We also know that, at least in some cases, the game was a matter of life and death. Depending on the size of the court, teams of from one to as many as ten players squared off and the losing team was sometimes sacrificed. Though not all cultures participated in this ritualized bloodletting, the Maya – who were particularly fond of the ballgame – did.
This Mayan affinity may hark back to their complicated and fascinating mythology, which often focuses on the strangely grotesque particulars of the dark underworld known as Xibalba.
Xibalba (which is pronounced she-balba) was where the gods of death, whose names even incorporated the word, dwelled with the sad shades of those Mayans who had passed away. Occasional, these chthonian gods amused themselves by interfering in the workings of men and heroes. One such opportunity arose when two of Xibalba’s lords, One Death and Seven Death, became distracted by an unusual ruckus on earth.
Upon investigation, the Death brothers stumbled on a ball court where the twin heroes One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu were wearing each other out at their favorite pastime. One imagines the Death brothers rubbing their hands together as they grinned their skull-faced grins before returning to Xibalba to plot mischief.
One Death and Seven Death wanted the hero twins’ ball court for their own and decided the brothers would have to die. To this end, they sent out their demon owls, which in the story come across much like the galla of Ereshkigal’s dark realm, to fetch One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu to Xibalba.
The hero twins, having no real choice in the matter, descended below the Earth on an epic journey to the underworld. They braved rivers running with fetid blood and pus, deep canyons with crystal spikes on their floors, and giant scorpions. Being heroes, the twins faced all the challenges and made it to the hall of the Death brothers.
There they found figures that they imagined were the Death brothers. Bowing respectfully, the hero twins were surprised to hear laughter behind them. Before they could turn, the Death brothers appeared and shoved hot boulders beneath the twins. The figures were just manikins, and now One Death and Seven Death had horribly burned the backs of the hero twins’ legs.
In pain but still defiant, they turned and took the “gifts” presented to them by the Death brothers. Each received a flaming torch and a smoldering cigar. With this, the Death brothers departed. They would return in the morning, they told the twins, and if they found that the torches and cigars were not as they had left them, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu would be executed.
The hero twins tried to extinguish their gifts, but they could not. There was no escape from their fate for the challenge was rigged. The Death brothers returned as promised, killed the twins, and buried their bodies in the ball court that now belonged to Xibalba.
There is a happy, if grisly, ending to this story. The Death brothers, for some reason, chose to preserve the head of the older twin, One Hunahpu. They turned it into a gourd and wedged it in the fork of a tree. The tree bore fruit, but the Death brothers forbade their minions to touch it.
Now, One Death and Seven Death had an uncle named Blood Gatherer who had the most intrepid and beautiful child among the denizens of Xibalba. Her name was Blood Moon and she climbed the tree to retrieve the shiny gourd that had once been One Hunahpu’s head. In a telling metaphor, the gourd “spat into her lap” and Blood Moon became pregnant.
It is easy to see, through this complex chthonian mythology, how the Mesoamerican ballgame became a ritualized placation of the powers of the underworld and death via the ultimate sacrifice: human life. Another time, too, we can look at the equally fascinating story of Blood Moon and her twin sons.
Header: Stone carving from the South Ball court at El Tajin in
showing a ball player being sacrificed after a game Veracruz, Mexico