Conclusion and the Modern Era

The ball games of Mesoamerica were an essential part of both daily and ritual life.  These games represent the creation of the world for the Mayans, the cycles of the sun for the Aztec, and various other elements like life and motion.  We can see depictions of the game in ceramics, figurines, and the relics of the ball courts themselves; this despite the fact that there are few actual rubber balls.  The ball game was also used to promote sacrifice and tribute across the continent, though some of the uses were grounded in the mundane. The ball game was a place for amateur competition and friendly contest.

This practice continues today. Since the Late Postclassic, a secular type of ball game distinguished itself from the traditional ritual ball game, though the original continued. This second game is recreational in nature. The modern recreational ball game can be divided into three versions that are regionally separated: Ulama de Brazo, Ulama de Cadera, and Ulama de Palo.

Ulama de Brazo is played in northern Sinaloa. Two teams of three facing each other. Instead of their hips, the players hit the ball with their forearms, which are protected by padding. It is illegal for the players to contact the ball with any other part of their body. They also protect their knees with pads.

Ulama de Cadera is found in the south of Sinaloa. Teams tend to be made of five or more. Players wear hip protection and a leather belt high on their thighs. In this case, the traditional hip is used to move the ball.

Finally, Ulama de Palo is different in that the players wield a “palo” or wooden racket. Team sizes are more similar to Ulama de Brazo. This certain game was a relic of the past until it was revived in the 1980’s.


A Comparison of the Aztec and Mayan Ball Game

Two of the larger sites that are representative of their respective areas are Chichen Itzá, for the Mayans, and Tenochtitlan, for the Aztecs.  There were several important differences in architecture, the way the game was played, and the ritual significance.

Chichen Itzá was the largest ball court in all of Mesoamerica. The sides of the court, in the middle of the “I” shaped formation, had high, small hoops.  Use of these hoops would require smaller balls than those typically represented in the ceramic artwork.  Round markers surrounded the alleyways leading into the court that most likely warned users of the space– the entranceway was possibly seen as a portal.


For the Aztec’s the court was similarly set up. Recent evidence at Tenochtitlan found about twenty feet under the “end zones” show offering boxes.  In these boxes were three basic objects: flint knives probably representing sacrifice, small shell femurs or ceramics in the shape of four-fingered hands probably representing death, and miniature figurines of musical instruments probably as offerings to the Aztec ball game gods of music and dance – Xochipilli and Macuilxochitl.

Mayan artwork shows the armor as if quilted from cotton. Mayan players are sometimes depicted with their legs and arms wrapped; one of the most important pieces were the kneepads. Players are often depicted wearing the headdress of a Mayan god – for the victors it was the God of war and sacrifice. The most common headgear in ceramic representations depicted a dear headdress that stood for a hunter’s hat.  Both of these headdresses linked to war and hunting – both territories of the young elite men.


Aztec players typically used similar protective equipment, though occasionally the players would wield obsidian bladed clubs – their uses are anyone’s guess.  In the Aztec Empire the ball court was used in festivals with celebratory sacrifices at the end.

For the Mayans, the ritual of the ball game was extremely important. The ball game represented rebirth and renewal and was seen as critical for the continuation of the world and prosperity.  It was thought for a long time that sacrifices were only committed at Chichen Itzá and not other ball courts – this has been proved wrong however through recent translations of Popol Vuh.

For the Aztecs the ball game was used more for entertainment and tribute.  Kings would play the game for fun, when watching they would gamble.  Commoners and elite alike enjoyed the game.   The kings used the game to divert the attention of the populace at times of unrest. There was, however, a connection for the Aztec between the travelling of the ball and the passage of the sun.  This difference in ritual belief in the game may be related to the different agricultural practices that would have to been used in the different regions.  There was also a major connection between the Aztec ball game, skull racks, and beheading.  For example, Hernando Cortez’s ascribed a map of Tenochtitlan labeled the ball court as Tzompantli, the Aztec word for skull rack – at this particular ball court there were in fact thousands of skulls.

Images courtesy of Abigail Holeman (UVA)