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Quark, Strangeness and Charm

What is the Social Function of Sport?

Sport as Religious/Political Ritual

Fostering the Spectator Mentality and loyalty to meaningless 'tribal' groups - and football corporations that have no relevance to their home city other than the ground

The Great Ball Court

ABC News - More than games, contests of mortals against gods

The Great Ball Court

General Information

The Great Ballcourt, located in the northern precinct of Chichén Itzá, is the largest ballcourt ever discovered in Mesoamerica. It has also proven to be the most complex in the carvings, structures and inscriptions that make up the court as a whole. The dimensions of the court are impressive. 545 Feet from end to end and 70 meters wide, is larger than a football field with the stone hoops engraved with the visage of Kukulkan rising 20 feet above the ground. Though on the surface it appears to be simply a "game", the scenes acted out within its walls, and indeed the carvings on those walls, reveal a much deeper significance within Mayan tradition.

There are several accounts of the Aztecs and Maya playing the games at the time of the conquest. However no one noted the rules of the game or the manner in which it was scored. No surviving pictures or carvings ever show that the ball was touched with the hands, so archeologists have deduced that the ball could not be caught or kicked. The ball itself was a little larger than a basketball and was made of solid rubber so was quite heavy, hence the need for protective padding.

Players are shown in the carvings with a single knee-pad which may tell us they continually dropped on the same knee during play. [were they freemasons?! - TG] Players were richly dressed and decorated during play to add to the social and religious significance of the game.

The entire court is made up by several components. The Playing Field, the Northern and Southern temples, the Upper Temple of the Jaguar and the Lower Temple of the Jaguar visible from the outside of the court. These temples were locations of power and significance for nobles and kings that viewed the games. The southern temple, now apparently beyond repair, once was home to a Chaac-Mool similar to that found in the Temple of the Warriors. This statue now resides in a museum.

Though the proportions of the Great Ballcourt are much larger than in other ceremonial centers, the essential design is the same. It is rectangular, with an angled bench that runs the longest length of the court. A vertical wall is positioned behind these benches and the court's two goals are positioned out of this vertical wall, half way up the longest sides.

Apart from its size, there are characteristics found in this ballcourt that have yet to be repeated in other Mayan cities. The angled bench along the longest walls for example. These benches are each richly carved with three detailed panels showing warriors playing the game. These carved stone designs all show essentially the same design though the specific content differs slightly. Some panels show eleven players in addition to the captains, while others have twelve. The headdress designs also differ as do the specific details of each costume worn by the players. The figures are shown wearing the typical gear for the games. Knee pads and foot covers with sandals shown only on the left foot (and the same leg as the knee pad). Fringed padding protects their arms and each figure has a unique headdress and personal jewelry. Each figure wears a protective "U" shaped yoke-belt that was worn around the waist. This heavy belt (made of stone or heavy wood) and other gear protected the player from the dense rubber ball when they hit it using only their waist, forearms and thighs in order to hit it through the goal. The players are shown holding stones carved into the effigies of animals. The farthest panels on the end of either wall show vine and snake scrolls coming from the mouths of the players signifying either singing or speaking as they all march towards the center, and key, panel.

The center panel shows the decapitation sacrifice made at the conclusion of each "game". It shows a large game ball with an image of a skull in the center also speaking or singing that is a "way" or spirit companion to the game.

The Popal Vuh named this ball "White Flint" as it said it was made of flint covered with powdered bone. To the left of the White Flint ball is the victorious teams captain wearing an Itz (sorcerer) headband and wielding a flint knife that he has just used to sever his opponents head. The neck of the kneeling loser spurts seven streams of blood, six of them in the form of snakes. "Six Snake" or Wak-Kan was the Mayan name for the great tree at the center of the world. The center, and seventh "blood spurt" appears to be in the form of a squash vine and represents this tree.

A common modern myth is that it was the winner of each game that was sacrificed. There is, in fact, no archeological evidence to support this theory and it is likely incorrect. [no valid reasons given - TG] The kneeling posture of the sacrificed victim shown in the carvings is a common show of submission and is more likely to be associated with the loser of the game rather than the victor.

The two ballcourt goals or "rings" are also richly carved with the images of the feathered serpent god Kukulkan. Any goal scored is actually passing the ball through a portal into the Otherworld. Human eyes peer out between the bodies of the entwined serpents so that the rings are also "seeing" instruments used by the gods to view the games.

The court itself was intended to represent the act of creation. The Maya constructed the angled shape of the benches to represent the crack in the top of Creation Mountain.

The Popal Vuh shows us the Mayan word "hom" or crevice is also the word for Ballcourt. As a symbolic crevice in the surface of the earth, playing the game granted access into the Otherworld. where the Mayan ancestors and gods lived. The

Maya played the game to re-enact the moment when the third creation ended and the fourth (the one we live in today) began. The entire motif of the structures that make up the Great Ballcourt are all related to the moment of this fourth creation.

The imagery found on the structures show two critical moments in the cities history. What happened to the Itza at the moment of creation and the founding of their city, and what transpired during the time of conquest that gave the Itza their right to rule.

Most key cities in Mesoamerica had a ballcourt as part of their ceremonial center. Other examples in this website are shown in Uxmal and Coba

The Legend of the Hero Twins and the Myth of Creation

The following story was evident in the archeological record as early as 400 BC and tells the most popular tale of the Myth of Creation and how it related to the Great Ballcourt. It tells the story of the famous Hero Twins of Mayan mythology.

An older set of twins lived at the end of the third creation. They were named Hun-Hunahpu and Wuqub-Hunahpu. Their names corresponded to the Maize Gods of the Classic period Hun-Nal (one-maize-ear) and Hun-Nal-Ye (one-maize-seed). Both were great ball players who disturbed the Lords of Death with their ball playing. Xibalba, the Place of Fear and Awe, lies beneath the ballcourt in Mayan cosmology. The angry lords of Xibalba summoned the offending twins and subjected them to a series of trails for their disrespect. The Maize God Twins lost their confrontation with the death lords and were killed and buried below the floor of the ballcourt at the Place of Sacrifice in Xibalba as a warning to anyone who might anger the lords. Hun-Hunahpu's head was hung in a gourd tree next to the ballcourt. Xkik', the daughter of a death lord of Xibalba and more commonly known as the Moon-Goddess, sought the skull of Hun-Hunahpu. The skull spoke to her and convinced her to hold out her hand. The skull spat into her hand and she became pregnant. Her father ordered her killed when he found out she was pregnant, but she escaped with the help of her owl executioners and fled to Middleworld. The grandmother of her unborn children gave her shelter until she eventually gave birth to Hunahpu and Xbalanke (also known in the classic period as Hun-Ahaw and Yax-Balam) the Hero Twins.

The adventures of the twins as they grew up explain how the Mayan world came to be as it is today. A rat told the twins where they could find the ballgame equipment that was used by their father, and they began playing the game with all the skills of their ancestors.

The Xibalba Death lords were again angered by the noise from the game being played and summoned the twins to the Otherworld to answer for their disrespect. The death lords and the hero twins played a series of scoreless games, followed each night by an encounter in each of the houses of the death lords. Each night the Hero Twins tricked the Xibalbans and survivied the traps that had been set to kill them.

The Twins learned that the Lords planned to kill them anyway, and planned for a death that would allow them to return. When faced with the fiery oven of the Death Lords, the Hero Twins jumped in to their death. The joyful Death Lords ground their bones to dust and threw them into a river. Five days later the Twins emerged as fish-men, then changed to youthful humans. They disguised themselves as dancers and performers and tricked the Lords of Death into submitting to a sacrifice by dismemberment from which they would then be revived. The Twins though did NOT revive the Death Lords and, having defeated death itself, went to the ballcourt to dig up the bones of their ancestors.

The Maize gods were reborn from a snake and were nurtured to maturity by women who painted their bodies and dressed them until they were reborn in their former glory. Once revived, the Maize gods went on to oversee the fourth creation.

They woke up 3 old gods who were to play roles in the creation. These gods were called the paddler gods and god L because we have not yet been able to decipher their true names. The paddler gods transported the Maize gods in a huge canoe that corresponded to the Milky Way until they arrived at the place of creation that we know as the belt of the constellation Orion. The Maya saw Orion's belt as a huge cosmic turtle. The god Chak cracked open the back of the turtle with a lightning stone. Watered and nurtured by the Hero Twins, the Maize Gods grew from the crack in the back of the turtle, which is represented by the Ballcourt.

The Maize Gods stood in the crack and stretched out two serpents who formed the path of the sun and also represent the umbilicus through which the Maya communicate with the lords (sometimes referred to as the snakes seen in Snake Mountain). White flowers representing human souls are sometimes shown along the length of these cosmic serpents.

Located just below the Cosmic Turtle is a triangle of three stars we know as Alnitak, Saiph and Rigel. This triangle represents a cosmic hearth and the first stone was set up by the paddler gods and called the Jaguar Throne Stone and was located at Na-Ho-Kan or (First Five Sky). God L sat on this throne. A second stone was set by one of the other paddler gods and called Snake Throne

Stone and located at Kab-Kun (Earth Seat). Itzamna, the greatest sorcerer of creation set up the third stone, Shark Throne Stone. These three stones make up a cosmic hearth that is the ceremonial center of the cosmos, and is adopted by the Maya in their living huts that set up a three stone hearth for a fire at the center of their homes.

When all this work was completed, the grandparents of the Hero Twins molded the first generation of humanity from maize dough. Because the reborn Maize gods could not name all of their parts, they could not return to earth in their human forms and reside in the ballcourt where humans must go to worship them.

The ballcourt is then the first Mayan confrontation of death disease and war. Both sets of twins played the ballgame against the gods of the underworld and it was in the ballcourt where the Hero Twins resurrected their dead ancestors. It is also in the ballcourt that the Maize gods remained after the fourth creation of humanity. The game was sometimes played for the love of the sport, as shown by the twins before they angered the death lords.

Most of all, playing the ballgame was a necessary step in the Creation and making of humanity. The court is a crevice leading into the Otherworld and every time the Maya play the game they cheat death and re-enacted the acts that began Creation.

"These were more than mere games. They were contests of mortals against gods.”

ABC Discovery News Brief

A ball court from around 850 A.D. was discovered in Yagul, Mexico. Archaeologists have now found a much older court, from 1400 B.C. in Chiapas, Mexico. The basic layout—two platforms with sloping walls and a narrow alley in between—was the same. (Warren D. Hill)

By Kenneth Chang

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World in the 16th century, they described a game played by the native inhabitants: Players would bounce a rubber ball up and down a long, alley-shaped court, trying to get the ball through a hoop mounted on one of the walls.

Festivities Included Human Sacrifice 

Archaeologists have now found the oldest such ball court in Chiapas, Mexico, dating to 1400 B.C., 500 years older than the oldest previously known one. That pushes the origins of this basketball-like sport—variously called pitz, tlachco and ulama, depending on the time and place—to roughly the time when King Tutankhamen ruled Egypt.  While the rules changed over the centuries—the hoops and human sacrifice appear to be later additions—the basic layout of the court remained almost unchanged over the game’s 3,000-year history. 

Part sport, part ritual, the game was played throughout the later Aztec and Maya civilizations of central Mexico down through Honduras. The Spanish invaders destroyed all of the courts they found, but an open-field version still survives (sans sacrifice) in southern Mexico.

“I think the antiquity of these games shows how important athletic contests were to all societies of Mesoamerica,” says Warren Hill, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the article that appears in today’s issue of the journal Nature. “These were more than mere games. They were contests of mortals against gods.”

Unexpected Find

Hill was a member of the 1995 team of archaeologists excavating Paso de la Amada, a village dating back to 1600 B.C., located on Mexico’s Pacific coast, just north of the border with Guatemala.  The archaeologists expected this mound to be the ruins of a large household similar to others found on the site. Instead, they found two 6-foot-high, 80-yard-long earthen platforms separated by a 15-foot-wide alley—the ball court.  Carbon dating showed that the court was built around 1400 B.C. and used for three centuries before being abandoned sometime around 1100 B.C.

Political Ritual

“It places the emergence of the ball game as a form of political ritual right back in one of the earliest periods of settled life in Mesoamerica,” says John G. Fox of Boston University, an expert on the ball courts. “It makes us rethink the timing of things a little bit.”  The one-time hunter-gatherers had begun to settle down into permanent villages a few hundred years earlier. The earliest ball games probably arose during this time, played in the fields.  The building of courts indicates the emergence of an elite ruling class. Just as today’s city leaders try to rally community support for new sports stadiums, “They may be using these competitive games to legitimize their rule,” Hill says. “There’s an analogy to be had there.”  Hill calculates the platforms would have taken 25 people about 25 days to construct.

How Did They Keep Score?

No one knows what the rules were in those early days, although Fox speculates the players’ goal was to bump a rubber ball with their hips and buttocks past some line drawn in the alley. “It’s certainly got some elements of football and soccer as well, but without the feet,” Hill says.

It was more than just a game. “It’s quite obvious from the art and imagery that the ball game was seen in a symbolic way as the cycles of the universe,” Fox says.

“The motion of the ball back and forth was compared to the movement of the planets or to the movement of the moon and sun in the sky.”  When hoops were introduced (hanging downward, not sticking out like basketball hoops), the game’s objective changed to knocking the ball through the hoop. That’s not an easy task when feet and hands are not allowed. “These games would sometimes go on very long,” Hill says. “Like cricket matches.” 

And somewhere along the way, human sacrifice entered the picture. The Spanish didn’t witness any firsthand so there are no written descriptions that say ball players were killed for, say, being upset in the first round of the playoffs.  “It’s so tempting to layer our own sporting world on top of this,” Fox says. “The truth is, we don’t know. We absolutely don’t know.”  It does make you wonder what NBA games will be like 3,000 years from now.

Note on the use of Rubber by the Maya

The Associated Press  -CAMBRIDGE, Mass.,

According to prevailing wisdom, the process for making rubber was invented in England in the mid-19th century.  Now, a new report by some archeologists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that date may be off by as many as 3,800 years.  The investigation that culminated in the new report, to be published today in the journal Science, began three years ago in an introductory archeology course. Michael Terkanian, a freshman from Brockton, was intrigued by the bouncy ball games played in Mayan cities in Central America when the Spanish explorers first encountered them in the 1500s.

The Ball’s Beginnings

Terkanian’s interest led to a three-year research project that looked into how the Mayans created the rubber balls, hundreds of years before the first rubber-making patent was issued in England in 1843.  “Nobody thought about it,” Terkanian’s archeology professor Dorothy Hosler told The Boston Globe. “It was just one of those obvious questions that nobody asked.”  

The solid rubber balls intrigued the Spanish explorers, too - they brought a few samples back to show King Carlos V. At the time, the only balls known in Europe were made of leather and feathers, and didn’t bounce very much. 

Mayan Methodology

During their research, Terkanian and Hosler made three trips to Mayan archeological sites in Mexico. They found some Mayans in the area who still knew how to make rubber the ancient way. 

Rubber is made by collecting the sap, or latex, from the rubber tree and adding sulfur and heat. Terkanian and Hosler, with some help from MIT materials scientist Sandra Burkett, figured out that the ancient Mayans’ recipe called for mixing the latex with juice from a morning glory vine, and then stirring the concoction for 15 minutes.  The hot Mayan climate approximated the heat added to the modern rubber recipe, the researchers found. 

It’s unclear exactly how the Mayans’ ballgames were played or when they developed — Mayan society stretched from as early as 2000 B.C. to the 16th century A.D. — but illustrations on pottery and reports from explorers gave some indications.  In one game, a small ball was struck by a stick, the Globe reported. Another game used a larger ball that was thrown through an overhead hoop.

US TV company ABC made a documentary: 'Ulama, Game of Life and Death.'

"Any more fares please" - to the index