The ceremonial center was the focal point for
activities in the Maya
civilization. There were located the headquarters of
the priests, rulers and interpreters in their
theocratic society. There too were located the many
buildings, monuments and altars employed in Maya
religion. The centers were not "habitable;
they were in all senses religious centers,
constructed as a glorification of the gods and as a site for
official ceremonies, offerings and sacrifices.
examination of archeological remains of ceremonial
centers active in the period of Mayan florescence
(from approximately the second. to seventh
centuries A.D.1) shows almost every one
to have a court for the
ball game Pok-ta-pok. As little remains of the
Mayan writings, the exact use of the ball court game
is unsettled. But an examination of what records
remain, as well as a review of specific
archeological evidence points to a specific
ceremonial use of the court ball game.
According, to the
Popul Vuh, a surviving Mayan book of legend and
history, the last act in the creation of the world
was the giving of light. Before
this, the newly made world was in darkness.
In the darkness stretched a road from East to West.
Along this road passed the seven Aphú, seven parts,
or aspects of the single god that was to control the
sun upon its creation. The seven Aphú were ordered
to play with a spherical ball as they passed over
their rout from East to West, and they continued
their game through the journey.2
Continuing in the mythical history, the Popul Vuh
relates an incident concerning the twin sons of the
Aphú. These two, who were gods of vegetation, had
completed the preparations for the approaching time
of the spring planting, and were playing a game on
the ball court. They were heard in their play by the
gods of the underworld who sent a message inviting
the two to play with them. The message was relayed
by a snake borne in the talons of a hawk.
The twins entered
the underworld to play, but were deceived and
killed. Thereafter they were raised from beneath the
surface of the earth to the sun
and the moon where they were assimilated into the
stellar and lunar deities.
the creation, the Maya world the land was divided.
into four parts, corresponding to the world
directions of East, West, North, and South. Each
direction had characteristic color, red for East,
black for West, white for North, and yellow for
South. The center of the world, from which point the
directions radiated, was distinguished by the color
green. In ceremonies and art, the various aspects of
the gods were represented by color and
Sun God was one of the most important Maya
deities. This seven aspect god had control over
light, the day, and the seasons. (5)
According to legend, after the sun set in the
evening, it passed under the earth through the land
of the dead. Here the Sun God became a lord of the
night. On his circuit through he underworld the Sun
'God was depicted with the characteristics of the
jaguar and the color black, both of which were
associated with the forces of the underworld. (6)
Thus when the Sun
ruse in the morning, its god bore the insignia of
death (7) and was thus weakened. Often sacrifices
were ordered by the priests to give strength to the
Sun God for its climb into the sky. (8)
In the daytime, one of the Sun God’s charges was
the giving of fertility to the fields at the beginning
of the growing season. The start of the growing
season was marked by the passing of the sun through
the zenith at the time of the vernal equinox. The
season then extended almost exactly six months,
until the sun again passed the zenith, (8) a period
from the end of March to the end of September. The
remaining six months of the year produced
insufficient rainfall for the production of crops.
second consideration is the Physical detail of
existing ball courts.
The walled courts for Pok-ta-pok occupy important
positions in their ceremonial centers, usually lying
on the central plaza, focal point of the centers
religious activity. This suggests the inclusion of
the ball court in the category of religious
At Uxactun, the court was located at the South East
corner of the main plaza. Opposite the North and
South ends of the court were small pyramidal
temples. On the other sides of the plaza were
located pyramids and temples.
Copan the court is found in the main plaza with the
major structures of the ceremonial center to the
South, overlooking the court. The South structures
were reached from the court by ascending the "Hieroglyphic
stairway", whose steps were completely covered by
inscriptions.(11) (plate 1)
court at Tikal, like at Uaxactun, lies at the South
East corner of the ceremonial plaza, to the direct
South of the structure called Temple I. Also on the plaza are five
other pyramids and a complex of ceremonial
buildings. (plate 2)
The courts themselves were similar in construction,
having a rectangular playing area with sloping walls
on the long sides. The playing area ran North—South,
with the walls on the East and west.
Uaxactun, the court had no related structures,
nor are there any inscriptions on the court.
Apparently the court was covered with a plaster
coating. Smith suggests chat this coating could have
been colored or decorated, but deterioration of the
paints has removed any significant evidence of this.
At Tikal the court has not yet been excavated. But a
number of observations can be made about the court.
The two main pyramids, designated temples I and II,
lying at the East and West ends of the plaza both
have large rooms at their tops. From both a clear
view of the ball court playing area may be obtained.
And at the North side of the plaza lie four smaller
temples, from three of which the court may also be
viewed. And the ceremonial buildings as well offer
views of the ball court.
court measures approximately 60' wide 73g.'
long, making it significantly smaller than the court
at Copan. There were apparently no superstructures
or related structures at the Tikal court.
has the most fully excavated court. The court has
behind its walls on the east and west large temples
constructed on solid bases. In these temples were
numerous small, unlit rooms. These rooms could have
been used by the priests. for rites surrounding the
game, for storage of game equipment, or by the
players for preparation for the game.
of the walls of the court were located three parrot
heads, originally colored red. Laid in the center of
the playing area on a North-South line were three-
marker stones, carved with commemorative
glyphs and Characterizations of ball players wearing
elaborate head dresses. The central marker shows a
pair of players, one wearing a serpent head dress,
the other rearing-one of a jaguar. The markers have
been blackened, apparently from fire, indicating
were made on the courts. (13)
At the north end of the court was a raised platform
on which a carved stela and an altar faced the
playing area. (14)
This stela was carved on one side only, the one
facing south towards the court. It has been noted
that the inscription is bathes in sunlight at the
time of the winter solstice, falling on December 21st.
The inscription is in compete shadow at the time of
the summer solstice on June 21st. (15)
Thus the period of shadow would begin at the time of
the vernal equinox on March 2l and the period of
illumination at the time of the autumnal equinox on
The final observations concern the ploy of
Pok-ta-pok. Later development of the game,
Pok-ta-pok, produced the courts which are
historically more familiar. These were larger in
size than the earlier ones and embodied changes in
the method of play. At courts in more recent cities
the walls are vertical and have mounted on them a
stone loop. The players scored by putting the ball
through one of the rings
The courts of the florescent period were smaller in
size with sloping walls and they had no rings. The
game apparently consisted of striking the ball as it
rolled off the sloping walls, the objective being to
keep the ball in constant motion as it is hit from
wall to wall.
The ceremony of dedication for new ball courts
supports the concept of a "perpetual motion" game.
In the dedication of courts several priests gathered
at sunrise and initiated the use of the court by
performing a sacrifice and then hitting the ball
about the court for a period. of time, as the sun
The Mayan society was agrarian, theocratic society.
The major concerns were raising a corn crop and
pleasing the gods so that the crop would be good.
Therefore the Mayas paid special attention to the
gods of the sun, rain and earth.
The sun was a feared and respected god due to his
power over light, the seasons and the fertility of
the fields. It was the Sun God who raised plants out
of the earth and up to the just as the sons of the
Aphú had been raised from within the earth.
The Mayas knew how to observe the sun. Their skill
extended as far as the prediction of eclipses. With
this skill they undoubtedly could see that when the
sun reached the time of its summer solstice its
daily zenith began to move southward.
And at the same time rainfall began to diminish.
Perhaps the Maya, just as he performed rites to
improve and increase his crops, also had rites to
ensure the yearly return of the growing season. Such
rites could involve an hypothetical use of the ball
court game. Details of these rites can be envisioned
in the construction of a Mayan year.
The end of the growing season approaches. The sun
appears more directly overhead in the sky every day
as the autumnal equinox approaches. The days grow
shorter. Then, in late September, the Sun, at its
zenith, appears in the southern sky and its rays
begin to strike the inscription on the ball court
stela. The priests announce that the sun will in the
production of crops Rites must be performed to
ensure the return of the sun for the next growing
Hence certain of
the farmers are chosen by the priests. They will
stay in the ceremonial center for an appointed time.
Every morning, before the sunrise, they are gathered
together with the priests at the ball court. The
farmers are wearing head dresses characteristic of
the Sun God. Some of the headpieces depict the
aspects is of the Sun God as lord of tie night,
resembling the jaguar and the serpent. Others
represent the Sun god in his daylight aspects,
characterized by symbols for corn.
fertility and abundance.
The priests prepare to burn offerings on the marker
stones of the ball court. First an oblation is made
on the center stone. Then one is laid on the stone
at the south end of the court, the stone which.
represents the section of tie sky traveled by.
the sun in the dry.-season. Finally one is offered
on the northern stone.
sacrifices, as the sun rises in the east, the
farmers take a ball and hit it from wall to wall,
imitating the sun as it passes across the sky from
east to west. As the sun rises higher, light is cast
on the inscribed stela. After a period the play is
halted and another offering is made on the altar in
of the stela.
At the time of the
winter solstice special ceremonies are held at the
court commemorating the season when the sun will,
if favorably inclined, begin its advance toward the
northern sky, lengthening the days as it shifts. At
this time the stela is completely bathed in
As the days
progress the illumination of the inscribed
face of the stela decreases. The morning ceremony is
changed, the northern court marker being used for
offerings ahead of the Sothern one for the sun is
now in the northern sky.
When arrives the vernal equinox the gods signify
that they have seen fit to begin a new rowing season
by returning to shadow the court side of the stela.
No more ceremonies are needed on the court.
Preparation may now begin for the planting.
This use of the ball court for sun rites explains
both the orientation of the court and the effects of
sunlight on the court stela, as well as the purpose
of the early courts which had no "goal rings”.
But the logic employed is 20th century
logic, not that of the Mayas. Thus there is still an
uncertainty in the interpretation, an uncertainty
that cannot be removed until the glyph writings of
the Mayas are eventually translated.
1. Spinden, Herbert, Ancient Civilizations of Mexico
and Central. America, New York: American Museum of
Natural History, 1951. pp. 147-148.
2. Girard, Rafael, Los Mayas Eternos, México:
Libro- Mex, 1962. pp. 47-50.
"aspects” of Mayan gods is a
to the Christian
concept of the Trinity.
4. Roys, A.L.,
Institution Books of Chillum Balaam Washington,
1933. p. 64, .E., 511/ Bearers,
Colors, and Directions a Mexican 1121Lion.
Washington: Carnegie Publication Number 10, 1934.
Jization. No p.227. .E.,
Tfle As and all of Layila Civilization: University
of Oklahoma Press, 1954.
Morley, Sylvanus, The Ancient Maya, Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1958. Plate 34.
Smith, 22. cit. p. 61.
Proskouriakoff, Tatiana, An Album of Maya
Architecture. Washington: Carnegie Institution,
1946. Plate 10 and description.
Strbmsvik, Gustav, Ball Courts at Copan. Washington:
Carnegie Institution, Article 55. pp. 193-197.
H. 22. cit., 263
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