Research Material

Subject: Ma: Was the Maya Ball-Game just a "Secular" Event??

Pardon my late response to the three-weeks old posting by Justin Kerr of
an interesting FAMSI article by Alexandre Tokovinine regarding the origin
of the Maya ball-game. I've just returned from a fascinating trip to Cuba
(perhaps more on that in a later message), and only a couple of days ago
reviewed my back-logged e-mail.
Anyway, here's my immediate reaction upon reading Tokovinine's argument,
to the effect that our famous indigenous Mesoamerican "sport" didn't really
originate as a religious replay of the Popol Vuh legend (where the Hero
Twins defeat the Lords of Xbalba) but more likely served simply as a
conventional "framework" for all sorts of secular political engagements
between local rulers, readjusted and updated to whatever their regional
patron deiforms. As an admitted overly-sensitive art historian, I do sense
that the author was reading too much into the scant epigraphic evidence and
not considering as even more revelatory, the symbolic form of the extant
architecture of the Maya ball-court, and especially its pictorial
representations on painted pots, codices and relief sculpture. To be sure,
Tokovinine admits that the ball-court signified a "magic location" for his
"secular" spectacles, but he downplays that quality as if it existed only
as a fossil vestige of a remote and disconnected past, such as our
present-day football stadiums vaguely recall the ancient Roman Colloseum.
He fails to acknowledge that even before any Maya Popol Vuh association
(which he correctly finds no mention of in any extant ball-court
inscriptions), the Mesoamerican ball-game began as a theatrical celebration
of the agricultual planting season, in which the playing area represented
the fertile earth, the ball the fecund maize seed, and the sloping
sidewalls of the later masonry ball-courts the cleft or furrow in the earth
where the "seed" as ball should be ritually "sprouted" by players belting
it upward into the air.
Of course, the rules of the play and the shape of its court evolved over
time and in different regions, but its original relationship to agriculture
was never forgotten. This is particularly recalled in a significant
hieroglyph inscribed in the Dresden Codex (fol. 41/74; also referred to by
Tokovinine) where the logograph block has a stepped V-shaped cleft
inserted, and a small circular ball form imbedded between the steps, much
as a seed is pressed into the ground by a planting stick. Linda Schele
ofter pointed out that the very same "cleft" concept actually informed the
planning of whole Maya ceremonial centers, as at Tikal where the facing
Temples I and II frame the Great Plaza with their likewise stepped and
sloping facades. In other words, the Maya urban center itself was often
conceived as a macro ballcourt.
It's noteworthy that no depiction ever shows the ball hitting a goal post
or passing through a ring. It is always shown either being played off the
slope of the "cleft," or lying on the court floor. Indeed, in the Terminal
Classic frieze along the bottom of each side of the great Chichen Itza
ballcourt, the ball, always with a human skull inside, is carved in
repeated images resting on the actual ground among blossoming squash vines,
and being "fertilized" apparently by streams of blood (in the form of
snakes) spurting from the necks of decapitated players. While it's
generally assumed that the game was a contest between two teams, with the
winners privileged to sacrifice the losers, there is no evidence that I
know of either in the inscriptions or depictions that it was a true "game"
at all, in the sense of each team tries to score more "goals" than the
other. Rather it seems that among the Classic Maya at least, the so-called
game was more a ritualized athletic dance wherein a local ruler, reenacting
his military victories before his loyal subjects, would hip the ball
cleverly back and forth around the court, while the audience would perceive
the continuously struck ball as signifying the captured enemy (often
depicted bound up inside the ball). After a number of tricky and
crowd-pleasing maneuvers, the performing player(s) would let the ball
tumble to the earth like a sown seed. Its vicariously contained human
victim was thus offered as nourishment to the divinities who reciprocally
sustained the victorious ruler's hungry subjects.
Many Classic ballcourts are oriented to the cardinal directions, with the
side walls facing east and west respectivcely. This implies that the
bouncing rubber ball being played against these walls may also have
symbolized the rising and setting sun (still a primal agricultural factor),
especially when depicted as a hugely oversized ball as in the frieze
running along the base of Temple 33 at Yaxchilan. There, the ruler, Bird
Jaguar IV, dressed as a ball-player is depicted about to belt his captive
enemy, Jewel Skull, tied up inside a gigantic bounding ball, upward on the
sloping steps, presumably the very stairs leading to the king's east-facing
hill-top residence. Bird Jaguar appears to be offering his captive to the
sun itself as it rises to illuminate his royal palace, hopefully signalling
to his subjects that the gods are pleased, thus guaranteeing another
prosperous growing season.
In sum, Alexandre Tokovinine's article presents no decisive proof that the
Maya ball "game" was ever a purely "secular" event no matter what the
nuanced definition of that word. However or by whoever played, the
so-called game had always the ultimate intention of appeasing the Maya
gods, never simply to entertain a materialist audience.
Sam Edgerton