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)