Ancient ball game connects its modern Mayan players to a silent culture
On Saturday, the first Southeast Mexican Cup of the ancient Mesoamerican game of mayan ball will take place in the Yucatán community of Umán, 18 kilometers southeast of Mérida. It is a celebration of one of the oldest sports in the world.
This tournament will host teams from Yucatán, Campeche, Chiapas and Quintana Roo. As well as being a full-fledged tournament, this event will also serve as a precursor to the World Cup championship from December 2-5 in Mérida, determining which players will qualify for this final competition.
This December competition will see teams from Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and host Mexico compete against each other. Three World Cups have already been organized for this ancestral sport: in Chichén Itzá in 2015, in Guatemala in 2017 and in El Salvador in 2019.
Qualifying rounds for the international tournament have already taken place in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala, and the winning team, Ajpopab Tzutujil, have won their ticket to the final in Mexico.
Ancient Mayan civilizations in all countries of present-day Latin America and all over Mexico played some version of this ball game, as did the Mexicans. Perhaps the best-known surviving playground is located in the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá in Yucatán. In recent years, the game has been revived as a modern sport in Mexico and several countries in Latin America.
Mayan ball – which is just one term for the game among the different groups in different countries that play it – has become an increasingly important part of sports culture for the indigenous peoples of the Mesoamerican region. While the idea of watching a modern ball game rarely evokes the implications of power and politics, there are social and cultural implications inherent in playing many sports, nothing more than the often-forgotten Mesoamerican ball game. .
In Umán, for example, the municipal government created a free school in 2019 for young Mayans to learn their culture’s game. “We are betting on the new generations who practice this sport that our ancestors left as a legacy,” José Manuel Ruiz Garrido, municipal official, told the newspaper. El Financiero shortly after the school opens.
The rebirth of this oldest of ball games represents the rescue of a silent tradition and a link between the Mayans of today and the world of the past.
This is not a game for the faint hearted. While losers are no longer killed as a sacrifice to the gods, bruises are everywhere – as one would only expect after continuously throwing your body to the ground in pursuit of a three-kilogram rubber ball.
The specifics of the game as it was played in ancient Mesoamerican societies remain largely unknown, and the precise mechanics have likely varied across cultures and eras. The game as it is played today is therefore based on the culture transmitted and the assumptions of researchers who have tried to guess the rules and symbolism of the game from architectural remains.
In the modern version, the heavy rubber ball is pushed with the hip in an attempt to move the other team off their field, until the ball crosses the baseline. It is played by both men and women, as it would have been by the ancient Mayans.
Ultimately, however, the details of how the game is played only live up to cultural significance at best just because of its rebirth. As a game, ball Maya is a display of dexterity, strength and strategic mastery, but more than that, it is a sport that speaks the history of an entire company.
The game was undoubtedly played for various reasons and had a multitude of meanings for different Mayan peoples; it is believed to have replaced acts of war, to have functioned as a ritualistic religious ceremony, and is simply a good way to pass the time.
The elements of the game, too, are loaded with overlapping symbolism. The game is at the heart of the Popol Vuh epic, the Mayan creation story, in which two pairs of brothers enter the underworld and play ball against the gods there.
The first couple of twins, the First Fathers, lose the game and are sacrificed. The second pair, the Hero Twins, overcome the gods of the underworld and outsmart them on every turn. The story ends with the apotheosis of the First Fathers to the heavens, where they become the sun and the moon and cause the start of the cycle of fertility and harvest that nourishes the rest of civilization.
The ball field thus becomes emblematic of the transition between the cycles of life and death, a liminal space between the underworld and the earth.
To this day, the motivations behind the game remain complex: it’s a legacy to be left in the future, and it’s a tribute to a culture that has been historically crushed by Western Christian society. During the Spanish invasion of the region, the conquistadors systematically wiped out the game by destroying the ball fields, of which only a part remains.
A school in Umán, Yucatán, offers free training in mayan ball.
In recent years, groups across Mesoamerica have saved this essential piece of Mayan society from the record and brought it back to life; many hope it will spread throughout the region and gain popularity to compete with sports like soccer and baseball.
Drawing the first team sport to ever be played in modern Mesoamerican consciousness, this month’s tournament, along with the International Cup in December, is an opportunity for the indigenous peoples of Mexico to become living witnesses of the past. Through them, it is hoped that the vein of shared sportsmanship that once ran through Mesoamerican civilizations can be invigorated and revived.
Shannon Collins is an environmental correspondent at Ninth Wave Global, an environmental organization and think tank. She writes from Campeche.