You're sitting on the edge of your seat, snacks at hand, eyes glued to the T.V. because it's Super Bowl Sunday. Now, rewind time a few centuries and shift the scene to ancient Mesoamerica. Here, communities gather not for the Super Bowl but for their epic showdown: Juego de Pelota. Think of it as the Super Bowl of the ancient world, minus the helmets and shoulder pads, of course. In this game, players are bouncing a heavy rubber ball not with their hands but with their hips, arms, and legs—and believe it or not, the stakes are even higher than our modern-day championship.
So, as we get ready to watch our football heroes battle it out on the field (or maybe you were more like your writer and can't really understand the game but are all in for the half-time), we at Lolo thought we could make a special remembrance to this important Mesoamerican game. Different ball games, different eras, but the same human thrill of sport, the same gathering of communities, and the same collective breath-holding expectation.
If passionate football fans laugh or cry at games today, let's imagine fans' reactions to the famous Juego de Pelota. Like Super Bowl Sunday or even the World Cup, Juego de Pelota was more than just a game. It was a big event when people came together, cheered, and maybe even prayed a little to their deities.
What is Juego de Pelota?
Juego de Pelota, the Mesoamerican Ballgame (in Nahuatl: tlachtli or olivamalistli, in classical Mayan: pitz) was a practice carried out for many years in Mesoamerica. It can be considered the pre-Hispanic antecedent of any modern ball game; a sport with ritual and warlike connotations, played since 1400 B.C. by the pre-Columbian peoples of Mesoamerica. It was practiced in daily life and religious celebrations.
Although Juego de Pelota was played with the hips, legs, torso, and arms, depending on the region, some elements are similar to those of contemporary ball game sports. For example, the one played on a rectangular court with gradations on the edges, the use of an elastic ball with dimensions similar to that of a soccer ball, and even the confrontation between groups of players. But above all, the ritualization of this spectacle is the reason why we draw parallels with that of contemporary football or soccer, following that ancient game.
Where was Juego de Pelota Played?
The exact origins of this ancient sport are still being determined, but the Olmec area, from 1500 to 200 BC, has one of the first areas with drawings and sculptures related to the game. It is believed that over time, the tradition spread throughout Mesoamerica. Today, the field in which it was practiced is a characteristic that distinguishes this region. Ballcourts have been found throughout Mesoamerica, as far south as Nicaragua, and possibly as far north as present-day Arizona in the United States.
However, the Ballgame is popularly attributed to the Mayans in Mexico and Guatemala, who also referred to it as "Pok Ta Pok" (sometimes written as "Pok-A-Tok" or similar variations) for the curious sound that the ball produced against the floors and walls of the courts, or when the players hit it with their forearms or their hips, depending on the type of game.
The Popol Vuh (an 18th-century text that tells the mythology and history of the K'iche' Mayan people) is an essential source when it comes to understanding the Juego de Pelota among the Mayans, who played primarily as a spiritual and ceremonial practice deeply embedded in Mesoamerican culture, reflecting the cosmological beliefs and narratives of life, death, and the universe.
This spiritual dimension is vividly captured in the Popol Vuh, the sacred Maya text, where the Juego de Pelota is central to the story of the Hero Twins. In this tale, the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanqué defeat the underworld gods after competing on the Ballgame court and ascend to heaven as the Sun and the Moon, respectively. In this narrative, the game embodies themes of life, death, and rebirth, with the ball court acting as a battleground for cosmic battles between the forces of life and the underworld deities, ultimately linking the act of playing to cycles of sacrifice, resurrection, and renewal.
For the Mexica, the current state of Tlaxcala, and also Taxco in the state of Guerrero are considered the home of the Juego de Pelota (tlachtli). It was believed that the gods played with the ball, the Sun. This game was associated with the tonalpohualli and the day 4-movement, nahui-ollin. In tlachtli the ball is represented by the sun, the largest star converted into a deity; Tonatiuh, who comes and goes from one side to the other.
More than a sporting activity, Juego de Pelota had a religious connotation, staging ritual contexts where sacrificial practices were seen. Likewise, during this practice, political and social conflicts were settled, and gambling even happened.
Of the architecture of the courts, the best known is the one made up of a long corridor and, at the ends of this, a header on each side. Some had stone discs in the center with a hole in the middle, known as a marker, with different images carved on them.
Positioned right at the heart of cities, these courts symbolized the meeting point of the human world with something far greater and more mystical. Their unique design, sometimes resembling a split mountain or even the mouth of a mythical creature, hinted at a journey into the earth's belly, a descent into a sacred space.
Take the courts at Toniná, for instance, which were intentionally placed lower than the surrounding buildings, emphasizing their role as a passageway to the underworld. There, each game had a connection with the divine.
Today, Juego de Pelota not only continues to be played but is increasingly gaining popularity. In 2017, for example, the International Mesoamerican Ballgame Tournament was held in Teotihuacán, where teams from Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize competed for victory. Also, tourist places like Xcaret in the Riviera Maya, sometimes put up impressive displays of this game into their shows to continue to show the world the impact and significance this game has had in Mesoamerican history.
So, as we turn on the T.V. for the Super Bowl or step into a historical exploration of the ancient ballgame, let's carry with us the stories and traditions that these games represent. And we at Lolo would love to hear from you: what do you think? Have you ever seen the Juego de Pelota being played? What else would you like to know about this game? Let us know in the comments below!
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