The game of the Gods, allegorical myth role playing with death as its goal, or highly prized dance of gladiators in full regalia? We can only speculate. Its practice however was near universal in Central America, and was played in Tenochtitlan at the time of Cortes and his army.
While the exact purpose of the Mesoamerican Ballgame – entertainment or ritual – remains open to debate and interpretation, the supposed ritual side has strong evidence for death being the end game. The great ball-court at Chichen Itza makes this abundantly clear, as does other evidence.
In this bowl imagery, 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, and to the yoke is attached an hacha portraying the head of a bat. It is recognizable as such by the volute on its head, an iconographic convention to signify the characteristic upturned nose. Evidence such as this makes clear that the ballgame was more than sport, while its ritual purpose remains open to speculation.
As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.