Ballgame was one of the most popular sports in Mayan cities. It was played between two teams in a large court and the gameplay involved hitting a large rubber ball across the court. Mayans associated symbolic significance to the game and considered it a representation of the stage between life and death.
In Mayan mythology, the game was associated with the underworld. It is frequently mentioned in the Mayan mythological episode of the Hero Twins who go the Mayan underworld, Xibalba,to play the game with the gods of the underworld.
Mayans borrowed the sport of ballgame from the Olmec civilisation. Archaeological findings date back the evidence of ballgame in the Olmec civilisation to 1600 B.C., making it one of the oldest sports in the world.
The ball used in the Mayan ballgame was made of rubber and fairly heavy. It was usually 10 to 30 cm in diameter. The weight of the ball ranged from 500 grams to 3.5 kilograms.
Players were not allowed to touch the ball with their hands. Rather, they had to toss and hit the ball around using the rest of their body, including feet, legs, hips and arms.
Since the rubber ball was large and hard, the players padded their hips, feet and elbows to save themselves from any injury while hitting the ball.
The game was played in large courts. These courts were flat surfaces between two large stone walls.
The aim of each team in a ballgame was to toss the ball to the opposite end of the court.
In some variations of the ballgame, each team was required to toss the ball through a large stone hoop affixed to one of the side walls. It was very difficult to accomplish this and usually when a team tossed the ball through the hoop, it was declared the winner.
The winning team were awarded different trophies. These trophies were usually stone carvings of various objects.
Only members of the nobility and warrior class were allowed to participate in the ballgame as players. Sometimes, a team of captives from another city was made to play the game against a Mayan team.
Good ballgame players were treated like celebrities in the Mayan cities. The winners of the ballgame were often treated to feasts by the nobility and royalty.
Mayan ballgame players were depicted through many mediums of art. They were, for instance, depicted on Mayan ceramics, presented in Mayan sculptures and even used as motifs for different architectural constructions. This reaffirms the fact that these players were highly esteemed in Mayan society.
If the losing team happened to be a team of captives from another city, it was usually sacrificed. Human sacrifices were a frequent part of the ballgame.
In some cases, if the losing team comprised of captives, the players of the team were tied up as balls and tossed down the stairs of a temple-pyramid as a part of the ritual sacrifice.
Mayans considered ballgame not just a sport. It carried strong religious significance for them. Before the game, ritual songs were sung. Religious leaders and the royalty attended the game as spectators. At the end of the game, the priests performed the sacrificial rituals.
One or more temples were often constructed right next to the ball courts. This was done so that the sacrificial ritual could be carried out at these temples immediately after the game was concluded.
Mayans built huge ball courts and many Mayan cities had more than one ball courts. Ball courts were constructed in the grand manner of the rest of the Mayan monumental architecture. They comprised of large stone walls flanking the actual court. In some constructions, the walls of the court were vertical while in other cases, they were slanting.
The Mayan city of Cantona had 24 ball courts. El Tajin had 11 ball courts. The largest ball court excavated anywhere in the Mayan sites is the ball court at the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. This ball court has a length of 146 meters and a width of 36 meters.
All Mayan ball courts were shaped like a huge I. The style of the construction was such that the main part of the court extended between two stone walls while the court itself extended beyond and was flanked by two staircases on the other two sides.
Along the length of the court, three circular stone markers were set. On these markers, depictions from the Mayan underworld were drawn. Mayans considered the ballgame itself as a sort of journey through the underworld, and the victory at the end of the game marked the victory of life over death.
According to some interpretations, Mayan considered the ballgame a journey of the Sun through the underworld at night and its victorious emergence at the end of the night.
Many extant sculptures and stone carvings recovered from the site of Mayan cities provide insight into the culture of Mayan ball games. These sculptures and carvings depict families watching the game and in some cases, a drum-beater standing at the edge of the court. This is one of the proof which confirms the theory that music was played at the game, songs were sung and these ritualistic activities further enhanced the religious aspect of the game.
Some depictions of the ballgame on Mayan artifacts indicate the presence of a tzompantli near the site of the ball courts. Tzompantli was a skull rack which was usually used to store a large number of skulls of sacrificed humans. The proximity of the rack near the ball court in the depictions indicates that the practice of human sacrifice was frequently carried out at ballgames.
Some ballgames could go on for many days without either of the team winning decisively.
It was common for the nobility as well as the commoners to place bets during the game. The nobility usually bet precious things such as precious stones and art pieces in their bets.
In one version of the ball, the players were allowed to use sticks to hit the ball across the court. However, this particular form of ballgame was quite rare among the Mayans.