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Mesoamerican Ballgames and their Victims

Claude-François Baudez, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Fellow 2006–2007, Fall

Most people know that Mesoamericans, in pre-Columbian times, were playing ball in specially built courts. The players were forbidden to use their hands and feet, and hit the ball with their hips and waist. What most people do not know is that several other ballgames were concurrently played, using a small or large ball, hit with sticks, rackets, gloves or the body. The playing field was often free of any architecture, its limits indicated by markers or goals. In this case, our sources consist of rare carved or painted representations, as well as numerous clay figurines of players.

All games had religious and sacrificial connotations. My research focuses on the religious aspects of the games, particularly on the relationship between game and sacrifice. I wonder whether the remarkable popularity and importance of the games were due to their role in religion and whether their major purpose could have been a way of selecting sacrificial victims.

Before addressing these questions it was necessary to construct a preliminary typology. Two broad categories were defined: handball games, and those games in which the use of hands was forbidden.

Besides the skill and physical properties that some of these sports required, the unexpected trajectories of the bouncing ball could have given importance to chance, interpreted as fate, which is the indication of a supernatural will. On the other hand, the issue of a match could not depend on chance or the skill of your opponents, when the latter were enemies or captives, a rather frequent situation according to our images. The only solution was to rig the game. The Aztecs were manipulating in their favor flowery wars and other gladiatorial sacrifices. They may have persuaded their opponents at the games that they could win, only if succeeding in throwing the ball through the rings set in the court: an almost impossible feat given the rings' location and the size of their opening, much smaller than most of the balls used in the ullamaliztli (the hipball game). Only a supernatural intervention would have made this feat possible.

For further research, the relationship between ball playing and wearing flayed human skin, noted in ancient Oaxaca, should be studied, and if possible, explained. The study of North American ethnographic ball games will certainly throw light on some Mesoamerican games. Finally, it is necessary to elaborate a general theory of sacrifice in Mesoamerica in order to place the sacrificial component of the game in its proper context.