The Ball Court

“Can you hear me? I’m on the other side. Look through the holes in the rock wall. They brought you here last night from Uaxatun, after the battle. Are you Mayan? Can you hear me?”

     The recipient of this information could not stand. He sat up in the cramped cell and peered through the opening in the thick stone wall. He could see daylight. His prison was on the ground level of what appeared to be a large structure not seen since visits to Quirigua. One ball court was in full view. It was much smaller than the one at Copan, where gods and giants once entertained the visitors from the stars.

“I can hear you but I cannot see where you are,”  he whispered instinctively not knowing who else was in earshot.

“Why do you whisper, my friend? What else can they do to you?”

“I did not know…”

“It’s all right. Hey, that was some charge there at the end of the battle,” said the voice. “But the Toltecs held their ground. They may dress funny but they are some fierce warriors. Some had bows and arrows, never seen before here.”

“Who won?” asked the new guest.

“What does it matter? We didn’t, you and I, and from the looks of things the victors are saving us for their own entertainment. I think we’re close to a ball court. Have you played?”

“Only as a child,” was the answer. “According to our Ritual Calendar in the south only nobles compete in times of peace and only on holy days. I have always been a soldier only this time I am a captured one.”

“But the losing nobles never faced decapitation. That was no ball game. It was a charade. There was nothing to lose. I’m surprised they even discovered that rubber balls will bounce,”

laughed the host.

“What now?”

“Quiet. Here comes someone.”



The sun was bright as the players were led into the middle of the court. The crowd, looking like the smiling figures from the city’s entry gates, cheered madly for the more than 30 Mesoamerican gladiators that made up 10 teams. All were dressed in yolks, helmets and carried axes for score markers. The significance of this particular day became apparent as an important-looking little shaman moved to where the two courts came together an began an announcement:

“You who have engaged in the sport before have been winners or you would have been sacrificed long before. Your courage shall be the future or your death revenge for the gods! To those who have no knowledge of ball courts…you may not use hands and feet but must rely on heads knees and thighs to move the ball and score through the ring. No hitting below the belt. Good luck. Now come out fighting.”

The game would be played until one team soundly outscored the other. It could take days. After about a month of these ball games, the winners would move onto El Tajin, where since 700, on at least 11 massive ball courts, the bloody competitions were concluded in time for the annual homage to the Feathered Serpent.

And here’s the play-by-play:

…and Huaxtec passes to Topiltzin who bounces the ball off his head toward the ring. Calakmul races past two opponents and drives for the goal. Wait. he’s on the ground and the jaguar team recovers!

Topiltzin is back expecting a drive, off the knee of the jaguar center. His two teammates intrude into the court defended by the Mayan warriors. One is free. Huaxtec misses the block and…Score!”




After four brutal hours it was the time when players left the court so as to gather their senses in apprehension of yet more ball. The first prisoner from the rock cell was clearly in control. The warrior from the Uaxatun battle and another dazed combatant listened intently to his survival strategy.

“It’s all just one patolli, another game of chance,” he began. “We can win as easily as they. It’s not so tough out there. I’ve even heard that they have women playing at Yaxchilan, but that’s ancient history. We are a match for any of them! If we keep our heads about us and the equipment holds, we will live on. There’s a double-header in Las Higueras next weekend. Let’s be there.”

He concluded by reminding his fellow players that the court’s proximity to the chacmool, or sacrificial altar, was no accident.

May Itzamna intervene on our behalves,” he prayed. “Remember: The sun (ball) cannot touch the ground. Failure to support the sun means certain death on the scull racks!”

“These holy days are hell,” muttered one contestant as he ran out onto the sun-drenched court greeted by the cheers of the crowd.

Filed Under: Featured Peeks

RSSComments (0)

Trackback URL

Comments are closed.