Research Material

I want to thank Sam Edgerton for such extensive comments on my paper and to address some issues, which were in the focus of the critique.

First, I would never call Maya ball game a secular event. I believe that any sacred-profane sort of opposition is absolutely inapplicable to the social, political, and spiritual realities of the Classic Maya world, where gods, humans, animals, precious objects, and even natural phenomena consisted of multiple animistic entities, so that any event was interpreted as an outcome of the interaction between ‘inner’ entities and other supernatural powers.

Ball courts were dangerous, liminal, magic places, because it was only in such environment, where so complex and powerful beings as kings and high courtiers could display their ball game virtues and engage in a competition of unpredictable outcome. Yet a game lost was likely an evil omen, as maybe some higher order of things was believed to determine the course of the ball. As Justina Olko has pointed recently, Aztec ball game was an important divination practice. Why don’t we suggest that Maya game could also serve similar ends?

Despite its liminal properties, however, the game was part of intense contacts between the elites of Classic Maya kingdoms. These contacts involved feasting, hunting, and ball game. Therefore, I found extremely important that these activities probably shared a common patron deity. However, it did not mean that those were ‘secular’ activities. By contrast, any interaction between lords of different kingdoms was interpreted in terms of rivalry and exercise of power by humans and associated supernatural entities. I think that those encounters were not so far from the Popol Vuh story in terms of their agenda and dangers involved.

There also some minor details, which are worth mentioning.

The glyphs in the last two block of the mentioned inscription in the Dresden codex are pi-tsi-la cha-ki pitsal Chaak “ball player Chaak”. As far as I understand, the passage identifies the rain deity as ball player. The ‘cleft’ mentioned by Sam Edgerton is an element of cha syllabic sign (not a logograph). This is a common sign element without any meaning of its own. It is actually not a ‘cleft’ but a “T”-shaped element, probably borrowed from the logogram “IK’” (wind). T-shaped IK’ motif is prominent in Maya iconography.

There are several examples of “true ball game” depicted on pottery. Another panel from Dos Pilas also seems to depict a lively game. Unfortunately, the moment is not that well preserved.
Link to rubbing by Merle Greene of Dos Pilas Ball Game Panel

There is one text that deals with ball game scores (K635). The problem is that there are no colonial data on the Maya scoring system and related terms, so the text remains quite cryptic.

Some ideas about “number+nab” compound.

Alexander Tokovinine

By the time of my talk with Christian Prager in Bonn, 2000 the only clue I had were two nearly identical passages in ballgame texts. While in the Copan text (K3296) it was written that Yax Pasah «’u-ba-[hi]-l(i)-A’AN WUK ? -(wa) ti-pi-ts(i) ’u-baa[h]il a’an Wuk … ti pits», a similar passage of Rio Azul text (K1383) stated that Tsahkaj K’awiil «’u-ba-[hi]-l(i)-A’AN WUK ? ti-CHALAHUN-NAB-(ba) ’u-baa[h]il a’an Wuk … ti chalahun nab». Taking into consideration the fact that chalahun nab is one of the most widespread «number+nab» glyphs inscribed within the ball, this led me to speculate that, apart from pits as «ballgame» in general, chalahun nab or bolon nab signify particular versions of the game. When I saw for the first time the drawing of a step from Dos Pilas HS 1, it seemed to me that the problem was solved - nine figures were depicted eight of them apparent ball players, besides those two bundles, they reminded me of Popol Vuh story and Copan markers with tied/wrapped balls brought by each team. As I thought that Maya ballgame was mostly a hand one, I speculated further - that the bolon nab or «nine hands» actually referred to the quantity of players thus defining what kind of the ball game was played - that of nine players, twelve players etc. Additionally it was T. Leyenaar’s contemporary ballgame vocabulary that supported the general possibility of terming ball players as «hands».

The first thing Christian explained to me was the exact meaning of nab - «palm» and not «hand». Then he told me about the possible connection between «number+nab» and gesticulation of probable ballgame referees (those characters with conch-shell trumpets), thus «number+nab» could signify particular ballgame scores.

I’ve found only three ball game scenes with «referees» - those on the vessels from Justin Kerr database: K2731, K3814, K5435. Comparing the first two ones it is interesting to note some differences. The scene on K2731 is very dynamic, the ball is in the air while the «referee» falling on the left knee quickly points something to the right player as they look at each other. The K3814 scene, in turn, is quite static; both teams stand motionless while the «referee» looking at the ball (it lays on the ground between the teams) points to the right team. In both cases the referee’s left hand/palm is certain to indicate something (a score, a hit, a mistake?) but the «messages» look different as different game situations are depicted.

I tried to illustrate the hand ballgame with several samples, supporting either a «hand-striking» or «palm-striking» techniques. It seems to me now that players could use a broader variety of game techniques, than those so well described Mexican ball players.

There is also a peculiar ball game scene on the K4040 with a kind of post- or pre- game dispute involved. While the left ball player argues something, the right one, still/already stands on the right knee, with his palm on the ball as if he claimed either a score or a service. Note that the K3814 scene may also be interpreted as a dispute between the teams when the final word belongs to the referee.

Thus I would speculate for the 4 possible iconography-based interpretations of «nab» as a ball game term: 1) a term for the referee’s gestures; 2) a term for a kind of ball players; 3) a term for a particular way to strike the ball; 4) (=1?) a term for claiming a score (scoring a point).

Looking for other Wuk ?Ajaw impersonation cases, I found an incredibly interesting text on another Kerr data base vessel - K635. Here is this fragment: (Hi1) K’AN-(na)-ja-l(a) (Ii1) ?’u-ts’i-b(i) (Hi2) ’i-ts’a-t(a) (Ii2) pi-tsi-l(i) (Hi3) ’u-ba-[hi]-l(i)-A’AN (Ii3) WUK-?AJAW (Hi4) ti (Ii4) CHALAHUN-NAB-(ba) (Hi5) ’u-(hi)-HIX-l(i) (Ii5) LAHUN-NAB-(ba) (Hi6) ’u-(hi)-HIX-l(i) (Ii6) BOLON-NAB-(ba)

k’anlaj (?k’ahnlaj/k’ahnjal/k’anjal) ’u-ts’ib ’its’at pitsil ’u-baa[h]il a’an Wuk … ti chalahu’n nab u-hixil lahu’n nab u-hixil bolon nab «(?) became yellow/flat (?) his writing, - sage, ball player, he is the impersonator of Wuk … in the «twelve nab», his hix(il) is «ten nab», his hix(il) is «nine nab». The inscription leads to the following proposals:

1) chalahun nab is the name of this particular kind of ball game

2) here lesser numbers with nab indicate either the teams’ final scores (taking into consideration Mexican data it seems plausible that both teams could fail to win the game, too exhausted to play till the «victory score»), or those particular scores when the point was gained by the protagonist

3) hix is another ball game term, somehow referring to the score, while nab may indicate either a single «point» or a single «scoring» but not the quantity of ball players. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any appropriate meaning for hix in the dictionaries. And I don’t have any other text with «number+nab» glyph repeated, first as a name for the game, next as a kind of scoring record.

Later, I received some useful comments from Luis Lopes, who pointed out that the term might have had something to do with hix as “limar, frotar” or “raspar”, probably as reference to the ball hitting the ground.

Hixil is clearly a possessed noun and whatever it terms "belongs' to the “ten palms” and “nine palms”. The problem is how to bind these words together. It seems unlikely that hixil refers to scoring as I thought previously. However, it is hard to imagine how a word derived from "frotar/limar/raspar” may designate something possessed by a number of "palms".

Marc Zender has recently suggested that the number of palms refers to the ball circumference, so that "nine-palm-ball" is nine palms in circumference. My proposal was that this is a particular ball game types. Both ideas can be combined: particular ballgame types favor particular balls and are termed after those balls.

Still, what can "scratching of the ball" or "scratching of palms" mean?

It seems to have been a ballplayer title or a reference to the game played, so that the "twelve palms" might have been the “scratching” of ten and nine palms respectively. Could it indicate number of palms injured or number of players who did “scratching” (ballgame?)? Other interpretations are also possible. The character on one of the La Corona panels is depicted falling and he was likely falling after striking the ball. However, he might have tried to strike with his thigh/hip. In the latter case, he was really risking, since his palm was not protected and he would surely scratch it against the ground.