Aztec Ball Game
The Aztec ball game was actually a revision of an ancient Mesoamerican game that was played by many peoples including the Mayans. It may have originated with the ancient Olmec civilization. It became a very important part of the Aztec Empire, not just as entertainment, but for political and religious reasons as well.
A sample ullamaliztli tlachtli (ball court)
(On display at Mexico's National Anthropological Museum, 2009)
The Aztec ball court
Surrounding the court were areas for spectators, nobles and judges. The structure would often include skull racks (tzompantli). These had a base with upright wood posts. Bars ran from post to post, adorned with the skulls of sacrifice victims. Sometimes the walls would show reliefs of the winners and losers of the past.
The ball, or ulli, was made of hard rubber and weighed about 9 pounds. Due to the rough surface of the court itself, protective gear was worn by the players. Players wore deerskin guards for the chin, hip, thigh, hands, and cheeks. Even with this protection, players would end the game bruised and bleeding, since they often had to throw themselves to the ground.
Because it was so hard to get the ball through the hoops, there were other objects as well. Players could hit one of the six markers along the sides of the court. Or, they would be given points for other skillful plays. Fouls were also given if the players couldn't get the ball across the centre line, or if they touched the ball with the wrong part of the body, such as the hand or calf.
During the Aztec ball game, gambling was common among the spectators. Gambling reached high levels in the Aztec empire. Just about anything could be gambled, from ornate feathers to land to children. It was common for a person to actually sell themselves into slavery in order to pay off the debt. This was voluntary slavery, with some parallels to the way someone today would work at a job he or she doesn't like for years just to pay off a debt.
With city-states and tribes playing against one another, it's not surprising that the Aztec ball game took on political significance. A win or a loss was very much taken to heart. At
times, the game would turn into an excuse for an assassination or
attack. The game might also be used to settle differences between two parties.
The Aztec ball game had a lot of ritual significance. It was mean to mirror the ball court of the heavens, this being
the ball court of the underworld where the sun passed each night.
The game represented the battle between day and night, and so
was also related to the human blood sacrifices that were intended to keep the sun moving in the sky. (Read
more about the Aztec sacrifices here)
The Aztec Ball Game today
A form of the Aztec ball game is still played today, known as ulama. Ulama de cadera (hip ulama) is similar to the Aztec version of the Mesoamerican game, and also related are its cousins ulama de antebrazo and ulama de palo. You can read more about today's version of the Aztec ball game here.
Also, check out this article on ulama from the Archaeological Institute of America.