The Maya Ballgame
A very important religious ritual of the Maya culture
The Maya Ballgame “Pok Ta Pok” was a ritual deeply ingrained in the Maya culture. It served much more than being just a sporting event, it was a way of calming disputes and settling arguments which avoided wars. This measure of spectacular civility was always example to follow. Disputes could be resolved in a court game instead of a battlefield, which was a very civilized method of solving conflicts, right?
Without a doubt, the Mayas had techniques to settle their differences that were very efficient. To be able to come up with these solutions, they had to interpret one of the most known tales of the sacred book of the Mayas: “Popol Vuh”.
This sacred book tells the story of the brothers Hun-Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú, who enjoyed playing the ball game with the sons of Hun-Hunahpú.
One day, they were playing on the way to Xilbalbá, the underground world or hell. The men who lived in this world were all evil, demons, misfortunes and death.
That same day, the gentlemen of Xibalbá were very annoyed due to the fact that they had overheard the brothers playing with the ball. Enraged, they met all together as a council to decide how they would punish the brothers
They decided to send their four owls with the following message:
-The gentlemen invite you to go to Xibalbá to play ball with them to kill some time.
But, what can we expect from evil, other than deception and traps? This is how they ended up killing the two brothers and before burying them, they cut off the head of Hun-Hunahpú and had ordered their servants to hang it between the foliage of the jicara tree.
When the servants hung the head of Hun-Hunahpú from the tree, it immediately started bearing fruit. The head looked so similar to the fruit that hung from the tree, that it could not be differentiated whatsoever.
Miss Ixquic, the daughter of one of the gentlemen of Xibalbá, was surprised to hear the story of the fruits of the famous jícara tree.
When she saw the fruits she craved to eat them, but Hun-Hunahpu’s head which was among these fruits started speaking to her saying:
– What do you want? The objects that hang from this tree are not fruits, they are heads, do you still want to eat them?
After that, Hun-Hunahpu’s head spit on her hand and he said:
– In my saliva I have given you my offspring, now you can climb to the surface of the earth and I promise you that you will not die.
Miss Ixquic had gotten pregnant!
But Ixquic’s father was not okay with this. He called his owl messengers and gave them a knife to have her daughter sacrificed.
Ixquic tried to convince the owls to let her live, but they had specific orders to take her heart to Xibalbá inside a jícara. They then picked the fruit from the tree, which quickly took on a glowing red color and the shape of a heart, which would be good enough to deceive the gentlemen of Xibalbá into thinking it was Ixquic’s heart.
Ixquic then gave birth to her children Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué in the middle of the field. Years later, the brothers found the court of the Maya ball game that his father had built. While they were playing, they had brothered the gentlemen of Xibalbá, so they were called to visit the Underworld.
And history repeated itself, but this time the brothers Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué had an ace up their sleeve.
Hunahpú and Ixbalanque, continued heading down the black road until they reached Xibalbá where they met the gentlemen of death. Later on, the gentlemen sent them into the dark house, which they entered into without any problem and continued playing ball.
As soon as the game started, the ball bounced on its own until it was inserted into Hunahpu’s ring. Upon noticing the trap, the brothers threatened to withdraw from the game or use their own ball. The gentlemen accepted their request and the brothers soon inserted the ball into the ring of Xibalbá. Thus, they won and the game had ended.
The gentlemen were furious because they wanted to annihilate the brothers in the game. They decided to punish them with difficult tests that they had to overcome, but they did not count on the astuteness of each one of them and on the fifth day they reappeared and finally revealed who they were and their origin.
The gentlemen of Xibalbá were astonished to discover who they were and begged for mercy, but it was too late, the brothers announced that they would be exterminated. Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué honored their parents by avenging their death, and later they would were sacrificed to transform into the Sun and the Moon, according to the tale.
“Pok Ta Pok”
Was the name that was given to the Maya ball game, at a later period. This name comes from the pure onomatopoeia that causes the sound of the ball bouncing against the forearm (pok), the wall (ta) and back to the forearm (pok).
After, the Mayas had built several ball courts to commemorate the feat of the twins. Since then, before starting a game, all the players had to pray to the brothers Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué.
Pok Ta Pok was a team sport, similar to volleyball, in which the ball was passed from one side to the other using only the hips, shoulders and elbows.
The game ended if one of the players scored the ball through one of the rings, and it is believed that the entire winning team was sacrificed. It was known that the sacrifice was a true honor because they saw life as a dream and death as a process of awakening from this dream to finally live in eternal harmony.
Can you imagine being able to appreciate the adrenaline of a ball game with the Mayas?
What team would you play for? Team of Xilbalbá or Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué?
Currently, in the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular show, there is a genuine representation of that game and I am sure that after knowing about this tale of “Popol Vuh.” You will not see the game of “Pok Ta Pok” the same way again!
Illustrations by Luis Garay for the book “Popol Vuh” by Victor Montejo