The Mesoamerican Ballgame

The Mesoamerican ballgame has received a lot of coverage in the movie industry and other forms of media.

Here’s one of my childhood favorites:

Source: The Road to El Dorado. Dreamworks Entertainment.

However, depictions in the media of this game have usually left us with more questions than answers.

The biggest question relating to the Mesoamerican ballgame is whether is was the winners or the losers who were sacrificed.

But we have to put this into context.

The evidence for the Mesoamerican ballgame goes back all the way to 1400 BC, almost four thousand years ago.

The truth is that in that time, the rules likely changed- in different regions, different time periods, and different cultures. There’s no one way to know what the rules of the ballgame were.

Let’s go over three things that we DO know about the Mesoamerican ballgame.

Mythic Roots and Symbolism

What we do know, is that the Mesoamerican ballgame has deep mythic roots. There is a lot of symbolism that goes into the ballgame that has to do with accounts that we have from the Maya Popol Vuh. The Popol Vuh is a Maya creation story that was passed down orally from generation to generation and eventually written down during the Spanish colonial period. It tells the story of two hero twins who saved their father from the underworld by defeating the gods of the underworld in a ballgame.

Solving Political Disputes

Carved lintels from the Maya region show that Maya rulers would actually play the ballgame to solve political disputes. We don’t know if it was the rulers who played, or if they would send representatives to play for them , but the depictions show the rulers themselves in the middle of the ballgame. The outcome of the game would determine the outcome of whatever political dispute was at hand. So, the ballgame played an important role in statemaking and political legacies of rulers.

La Corona Panel Ballgame Mesoamerica
Adrian Hernandez [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Source of Entertainment

Even considering its mythic and political significance, the ballgame was still a form of entertainment. During the colonial period, Spanish conquistadors recorded that they would watch the ballgame with the Aztec people, and that the Aztec would place bets on the outcomes of the game. At the end of the game, it was a mad scramble for everyone to protect their assets and turn in what they owed. Now, we do have to take a grain of salt with everything that the Spanish said, but what we can take from this is that the ballgame was important and entertaining.

In summary, the Mesoamerican ballgame was much more than just a way to figure out who gets sacrificed- although sacrifice did occasionally play a part in it. It was also, however, a source of mythic identity, a way to solve political disputes, and a source of entertainment for the community.

For more information on the ballgame and more misconceptions of Mesoamerican culture, check out my free 5-Day Video Course!

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