Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How the Gods Play Ball

Since everyone is in full fervor over the World Cup right now, we thought we'd talk about sports today. Specifically, mythological sports!

Mythology is actually totally full of sports, which shouldn't surprise anyone; after all, sports are one of the oldest forms of humanity entertaining themselves, and function as a way for people to test themselves against others in competition without violence as well as generally having fun and inventing new ways to train themselves for possible dangers in the future. Sports are learning and teaching tools for some people and good clean fun for others, and in a mythological context they also often take on much of the form of religious ritual, since, like any religious activity, they involve following specific behavioral rules in honor of a higher authority.

We know you guys are thinking about them, because with this much soccer going on how could you not, so here are everyone's favorite footballers: the Maya Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

The twins are famous for, among other things, being the undisputed master of ball-playing, which forms a central part of their mythology; their most important inheritance from their deceased father is his ball-playing gear, and not only do they incur the wrath of the lords of Xibalba by playing ball too boisterously above their heads, they then go on to defeat them in a direct match, much to the utter consternation of the rulers of the underworld. The twins aren't the only ball-players in Maya myth, either; their father and uncle were also famous for it, and various people are shown playing ball in Maya art time and time again.

The ballgame - originally called poktapok for some Maya people, after the sound the ball makes as it's knocked around the arena, or ollamaliztli for the later Mexica, meaning literally "to play with rubber" - is obviously massively important to Maya religion, and went on to become a staple of many other Mesoamerican religions as well, from the Tarascan valley on up to the Mexica empire. Ceremonial ballcourts were built, many of which were used for games only for religious purposes or even not used to play the game at all (and although it's a popular misconception, nobody was actually playing ball with anyone's head in real life - the lords of Xibalba do that, but normal people did not. They don't bounce very well, for one thing).

In fact, the ballgame is still alive and well today, all through Central America, with the same basic rules - no touching the ball with hands or feet, and anything goes to get it through the hoop, although of course regional variations exist and games performed for ceremonial or exhibition purposes look very different from pickup games on the street. Many Mesoamerican native reenactors play games like this one, illustrating what ceremonial players of the game might have looked like centuries ago:

And it's not only those trying to reenact the past that get to play, as we said above - street ball versions of the ancient game are popular and commonly played across various countries in Mesoamerica, often with impressive athletic skill. Ulama, the modern Mexican version, even has its own festivals and official organizations, although it's not organized into any official leagues.

Of course, the game being played at the World Cup today officially traces its roots back to various European ball games, probably originating in Greece somewhere in antiquity, but even in that game, the teams from Central and South America have a long and rich history of religious and cultural ball-gaming to draw on. This game may not involve any sacrifices or invocations, nor be the same one that the ancient Mesoamerican gods played, but we must assume they would be entertained by it anyway. The gods of Mesoamerica love a good game.

Or, to leave you with the historically-inaccurate and wildly culture-mishmashed but nevertheless pretty fun movie The Road to El Dorado's take on it: this is how the gods play ball!