Deathsport: The Mayan ballgame

A modern player, in Aztec garb

A modern player, in Aztec garb

Imagine this, if you will, a ball game with high enough stakes that if you were the captain of the losing team, there was good chance that your head would be cut off and used for the next game. Archaeological evidence from the Post-classical period suggests that this did, in fact, happen. Many suggest that this game was a metaphor for the Mayan creation myth. to this day, people of Mayan descent still play a variation on this game, sans decapitation.

In classical Mayan, the game is known as pitz. It is played by 2 teams, on a pitch divided in half. Much of the information about the game we get from observations by Conquistadors as well as from archaelogical investigation. In the earlier days of the game, it seem that the game was very much like a game of netless volleyball. Each team would try to get the ball across the net using their hips, forearms, or really any part of your body. Sometimes in the beginning sticks were used. I will take this time to mention that the ball was made out of rubber. Like rubber from a tree.  We have not found a ball that can conclusively be said to have been used on the courts, but it is estimated that it was the size of a volleyball, but weighed 10 times as much. Modern players have permanent bruises on their hips from the game. One Spaniard mentions seeing bruises so bad they had to be lanced, and that he had seen people killed from getting hit by the ball in the head and “in the intestines”. To this day, the basic rule seems to be: don’t use your hands or your feet.

At some point, in the Post-Classical period, someone put stone rings on the sides at the halfway mark of the court. Evidence shows that a game would be won if you were to pass the ball through the stone ring, however points were lost for an attempt that ends in failure. Points were gained by a team if the ball hit the wall on the opposite end. You could also lose points by letting the ball bounce twice, or by hitting the ball out of bounds. Passing the ball through the hoop did not happen all that often. For example the hoop at Chichen Iza (the biggest ball court) is 18 feet off the ground.

Dive asshole

Dive asshole

Piltz has been played continuously for over 2700 years, and has played extremely different roles in the culture of the Mesoamericans. Evidence shows that it was played casually, and also that it was literally, a life or death struggle that was a metaphor centered around the Mayan creation myth. Lets step back for a second, and consider the role that Football plays in American culture. Kids play this game all the time when they’re young. People play this at barbeques. And if you believe the commericials, the Superbowl is the end all, be all of human physical and moral achievement. Football also has its roots in Midieval England when a ball was placed in between two towns, and, by whatever means necessary, whoever got the ball back to their town was the winner. The forward pass wasn’t even legal until 1906. But I digress, my point is, that sports, despite instant replay, are a nebulous and evolving form of interaction.

There were also various stages of dress for this game. In the beginning, people wore reinforced loinclothes so they didn’t

This is a carving of what a Pitz Player probably looked like

This is a carving of what a Pitz player probably looked like

 shatter their hips. Headresses and chest protectors were added to the repetoir later on. Some teams even wore some sort of crazy yoke. What is interesting is that ceremonial forms of almost all aspects of the game have been found. For example, there are often paintings of shamen bringing a ball with a quetzal feather to a temple. There are stone yokes all over the place, that were most likely used in preceding ceremonies. Evidence suggests that Pitz was often used to settle inter-city disputes, instead of warfare. Pitz is directly featured in their creation myth. In the end of the myth, forces of the earth and the underworld battle it out on the ballcourt for control of the human realm.

There is significant evidence, also, to show that often times the powers that be would round up some undesireables, and pit them against the best players, just so the population would see some guys getting their heads chopped off. Just like major sports events now, the movers and skakers in Mesoamerican culture would come to see the major games being played. In fact, in 1528, Cortes sent some teams to Spain to perform for Charles V. The English were mostly interested in the fact that there were brown people, and that they had bouncy balls. Honestly, I don’t know if we can imagine what it must be like to witness one of those ballgames. The English are pumped about their soccer, and the Balinese almost define their way of life when it comes to cockfighting, but we never watch a football game and go, ohman, if Jesus completes this forward pass, he totally gets all of our souls.

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Published in: on July 15, 2009 at 6:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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