By Patrick Londrigan
The origins of the Mesoamerican ballgame appear in a post-Classic account that relates an ancient Quiche Maya creation myth. The ballgame in Popul Vuh is depicted in affiliation with a “cosmological narrative from Highland Guatemala […] revealing a number of the mythical underpinnings of the game. (Grimm, 2008, p. 46) The game was played by roughly all adolescent and adult males, from the noblest of men down to the simple commoner. It is understood that the game became popular because the provinces on the gulf coast would annual send 16,000 rubber balls as a royal tribute. (Scarborough, 1991, p. 9)
Any level surface might be used as a playing field, just like today. Masonry courts were built only in the main towns or large neighborhoods. These courts were often located in town near the market or civic-ceremonial complex. Masonry courts were often constructed by the ruler, other members of the upper class, or high ranking servants for use first by the noble and second by the commoners. (Scarborough, 1991, p. 9) It is said that nobles would have skilled “professional” players who were then pitted against each other for the nobles to view on a feast day.
Mesoamerican ballgames are played between two opposing teams, using a rubber ball, with anywhere from two to eleven players per team. Ulama is the most common game and hitting the ball with the hips, buttocks, thighs or knees is how it is played. Other versions of the game include handball which is played on a longer, more narrow courts with a thick glove; “bat ball” is played like handball but with bats that have an oblong trunk with a perpendicular handle; Purepecha trap ball which is played like modern day field hockey; and Purepecha fire trap ball wherein the ball is doused in oil and lit on fire. (Grimm, 2008, p. 48) The main objective of the game is to get the ball from one end of the court to the other, though all of the games rules differ from region to region. These games are comparable to modern day ballgames such as basketball, football, soccer, and hockey. However, the game was not always used for sport, but also as a substitution for war and occasionally to mediate quarrels.
Ballcourts are generally in the shape of an “I.” The main court is at the center with two courts perpendicular at each end that forms the “I.” Some courts will only have one court perpendicular on an end, creating a “T.” The sizes of these courts vary but the average ballcourt is 37 meters long by 9 meters wide. (Grimm, 2008, p. 50) All of these courts had benches flanking the central alley, the center court, and rings set in the upper part of the lateral wall. (Scarborough, 1991, p. 10) That main alleyway would frequently have vertical or sloping sides often having three markers with one at each end zone and one at the center. However, the shaft-tombs of Colima have revealed not all ballcourts are bound by architecture, many ballgame figurines have been found where no ballcourts have been discovered. It is believed that the game in Colima was played on low-lying, open fields with sloped embankments
for walls. (Grimm, 2008, p. 50)