fig. 12
Hacha

It hardly occurs to us that most of our modern ball games could not be played without one essential ingredient, rubber, the origin of which can be traced to pre-Hispanic Mexico. The 16th century Spanish explorers, returning from their voyages of discovery in the New World, were the first to give an account of a ball made of a solid but strangely resilient substance unknown to the Europeans. 

A description by the Dominican friar Diego Duran (1585) mentions that the ball 

was as large as a small bowling ball and was made of a material called ollin which is the resin of a certain tree. When the resin was cooked it became stringy. It is very much esteemed and prized by these people, both as a medicine and for religious offerings. [Made into a ball] jumping and bouncing are its qualities, upward and downward, to and fro. It can exhaust the pursuer running after it before he can catch up with it.1 Fray Diego Durán, Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar, tr. & ed. Fernando Horcasitas & Doris Heyden, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971, p. 316. 

Such a ball was brought back by Columbus from the island of Hispaniola. In Europe, the predecessor of modern tennis and other games were played with a leather ball filled with hair as the Spanish word for ball, pelota (from pelo, hair) indicates. During the 15th and 16th centuries a handgame played with an inflated bladder was popular in Spain, France and Italy and was called pallone or balon from which is derived our word balloon.2 Stephan F. & Suzanne de Borhegyi, ‘The Rubber Ball Game of Ancient America; Lore 13, 2, pp. 44–50, Milwaukee Public Museum, 1963.

In 1528 Hernando Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, brought a number of Aztec ball players to Spain where several games were staged at the court of Charles V. Christopher Weidnitz, a famed woodcutter and artist, attended one of these performances in Spain and published a drawing of two native players in action and a brief description of the game3 Walter Krickeberg, ‘Das Mittelamerikanische Ballspiel und seine religiöse Symbolik’ Paideuma, Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde, 3, 3–5, Frankfurt am Main, 1948, pp. 118–190. (fig. 1). His account supplements those of early Spanish chroniclers. 

Ball games were played all over Mesoamerica4 Mesoamerica, an anthropological term, comprises the greater part of Mexico and most of Central America, where separate pre-Hispanic cultures were highly developed, sharing common traits, such as writing, solar and ritual calendars, a complex pantheon of deities, etc., which set this area apart from its neighbours to the north and south. for entertainment, but when performed for ritual purposes they involved an elaborate settting, particular attire and strict rules. One or more large masonry courts were built in the ceremonial precinct of each major town.5 A significant exception is Teotihuacan where no ball court has been discovered in the ceremonial precinct. But a few ball players in mural paintings and ball court markers indicate that the game was practised but had no great significance as a cult. The playing field had the shape of a double T, flanked by sloping and high straight walls with a stone ring protruding in the middle of the longitudinal axis. The narrow sides were limited by a wall or a small temple (fig. 2). 

The purpose of the game was to keep the ball constantly in the air between the two teams whose number varied between two and eleven highly skilled players. A team gained points when the ball was not returned or when it fell to the ground. It depended on the players’ skill to manoeuvre the ball into the opponents’ end zone or close to the side wall. However, when a player succeeded in knocking the solid, five pound rubber ball through the hole in the stone ring he won the game for his team. When this happened the spectators standing on the walls of the court fled in a wild scramble because the victors were entitled to snatch their finery and sumptuous garments. The game was very strenuous as it was forbidden to touch the ball with hands, feet or calves. Durán reported that 

Tired and without having rested, [the players ran] after the ball from end to end, seeing it descending from above, in haste and hurry to reach it first, but the ball on the rebound hit them in the mouth or the stomach or the intestines, so that they fell to the floor instantly. Some died of that blow on the spot because they had been too eager to touch the ball before anyone else.6 Durán, op. cit., p. 316.

For protection the players wore a leather glove on one hand and a knee pad to avoid injury when they supported themselves against the hard stucco-cement floor. These protective devices are depicted in sculptural art and in the pre-Hispanic illuminated manuscripts (fig. 3). 

Ceremonial performances of ball games were attended by the nobility, high ranking officials, and the priests and involved elaborate rituals because of the religious character of the game. The pictorial manuscripts show that even the gods, appearing as human beings, played the game in the heavens. Essentially, these mythical events portray the struggle between contrasting cosmic forces that affect the well-being of mankind. In Codex Borgia,7 The Codex Borgia and closely related manuscripts, including the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, constitute a uniquely important source of information on the late pre-Hispanic religious system of south–central Mexico. The latest facsimile colour reproduction has been published in Graz, in 1976, by Akademische Druck-und Verlagsanstalt. The original is in the Vatican Library. for instance, opposing teams of deities manifest the dichotomy between day and night, dry season and rainy season. The motions of the ball reflect not only the movement of the sun across the sky but also that of all the stars whose rise and disappearance on the horizon was compared with the passing of the ball through the stone ring. Victory of the playing teams expressed the eternal battle from daylight to darkness in which either the sun or the stars were defeated.8 Krickeberg, op. cit. A cosmic connotation of the game is expressed also in the motifs carved on the stone rings that represent the symbol of the Fifth Sun or entwined feathered serpents symbolising the god Quetzalcoatl (fig. 4). 

There is ample archaeological evidence that the ball game cult is a very ancient one. Michael Coe9 Michael D. Coe & Richard A. Diehl, In the Land of the Olmec, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1980, pp. 29, 62, 388. excavated what appears to be a ball court and found figurines of ball players (dating to 1250–1150 B.C.) at San Lorenzo in the heart of the Olmec country of Veracruz. 

At Dainzú, in Oaxaca, most of the fifty stone reliefs, carved about 350 B.C., portray ball players in special helmets wearing thick belts and holding balls.10 The Ballplayers of Dainzú, by Ignacio Bernal & Andy Seuffert, Akademische Druck-und Verlagsanstalt (Artes Americanae vol. 2), Graz, 1979, contains excellent drawings of the ball player reliefs. Dainzú is located 24 km from Oaxaca on the Pan-American Highway. Monumental art with ball player iconography, contemporary with the Dainzú reliefs, is prominent also on the Gulf Coast, in the state of Veracruz. Here occur for the first time two categories of sculptures that are related to the ball game cult: plain stone yokes and thin stone heads (misleadingly called hachas, from the Spanish axe). 

The U-shaped yokes were made of granitic rock, weigh about forty to fifty pounds and were worn around the waist as the ceramic figurine from Campeche demonstrates (fig. 5). Such heavy devices would be too cumbersome for use in active play when, instead, wooden yokes or heavy belts made of basketry were more practical. Such a belt is shown on the relief of a round ball court marker from Copán which shows two players facing each other, with a ball with hieroglyphs between them (fig. 6). The player on the left kneels on his knee pad, his opponent wears the broad woven belt with a human head hacha in front. During the Middle Classic period (A.D. 400–700) the yokes were elaborately carved, rarely also on the inside, and also closed yokes occur (figs. 7–10). Wooden yokes have not been preserved due to the tropical climate. 

On the curved front of the yoke was placed a thin crested stone head with a triangular notch in back, cut at an obtuse angle, So that it could be properly fitted. One of our examples (fig. 11) shows this notch on an hacha of an acrobat who also wears the thick woven belt. 

  

 

                                                                                                                                                              In Veracruz the hachas were replaced in the Late Classic period (A.D. 700–1000) by the so-called palmas. These are tall, fan-shaped sculptures that taper toward the bottom. Like the crested thin heads, they are not intended to stand freely without support. A relief carving on a wall of a large ball court at El Tajin shows how the palma, or palmate stone as it is sometimes called, was attached to the stone yoke by two dignitaries (fig. 13). In her pioneering study of the three categories of sculptures related to the ball game cult, Proskouriakoff11 Tatiana Proskouriakoff, ‘Varieties of Classic Central Veracruz Sculptures’, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 606, Contributions to American Anthropology and History, no. 58, 1954. notes that palmas are as variable in form and decoration as the hachas. She classifies the more ornate palmas (which are by no means abundant) into four groups, one of which includes laterally flattened palmas, like the one recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (fig. 14). 

The Melbourne palma is of exceptional importance because the low relief carving portrays a ball player wearing a yoke upon which rests a palma. In other words, the design itself explicates the function of the palma as a ritual object of the ball game cult. Therefore, a more detailed description is in order. 

  

The palma is a relatively tall, slender and tapering sculpture with a straight spine and a gracefully curved outer edge. All surfaces are carefully finished and smooth. The contour of the face is highlighted by openwork carving which also leaves an open space in front of the lower leg. Each side view shows a different hand position and attributes. We shall first deal with those aspects that are alike on each side. 

The person stands within a raised border frame that curves diagonally upward, terminating in a scroll. Along the upper edge five rectangles represent the customary feather crest. The base has been cut so that the palma can be placed securely on a yoke and, as such sculptures were not meant to stand without a support, it is now mounted on a perspex stand. The person’s head and tall headdress are alike on each side. Above the vertical incisions that indicate the hair is a rectangle with three square elements, marked by a small central pit. These are the traditional roundels, or jade beads, carved in this instance in angular fashion. Three roundels in a frame are an attribute commonly found on Teotihuacan rain god images, and thereby denote the close cultural connections that Teotihuacan maintained with the Gulf Coast. Above the rectangle is a conventionalised serpent head with a backward curved scroll behind the reptile’s eye (shown only as a small rectangle). A taller scroll in front represents the nose. From it rise two long feathers that are bent back.

If these interpretations sound somewhat arbitary to those unfamiliar with the subject matter of Classic Mesoamerican art, it can be said that they are derived from comparative analyses of the iconographic repertory which is composed of conventionalised images and signs. An understanding of their form and meaning, on the basis of contextual associations, has been reached in many but certainly not all instances, through systematic studies by art historians over the past decades. 

The face of the person on the palma has the traditional impassive expression. A disc below the ear indicates the jade ornament worn by all individuals of rank. Below the belt a fringed hipcloth with cross-hatching is the characteristic pre-Hispanic garment worn in central Veracruz. One arm is raised, the hand held in front of the face and below the fingers is the square with a dot that indicates a jade bracelet. The elbow rests on the yoke which is shown here as a plain rectangle. The position of the sturdy legs, one in front of the other, suggests that the person is walking as if in a procession. He wears sandals with heel guards, tied with angular knots. Here the similarity in design on each side ends. 

On side A (fig. 14a), the right hand is covered with an angular form, indicating the protective glove. A notched element, also angular, undoubtedly a palma, rests on the yoke which protrudes beyond the hipcloth. Both the yoke and the palma are plain; the latter has a sloping upper edge and a slightly curved frontal edge, replicating the shape of the complete sculpture. Below pends a ribbon with two roundels with which the hipcloth is tied (the tied knot is better visible on side B). 

Side Β shows the left hand raised above a large shield-like device with geometric design (fig. 14b). This is not a warrior’s shield but an ornament customarily worn in back. It originated in Teotihuacan and was common in later Toltec and Aztec art where it decorates the backside of sculptures in the round, such as Atlantean figures and standard bearers. Because this ornament could not be meaningfully represented in profile, it is here shown in front view. Lastly, a long double ribbon that pends in back of the hipcloth is the counterpart of the frontal loincloth flap. 

Our somewhat tedious dwelling on details was deemed necessary to show that the ancient sculptor skilfully portrayed the essential attributes with clarity and amazing simplicity. Every design element is meaningful and indispensable to characterise a dignitary participating in a ball game ritual. It is unusual, however, that the artist stressed angularity in the designs and eschewed almost entirely elaborate scrollwork which is the hallmark of Classic Veracruz art. 

As Proskouriakoff12 ibid., p. 83. observed, the use of certain arbitrary simplifications and unorthodox formal arrangements that set the tall slender palmas apart from the more flamboyant decoration on smaller palmas, may indicate that such tall palmas represent a late group in the sequence. With the passing of the Classic period, when profound changes in the long distance trade relations led to the emergence of new regional art styles, palmas were no longer carved. 

The circumstance that stone yokes, thin crested heads, and ball court architecture, originating in Veracruz, are widely spread from northern Mexico to Honduras, implies that the ritual ball game had become a major cult between A.D. 450–700. After the end of the first millennium it continued in diminished form in most areas until the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 16th century. 

Our exposition of this cult is necessarily brief and fragmentary, inasmuch as it intends to describe mainly the paraphernalia of the game.13 The large number of articles on the ball game are widely scattered in numerous publications. Krickeberg’s work (op. cit.) is the most comprehensive and scholarly treatment of the religious symbolism, and is based mainly on ethnohistorical sources. Recently, Eric Taladoire published an exhaustive survey of the different types of ball courts in North and Mesoamerica, with discussions on function, evolution and symbolism of the ball game, based on archaeological and ethnohistorical data: Les terrains de jeu de balle (Mesoamérique et Sud-ouest des Etats-Unis), Etudes Mesoamericaines, Serie II, no. 4, 826 pp., Mission Archéologique et Ethnologique Française au Mexique, México, 1981. However, one facet of the cult should be mentioned: it is the occasional execution of the unfortunate players who lost the game. A sacrificial beheading is demonstrated on the well-known ball court reliefs at Chichén Itzá. A narrative scene on a mould made relief-decorated vase from the Tiquisate region of Guatemala, so far unpublished, is equally explicit (fig. 15). 

The decapitation has just taken place and the blood is still dripping from the executioner’s knife. He is crouching on the left side, holding a large stone knife with the conventional triple blood sign. With his other hand he grasps the victim’s head by the hair and the same type of blood drops fall from the neck. Although the person is obviously dead, a flowery speech scroll emerges from the mouth, like the one in front of the mouth of the executioner. The latter is identified as a ball player by the stone yoke, decorated with a serpent head (the yoke on the Campeche figurine in fig. 5 also shows a serpent head), and to the yoke is attached an hacha portraying the head of a bat. It is recognisable as such by the volute on its head, an iconographic convention to signify the characteristic upturned nose. Why a bat? This animal has a particular mythological significance and its image figures prominently as a ‘bat demon’ on painted Maya vases and in hieroglyphic texts. Bat symbolism is not limited to Classic and Post-Classic iconography but is widespread, mainly in the figural art of Veracruz and Oaxaca and in the pictorial manuscripts. As early as 1904, Eduard Seler14 Eduard Seler, Gesammelte Abhandlungen, vol. 4, Berlin, 1923, p. 464. pointed out the sinister aspects of the bat demon whose name among the Quiché of Guatemala was c’ama-zo’tz, the ‘bat that tears off the heads’. In general, the bat symbolises human sacrifice by decapitation, the jaguar by tearing out the heart. 

On the right side of the severed head is another sacrificed player, kneeling like the executioner, with a face inscribed on his knee to indicate the protective knee pad. His right hand and wrist are covered with bandages representing the glove. From the elongated neck emerge two heads, one to the right, the other to the left, each with a peculiar elongated nose turned downwards. That these heads are severed is indicated by a special sign, a roundel with a volute above and below, which corresponds to the Maya glyph T61 or T62 (according to Thompson’s catalogue).15 J. Eric S. Thompson, A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1962. In Maya hieroglyphic texts this glyph signifies hol, ‘end, termination’, and its position behind the severed head is an accurate explanation of the result of the sacrifice as far as the victim is concerned.16 The decapitation sign occurs also in ball game scenes on ceramic relief-decorated bowls of the Rio Blanco Complex of south-central Veracruz. See Hasso von Winning, ‘Los decapitados en la cerámica moldeada de Veracruz’, Indiana, 6 Gedenkschrift Walter Lehmann, Teil I, Berlin 1980, pp. 23–35; and ‘Der Jaguar und sein Menschenopfer auf Reliefgefässen aus Veracruz’, Tribus, Linden-Museum, Gedenkschrift Bodo Spranz , in press. 

In the centre, above the blood-dripping head, is an oval medallion that represents the rubber ball with a complex symbolic design. A raptorial bird (eagle?) is perched on a fleshless jawbone (a death symbol). Below the jaw is the triple blood sign. This composition is flanked by four volutes which, in Teotihuacan iconography, signify flames. The entire motif is tied to the ball with a rope and flames elements are also attached on top. In other words, the configuration spells out death, blood, fire, and an eagle, a bird which represents the sun. These concepts are portrayed similarly on the ball court panels of El Tajin and Chichén Itzá. 

To conclude this paper with the macabre aspects of the ball game cult may be justified with the observation that the intent of the human sacrifice, at the end of the game, was to ensure the rejuvenation of agricultural fertility by offering man’s most precious gift, blood.   

 Hasso von Winning, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, California (in 1985). 

Notes  

1              Fray Diego Durán, Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar, tr. & ed. Fernando Horcasitas & Doris Heyden, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971, p. 316. 

2              Stephan F. & Suzanne de Borhegyi, ‘The Rubber Ball Game of Ancient America; Lore 13, 2, pp. 44–50, Milwaukee Public Museum, 1963. 

3              Walter Krickeberg, ‘Das Mittelamerikanische Ballspiel und seine religiöse Symbolik’ Paideuma, Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde, 3, 3–5, Frankfurt am Main, 1948, pp. 118–190. 

4              Mesoamerica, an anthropological term, comprises the greater part of Mexico and most of Central America, where separate pre-Hispanic cultures were highly developed, sharing common traits, such as writing, solar and ritual calendars, a complex pantheon of deities, etc., which set this area apart from its neighbours to the north and south. 

5              A significant exception is Teotihuacan where no ball court has been discovered in the ceremonial precinct. But a few ball players in mural paintings and ball court markers indicate that the game was practised but had no great significance as a cult. 

6              Durán, op. cit., p. 316. 

7              The Codex Borgia and closely related manuscripts, including the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, constitute a uniquely important source of information on the late pre-Hispanic religious system of south–central Mexico. The latest facsimile colour reproduction has been published in Graz, in 1976, by Akademische Druck-und Verlagsanstalt. The original is in the Vatican Library. 

8              Krickeberg, op. cit. 

9              Michael D. Coe & Richard A. Diehl, In the Land of the Olmec, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1980, pp. 29, 62, 388. 

10            The Ballplayers of Dainzú, by Ignacio Bernal & Andy Seuffert, Akademische Druck-und Verlagsanstalt (Artes Americanae vol. 2), Graz, 1979, contains excellent drawings of the ball player reliefs. Dainzú is located 24 km from Oaxaca on the Pan-American Highway. 

11            Tatiana Proskouriakoff, ‘Varieties of Classic Central Veracruz Sculptures’, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 606, Contributions to American Anthropology and History, no. 58, 1954. 

12            ibid., p. 83. 

13            The large number of articles on the ball game are widely scattered in numerous publications. Krickeberg’s work (op. cit.) is the most comprehensive and scholarly treatment of the religious symbolism, and is based mainly on ethnohistorical sources. Recently, Eric Taladoire published an exhaustive survey of the different types of ball courts in North and Mesoamerica, with discussions on function, evolution and symbolism of the ball game, based on archaeological and ethnohistorical data: Les terrains de jeu de balle (Mesoamérique et Sud-ouest des Etats-Unis), Etudes Mesoamericaines, Serie II, no. 4, 826 pp., Mission Archéologique et Ethnologique Française au Mexique, México, 1981. 

14            Eduard Seler, Gesammelte Abhandlungen, vol. 4, Berlin, 1923, p. 464. 

15            J. Eric S. Thompson, A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1962. 

16            The decapitation sign occurs also in ball game scenes on ceramic relief-decorated bowls of the Rio Blanco Complex of south-central Veracruz. See Hasso von Winning, ‘Los decapitados en la cerámica moldeada de Veracruz’, Indiana, 6 Gedenkschrift Walter Lehmann, Teil I, Berlin 1980, pp. 23–35; and ‘Der Jaguar und sein Menschenopfer auf Reliefgefässen aus Veracruz’, Tribus, Linden-Museum, Gedenkschrift Bodo Spranz , in press.