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Death Ball

“Let’s play death ball!”

Such was the enthusiastic invitation of my 7-year old nephew, who pulled me with one hand out into the backyard to engage in this very strange and ominous game. Already, my other nephews and niece were busy tossing every kind of ball into the fenced-in trampoline: nerf footballs, beach balls, basketballs, and soccer balls.

“And just how does one play death ball?” I inquired as I took off my shoes and climbed into the bouncing world of rolling balls. This new game sounded a little dangerous.

“You jump up and down but you can’t touch any of the balls. If you touch the ball, you die,” explained my nephew. Easy rules, I thought. Tricky game, too, given that there were about fifteen balls all rolling and bouncing around my feet.

This is a broken neck waiting to happen, I reflected, all the while taking nice easy hops in the middle of the tramp. All the children yelped and laughed as they bounced up as high as they could fling themselves into the air, then dodged the balls when they landed.

I died fairly early in the game, landing not softly with one socked foot on a plastic ball and the other sliding across the vinyl tramp. I lay on my back, staring up at the blue Texas sky, relieved to be out of the game.

“It’s okay Uncle Andrew!” shouted my nephew. “You get three lives. You have two more to go.”

Oh, thank goodness for extra lives. I got back up on my feet and re-entered the backyard match of death ball but then died once more before dinner was called.

Two weeks later I found myself on an actual backyard ball court in Mexico, staring at some of the more gory images from the great Maya “ball game” that was played so long ago. Nearly every great Maya ruin has a ball court, and while they all differ in size and grandeur, their architecture is fairly standard: a narrow I-shaped pitch, with slanted or flat buildings on the side rising up to the stands, and then two stone rings hanging horizontally from the side walls. These hoops were the aim of the ancient game: pass the rubber ball through the hoop and you are the winner.

While standing among the ruins of  Coba, I watched a French tourist—video camera in hand—delivering a serious voiceover as he panned across the ancient ball court, “This is the place where the Maya played the ball game. The losers were sacrificed.”

Panorama of the ball court at Coba:

Beep-beep! My fellow tourist stopped recording and moved on, his incomplete and misleading message safely stowed on a digital chip in his camera to be carried home and shared with friends and family in France—the misinformation of the world spread even more effectively by the technology of today.

Horror stories prevail about the ball game—and the ancient Maya—because horror sells, whereas the nuanced reality of the ball game and its relation to human sacrifice would probably not fare so well on late night television.

First of all—for everyday Maya society, the ball game was simply a sport. The abundant number of courts in Maya ruins, both large and small show that this was a game that was played frequently both for official reasons and for fun. Just like you can’t compare pick-up street ball with an NBA stadium, you can’t compare every different ball court among the Maya.

However, the ball game was also a religious rite—an active play commemorating part of the drama in the ancient Maya creation story. The ball game is a running theme in the Popol Vuh (“Book of Counsel”—comparable to the Bible’s Book of Genesis) and is often portrayed as a way that humans interacted with the gods. The director’s cut of the Maya creation story is a fascinating saga not unlike the Hindu Ramayana, but (for the sake of shortness on the internet) the main action occurs when the famed Maya “Hero Twins” Hunahpu and Xbalanque (sons of the slain Maize God, Hun Hunahpu) use their athletic skills to beat the gods of the underworld at the ball game. The angry gods (the losers) then sacrifice both of the twins (the winners), but the gods of the sky bring them back to life. Resurrected vigilantes, the hero twins slay the gods of the underworld and then resurrect their father the Maize God, then escape from Xibalba in a canoe and then crawling through a small crack in the earth (very similar to the crack that I crawled out of in the cenote).

While the Maya probably played the ball game every day as sport, it was also performed as a ceremony to commemorate the creation story and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. As a sport, the ball game consisted of two teams, dressed in special gear—specifically protective belts around the waist and knee pads. The ball in play was a small, pure rubber ball, crafted from latex that was extracted from the rubber trees in the forest. (The Maya were playing with rubber balls long before anything like it existed in Europe).

The exact rules of the ball game remain unclear, but it is believed that players were not allowed to hit the ball with their hands. Instead they used only their knees, hips and elbows (like Hacky Sack, I imagine) to pass the ball to one another, with the ultimate goal of passing the ball through the stone ring on the side of the court. The first team to score a goal won the game.

The losers were not sacrificed—at least not all the time. If that were the case, the Maya civilization would have decimated itself fairly quickly. The more likely scenario is that ritual sacrifice was only performed after certain games specified for that rite. The most common scenario was the final play in the war ceremony—that after a city won a battle, rather than simply killing the vanquished leaders, they equipped them with sports gear and “played” the ball game against the conquered soldiers. The winners of the war also won the ball game, after which the losers were then sacrificed, either by decapitation or removal of the heart.

How frequently this happened is unknown, although historians have shown that the practice increased later on in Maya civilization and may have been a symptom of society’s decline. In any case, this method of sacrifice was tied entirely to warfare.

Another different theory is that it was not the losers of the ball game, but the winners who were sacrificed—that teams volunteered to play in the ceremony and that if you won, you would be sacrificed to the gods. The incentive was the great honor that was placed upon the individual and their families—typically leading to advancement in society. The losers, on the other hand, were demoted to a life or impoverished slavery.

It is likely that both scenarios occurred to some degree, both winners and losers were sacrificed at some point, but this was not the essence of the ball game. What really mattered here was the symbolism of the creation story—and most of all, the story of how life began.

At Chichen Itza, the tour guides are thrilled to show tourists the bas-relief stone carvings showing the explicit decapitation of a ball player, with blood spurting out of his neck in the shape of seven snakes and then grows into flowers and trees (a symbol of fertility). What few realize is that this dramatic picture is likely a symbolic reference to the Popul Vuh—in which the sacrificed victim was resurrected. The Maya religion was very much focused on good winning over evil, and the ultimate victory of life and the living over death and wickedness.

The common misrepresentation of Maya human sacrifice is unfortunate. Imagine if a thousand years from now, tour guides took visitors into the ruins of our corner churches, pointed at a crucifix on the wall and reported how, “In the time of the Americans, every Sunday they nailed a member of the congregation to a cross and crucified them.”

That is exactly the kind of distortion that we’ve committed to the true story of the Maya and the symbolism of the Popul Vuh. That the ancient Maya practiced human sacrifice is true but this was typically in the context of war, to which our own culture is no stranger.

As of today, our country has lost 4,486 soldiers in Iraq. Forty years ago we lost 58,156 in Vietnam and in World War II, the United States lost around 418,500 people. We live in a society that puts a very high value on human life, and yet in times of war, we willingly sacrifice some of our strongest and most noble members in the battle of “good versus evil”.

In this context we are no different than the ancient Maya. We just play the game a little differently. The important thing to remember when visiting the ancient ball courts of El Mundo Maya is the unity of opposite principles: that in the mind of the Maya, destruction led to creation, and from death sprang life. The principles of their ancient faith are evident in their cyclical calendar, as well as the symbolism of the ball game—that life is a struggle between opposing forces but no matter the opposition, in the end, the good guys win.

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