya art - even on stelae at the proto-Classic site of Izapa, dating from around the beginning of the Christian era), and maybe this tree can be seen as a form of the axis mundi that the bird has wrongly taken possession of. The tree that Hun Hunahpu's severed head is placed in may also represent this. When we consider that Classic Maya art tends to show the twins wearing the red and white headband associated with kingship and that the face of Hunahpu is also the glyph for the day-name Ahau (meaning 'king')[Taube, 1993], we can see how the myths of the twins and the responsibilities of Maya kings come together: "The Ballcourt at Copán, then reflects the worldly obligations of the kings towards their city. Like Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the kings were responsible for maintaining civic order, dispatching all would-be usurpers of power [and, I would add, for ensuring a good maize harvest - L.R.]. It was believed that the players who lost this game went to the Underworld, where they would play the game for the amusement of the Lords of the Underworld and would deliver messages for their king."[Cortez, 1997]
Late Classic Maya rulers would often sacrifice kings of other cities defeated in battle at the ballcourt (sometimes after they have lost a rigged ballgame). Remembering that Hunahpu may be associated with Venus, it is interesting to read the following account: "... the first visibility of Venus as Evening Star on 3 December, AD 735, set off an attack on the southern Petén site of Seibal by Dos Pilas, leading to the capture of its ruler the next day. This unfortunate was kept alive for another twelve years, finally being sacrificed at a ritual ballgame timed for an inferior conjunction of Venus."[Coe, 1993]
The Maya ballcourt, then, "...is nothing less than a representation of the universe, the `sacred place where the eternal struggle between light and darkness takes place, where the stars, Sun and Moon orbit under the watchful eye of the master of Xibalbá, the Lord of the Underworld."[Stierlin, 2001]
Carlson, John B. (1990) 'America's Ancient Skywatchers', National Geographic vol.177 no.3.