Mayan Experience

In 1963, I went several times to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to see first-hand the ball courts which were part of every "city" or ceremonial center; these are my original pictures taken to document the paper I later wrote on my conclusions regarding the use of the ball court in the ceremonial centers of the Mayan civilizations.

Above is a picture of the ball court at Tikal where pok-ta-pok was played. When I visited, it was not yet excavated, but just observing its location and orientation helped me develop a theory about the ceremonial and religious significance of the ball court.

Today, it is widely accepted that the ball court has religious significance. 50 years ago, this was not held true. Here is what one writer today says..."The ballgame was a sacred ritual closely related to the Underworld and to the myth of the Twin Brothers, Hunahpu and Ixbalanque, narrated in the Postclassic Book of the Council of the Quiché, or Popol Vuh."

This is one of the pyramids at Tikal, next to which the principal ball court is located.

The paper I presented regarding the theory of a ceremonial use of the courts predated any published work that incorporates this theory. I would like to think that I contributed, in some way, to a further understanding of the nature, spirituality and civilization of the Mayan.

Here is the full text of my first paper on the ball court game Pok-ta-pok. It was later expanded and submitted as part of early entrance applications at several universities.

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.

An 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.

At 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 direction(4).

The 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 running approximately 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.

The 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 struc­tures.

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.

At 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)

The 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.

At 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. (12)

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.

Tikal’s 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.

Copan 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.

On each 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 that offerings 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 September 21st.

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 rose.


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 season.

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.

Following the 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 front 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 sunlight.

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.

3. The "aspects” of Mayan gods is a concept similar to the Christian concept of the Trinity.

4. Roys, A.L., and Thompson, J.

Mayan an Institution Books of Chillum Balaam Washington, 1933. p. 64, .E., 511/ Bearers, Colors, and Directions  a Mexican 1121Lion. Washington: Carnegie Publication Number 10, 1934. p.238.

5. Thompson, 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.

Girard, H. 22. cit., 263 of The Maya Civilization.


Books by a single author

Gallenkamp, Charles, Maya. New York: David McKay Go, 1959

Girard, Rafael, Los Mayas Eternos. México: Libro Mex 1962

Hewlett, Edgar L., Ancient life in Mexico and Cen—tral America. New York: Tudor Publishers, 1943.

Morley, Sylvanus, The Ancient Maya. Stanford: Stan­ford University Press, 1953.

Proskouriakoff, t Tatiana, An Album Of Mayan Architecture. Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1946.

Roys, R.L., Books of Ilam Dalam Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1933.

Smith, A.L., Uaxactun, Guatemala. Excavations of 1931-1937. Washington, Carnegie Institution, 1950.

Spinden, Herbert, Ancient Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. New York: American Museum of Natural history, 1951.

Thompson, J.E., The Rise and Fall  a Civilization. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954.

von Hagen, V.W., The Ancient Sun Kingdoms of the Americas. London; Thames and Hudson, 1962.

Books by two or more authors

Verhillill, A.H. and Ruth, America's Ancient Civilizations.. New York: G. P. Putnam' s Sons! 1953.

Woodbury, B. and Erik, Aubrey, Ruins of Zacculeau Guatemala. Richmond: United Fruit Co., 1953.


Goellner, W.A., "The Court .hall Game of the Aboriginal Mayas" Research Quarterly of the American Association of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. XX, 147-168.

Loys, R L., "Guide to the Codex Perez" Contributions to Anthropology     and  story. Carnegie In­stitution of , Washington- 1949., 89-106.