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 Maya Ball Game   

Motul de San José (Petén) Vase

The Maya ball game (named Pitz, and the action of play was Ti Pitziil  in Classic Maya and Chaaj in K'ich'é in the Highlands), and its associated mythology were not only central to religious Maya belief. It was the first sport in the History of the Humanity, dating at least from 2500 BC, The oldest court accurately dated have been found in Nakbé, Petén Guatemala, dating from 500 BC. Nakbé, Ball Court (Below)

Ball player, Stone, Pacific Lowlands, Guatemala.There are more than 500 ball courts (Halaw) in Guatemala alone, in Tikal for example there are 7, even in smaller sites such as Vega del Cobán there are 4. In Tikal's  Plaza of Seven Temples, so called because of the seven Late Classic Period temples, there are three ball courts in the same Plaza, unique in the entire Maya World architecture.  Ball courts have been found from Arizona to Nicaragua and also in various Caribbean Islands such as Cuba, this emphasizes the popularity of this American Sport.

 While the game was played casually for simple recreation, including by children and women, the game also had important ritual aspects, and major formal ballgames would be held as ritual events. A wooden bat may also have been used. The ball game was taken very seriously and was often used to settle disputes between rival communities. On occasion, it is thought, that the captain of the loosing team was punished by execution.


The number of players Pitzhil Cancuén Panel (Glyph) varies between 2 and 5 in each Team, they use protection inClassic Maya Ballgame Yoke, stone. the Head Pix'om, Hips (Tz´um) made of deer or jaguar skin, Knees and elbows Kipachq’ab’, and a Yoke as a belt, this were the only parts of the body allowed to hit the ball (Ol), that  was made of a mix from  rubber or Kik, and the Guamol tree (Calonyction aculeatum), the size varied between 10 and 12 inches (measured in hand spans) and weighted 3 to 6 pounds.

 The court, Halaw (Glyph) had the shape of an "I" or double "T", it's size  varies but the average was 30 Mt. long and 8 mt. wide, and the goal was obtained by hitting the Marker with the ball. It also had 3 carved stones in the surface, to reenact the Creation Myth.  The Truly Maya ball courts had sloping walls, with flat markers in the playing area, and used a large rubber ball. (The ring was used by the Toltecs in Yucatán in the Post Classic), that used smaller balls and vertical walls, and named the game Pok A Tok, that is the one most people know about). If a player touched the ball with the foot the other team obtained a goal and kept the ball. there also was a referee.


  The players prayed to the god Hukte’ Ahaw (Vukub Hunahpú). The ball when depicted in Classic Maya Art, has a number and a Glyph that indicates its size, ie: Baluun Nahb or 9 handspans ball. (see below), that is represented as a right hand shown palm down and with thumb and forefinger spread;  Also The Jatz' (Hatz') Glyph, meaning "to strike" is associated with the game, it is represented as a left hand tightly grasping a semi-spherical stone object . The god has been identified as Huk Ajaw or Hukte’ Ajaw “Seven Ajaw”, perhaps the Classic counterpart of Vucub Hunahpú of the K’iche’s Popol Vuh (Tedlock 1996:91-98). As the brother of Hun Hunahpú and a ballplayer of no mean skill, Vucub Hunahpú is a suitable patron of the Classic ballgame. another name is proposed as
Huk Sip or Hukte’  Sip,  the deer god, but there is no reason for a deer being a patron of the ball game. (Marc Zender, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, in PARI Online Publications)

Nahb, Glyph, indicates that the size of the ball, is 9 handspans

Jatz' Glyph meaning "To Strike", is associated with ballgame and boxing scenes

Boxer in
Altar de Sacrificios vase, showing tha Jatz' glyph

Cancuén Marker

Mixco Viejo

Mixco Viejo
Ball Court

  The game between competing teams of players could symbolize the battles between the gods in the sky and the lords of the underworld. The ball could symbolize the sun. In some of these ritual games, the leader of the losing team would be decapitated, and  His skull would then be used as the core around which a new rubber ball would be made.  A common interpretation would emphasize the Venus cycle and the Maize God death-and-resurrection myth as core religious aspects of the game. The ancient Maya are believed to reenact, through the ball game, the mythic Underworld contest between the gods of life or fertility and the gods of death. This may have been an agriculture-related ritual or an apotheosis of the military conquest. Archaeologically, that two fold symbolism may be represented by the so-called ‘creation’ and "hux-’ahaal" or ‘three-conquest’ ball courts, such as the one in Naranjo.

Cancuén, Ball Court, note the 3
markers in the court field,
Typical in Classic courts, to reenact
Maya Creation myth

La Corona Ballplayer, note the
"Baluun Nahb" glyph

Ball Court near Temple I, Tikal
Small Ceremonial Ball Court
Tikal (1 of 7)

Petén Lowlands,
Ceremonial Vase

Tiquisate ball marker
Pacific Lowlands

Main Court in

    Some myths have survived in the Popol Vuh (Click link to download), a text that recounts the Maya Myth of creation. It was translated into Spanish in 1697, in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, but the stories it tells are much more ancient. The Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué (pronounced “shawbal an kay”), were excellent ballplayers. Unfortunately, the noise of their incessant games disturbed the gods of the underworld. Irritated, the gods sent a messenger owl to summon them. Every day the twins played ball against the gods, just managing to hold their own. A good thing, since a loss would cost them their lives!. Each night they faced other dangers in the houses where they slept: the Dark House, Razor House, Jaguar House. They escaped with cunning and the help of forest creatures—until the night in the Bat House, where snatcher bats flew. The boys slept inside the tubes of their blowguns for protection, but Hunahpú stuck his head out too soon and was decapitated. The next day, the gods used Hunahpú’s head in place of the ball. Xbalanqué was able to trick them, however, and reunite his brother’s head and body. In the end, it was the gods who lost that game. This Maya myth has been proven to be the original as depicted in the Preclassic  San Bartolo Murals.

Ballplayer stretched over steps for sacrifice, Jutiapa,
Eastern Highlands

Chamá Style Ball Game Vase

Guatemala Highlands Enthroned Ballplayer

Tikal, Ballgame Marker

Petén Lowlands, Ball Player

Cancuén Panel From the East Ball  Court

Ball Player, Escuintla, Pacific Lowlands

La Corona, (Site Q), Panel, showing an Ajaw playing

Vase with Ballgame Yolk



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Last updated 28/01/2011 17:07:35 -0500
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