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Whatever you do, do not drop the ball

14 August 2012 Comments Leave a comment

While wandering the broad, perfectly clean streets of Azcapotzalco, Tenochtitlan or Texcoco, you could be surprised to find them nearly deserted, with even the main road leading to the marketplace empty of passersby. In such large altepetls this occurrence would be highly unusual, even when large ceremonies were held, unless an official ballgame was at its highest.

Ullamaliztli, the traditional ballgame, was definitely the thing to draw the crowds like a magic whirlwind.

Important politically and religiously, a ball court, tlachtli, would be situated in the center of the city, usually next to the main temple and the Palace, with the elevated areas on both sides reserved for the judges and the noble audience to watch and enjoy. So, if you’ve got the necessary amount of noble blood, and a few sturdy slaves to clear your way, you may be able to find yourself a nice vantage point to watch the most magnificent show in Mesoamerica.

Made in a shape of “I”, a ball court would be surrounded by moderated slopes on each side. Stone walls, while preventing the ball from bouncing off the court, would be adorned by two rings, made of stone and beautifully carved, with openings hardly fitting the size of the ball.

While, of course, the player who had managed to pass the ball through the ring, would be the most famous person in the city, worshiped and adored by all, this feat was next to impossible. Upon rare occasions, when something like that would happen, the game would be stopped immediately and the winner team announced with great ceremony and pomp.
Yet, as it was, the practical Mesoamericans outlined more ways to score points, leading to the eventual victory even if gradually and not as gloriously swift as the ultimate hit.
So, first of all, the ball was not supposed to touch the ground. The team who had allowed it happen, would lose a point and the game would be stopped for the Master of the Game to announce the next round.
If the ball hit one of the six markers adorning the two walls, the team who had achieved it would win a point.
But there was another catch. The players could not simply kick or throw the ball. No! They weren’t even allowed to touch it with their hands or their feet. Was such a thing to occur, the team at fault would lose another point.
So what were the players allowed to do in order to keep the heavy rubber ball in the air? Well, they were definitely at liberty to use their elbows, knees, hips or even chests sometimes. And their heads, of course. Anything else would lose them a point, hurting the pride of the player at fault.

To soften the worse of the impact – the bouncy rubber ball could weight up to 10 pounds – the players would wear protective leather gear. The hit of the heavy rubber would hurt anyway, but at least one could attempt to protect one’s limbs, covering mostly one’s hips, knees and arms. Sometimes even a helmet was used, although the murals would usually show a player wearing a beautiful headdress, which could not be practical through the game and was probably worn before or after, for the ceremonies.

Religiously as politically, this game had a tremendous significance. The courts would be usually located in the cultural centers, amidst the temples, the pyramids and the Palace. Some say it may have represented the door into the Underworld, into the death and the darkness but also a rebirth. The game may have been a re-enactment of a battle with the forces of the Underworld or between the light and the darkness.
In smaller communities, away from the large altepetls, it may also have had an agricultural meaning indicating the rebirth of the cultivated crops.

The games were always accompanied by active gambling of the watching crowds and the wages could climb very high. People would bet all sorts of belongings and precious objects, even their homes and their freedom sometimes. The great rulers were not above betting too, wagering everything from towns to chinampa to marketplaces. Often a game between rival or friendly capitals could be the means to resolve, or to try to resolve, a conflict in a sort of a peaceful way. Had it worked? Well, not always, but it was worth a try and the magnificent show of power and skill was a beautiful thing to watch.

Apart from the official ceremonial games, such ballgames were probably played just for fun on every sort of an improvised court. Young noblemen were taught the game in their calmecac, along with their military training, and commoner boys could, most probably, be seen bouncing the rubber ball all over the streets of their altepetls or towns.

An excerpt from “The Warrior’s Way

The crowds around her roared and Mino’s eyes followed the ball when it almost touched the ground, but was bounced back into the air when one of the players managed to slip himself between the heavy rubber and the perfectly swept surface of the field. His peers pounced to catch it, while the player got to his feet with difficulty, his backside scratched and bleeding.

Now fascinated, she watched Tecuani catching the ball on his chest, passing it to another player, making it look like an easy feat, but she saw the youth’s face twisting as he fought for breath, the skin of his chest darkening visibly.

She watched him rushing on, intercepting the ball once again when a player of the opposite team positioned himself to the left of the ring high on the sloping wall. No, thought Mino, wide-eyed. He would not try to pass the ball through this small opening in the ring. It seemed to be almost the same size as the ball itself.

She had no chance to find out as Tecuani’s body flew between the expectant man and the descending rubber, hitting the ball with an elbow, changing its direction. The young man lost his balance and slipped against the ground, but the ball was far away now, pushed by another player, not likely to leave the air.

When the ball finally seemed to touch some mark upon the sloping wall and the players rested, waiting for the Master of the Game to announce another round, Mino felt her muscles relaxing. An interesting game, after all, she thought, avoiding Tecuani’s gaze. She could feel it sliding down her face, burning her skin. She clenched her teeth and kept looking away. Such an annoying youth, she thought, her heart pounding.

The sun blazed unmercifully, and she wondered how hot the players must feel under their rubber head covers, running around as the game proceeded, amidst the roaring and the vigorous gambling of the noble crowd. The side where she sat with Sakuna was clearly reserved for the nobles, while the commoners seemed to be concentrating on the edges of the surrounding areas and the other side of the field.

Tecuani, on his feet once again, now stood to the left of the opposite ring, shouting something to the player on his team. Yet, as his friend tried to direct his pass, another player slammed into him, sending the man reeling, missing the opportunity to make a good pass. But Tecuani was already there, catching the ball with his chest. He let it bounce just a little, then hit it with his muscled, leather-covered thigh, sending it flying in a beautiful arch toward the round carved stone of the ring. The ball crushed against the stone and seemed to hesitate before bouncing off, not passing through the opening.

Aghast, Mino saw the opposite team of the players starting to cheer wildly, while the ball passed back into the care of the Game Master. How could such a beautiful hit be a failure? He had almost passed the ball through that opening, an impossible feat. No other player had even attempted to do this.

She stared at Tecuani’s clenched fists as the young man looked up, his smooth face twisted, eyes blazing with anger. The dark gaze met hers, staring at her and her alone, gleaming like polished obsidian, but burning and not as hard and as cold as the glassy surface of their weapons. She shivered, took in the anger and frustration mixed with so much longing, such a naked desire, she felt her heart missing a beat.

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8 Comments to “Whatever you do, do not drop the ball”

  1. love the post! it was very informative. thanks for sharing an excerpt of Book 4 as well.

  2. Zoe,

    I enjoyed this post. My kid and I are big sports fans so this aspect of Mesoamerica really appeals to us. I have a print from Mexico depicting a scene from one of these games. I will send you the image via twitter. I thought I had read once where the losing team in these contests was sometimes executed. Maybe that’s just a myth but it would make the athletes play harder.

    Thanks,
    Dan

    • Hi Dan,

      Thank you so much for your comment!

      Glad you enjoyed the post. And thank you so sending this print. It is beautiful and I will most definitely include it in one of the next posts.
      This game’s rules had varied between different Mesoamerican cultures, and I suppose there were some sacrificial aspects accompanied to to some of these contests from time to time. Most probably the winning team, as to be sacrificed to the Gods was a great honor.

      Zoe 🙂

  3. Hi Ao,

    Thank you so much for your comment!
    Glad you enjoyed this post 🙂

    Zoe 🙂

  4. Antoinette Ouellette

    This brings the era to life in a way that many people can associate with and a darn good read as well.to be plain..I like it ! Cannot. Wait to read it all 🙂

  5. Antoinette Ouellette

    I was wondering as I read the article if anyone has tried to play the game . Perhaps archeologist students it do any descendants play games centered around this game .Lacrosse is still played today but definatly not the way it was originally so are any modern day sports based loosely on this ancient sport?

  6. Forget Quidditch—this is absolutely, beautifully fascinating!

    (And is it just me, or did my cursor magically turn into an ancient dagger?)

    • Thank you 🙂 🙂 🙂
      (and yes, if your cursor did turn into obsidian dagger then the magic is on :D)

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