Chichen Itza

The Great Ball Court

General Information

Image description

The Great Ballcourt, located in the northern precinct of Chichen Itza, is the largest ballcourt ever discovered in Mesoamerica. It also has the most ornate carvings, structures and inscriptions.

The dimensions of the court are 175 meters from end to end (running north-south) and 70 meters wide, making it much larger than a modern-day American football field. On each side of the field are walls that rise more than 7 meters. Embedded near the top of each wall at the center is a stone hoop engraved with intertwining feathered serpents. Though on the surface it appears to be simply a "game", the scenes acted out within its walls, and indeed the carvings on these walls, reveal a much deeper significance within Mayan tradition.

There are several accounts of both the Aztecs and Maya playing the games at the time of the Spanish conquest. However no record of the rules of the game survives. Of the hundreds of images of the game, very few show that the ball was touched with the hands, so archeologists have deduced that the ball could not be caught. The ball itself was a little larger than a basketball and was made of solid rubber, so was quite heavy. Hence the need for the protective padding we believe the players wore around their hips. Players were richly dressed and decorated during play.

The court is made up of several components. The Playing Field, the Northern and Southern temples, the Upper Temple of the Jaguar and the Lower Temple of the Jaguar visible from the outside of the court. The prominence and intricacy of these temples exude the power and significance that must have accompanied the nobles who watched the games from these vantage points. The southern temple, now apparently beyond repair, once was home to a Chac Mool similar to that found in the Temple of the Warriors. This statue now resides in a museum.

Though the proportions of the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza are much larger than others, the essential design is the same in all Mesoamerica. All courts are rectangular, with an angled bench that runs the longest length of the court. A vertical wall is positioned behind these benches and the court's two goals are positioned out of this vertical wall, half way up the longest sides, and at varying heights. Apart from its unique size, there are characteristics found in the Great Ball Courrt that have not been found in other Maya cities. These angled benches are richly carved with three detailed panels showing scenes involving the players of the game. These carved stone designs all show essentially the same design though the specific content differs slightly. Some panels show eleven players in addition to the captains, while others have twelve plus the captain. As the Maya placed religious significance on the number 13 (there were 13 levels to the Mayan underworld) it seems that 13 players would fit into the overall motif of the game.

The headdress designs of the figures in the carvings also differ as do the specific details of each costume worn by the players. Perhaps they depict players from other cities or local casts? The figures are shown wearing the typical gear for the games. Knee pads and foot covers with sandals shown only on the left foot (and the same leg for the knee pad). Fringed padding protects their arms and each figure has a unique headdress and personal jewelry. Each figure wears a protective "U" shaped yoke-belt that was worn around the waist. This heavy belt (made of stone or heavy wood) and other gear protected the player from the dense rubber ball when they hit it using only their waist, forearms and thighs in order to hit it through the goal. The players are shown holding stones carved into the effigies of animals. The farthest panels on the end of either wall show vine and snake scrolls coming from the mouths of the players signifying either singing or speaking as they all appear to march towards the center, and key, panel.

This center panel shows the decapitation sacrifice made at the conclusion of each game. It shows a large game ball with an image of a skull in the center also speaking or singing that is a "way" or spirit companion to the game. The Popol Vuh names this ball "White Flint" as it said it was made of flint covered with powdered bone. To the left of the White Flint ball is the victorious team's captain wearing an Itz (sorcerer) headband and wielding a flint knife that he has just used to sever his opponents head. The neck of the kneeling loser spurts seven streams of blood, six of them in the form of snakes. "Six Snake" or Wak-Kan was the Mayan name for the great tree at the center of the world. The center, and seventh "blood spurt" appears to be in the form of a squash vine and represents this tree.

A common modern myth is that it was the winner of each game that was sacrificed. There is no archeological evidence to support this theory and it is likely incorrect. The kneeling posture of the sacrificed victim shown in the carvings is a common show of submission and is more likely to be associated with the loser of the game rather than the victor. Life was a gift from the gods to the Maya and though they treasured their own lives, they had no issue with the maiming, killing or bloodletting of enemies as an offering to their gods.

Another common belief is that the object of the game is to pass the ball through a ring. Not all ballcourts have rings, but stone markers protruding from the walls. The two ballcourt rings in the Great Ball Court do look like "goals," and if the point of the game was to pass the ball through them without using hands or legs, it would be quite a feat. The rings are richly carved with the images of the feathered serpent god Kukulcan. Human eyes peer out between the bodies of the entwined serpents, perhaps to signify that the rings are also "seeing" instruments used by the gods to view the games.

The court was intended to represent the act of creation. The Maya constructed the angled shape of the benches to represent the crack in the top of Creation Mountain. The Popol Vuh shows us the Mayan word "hom" or crevice is also the word for Ballcourt. As a symbolic crevice in the surface of the earth, playing the game granted access into the Otherworld. where the Mayan ancestors and gods lived. The Maya played the game to re-enact the moment when the third creation ended and the fourth (the one we live in today) began. The entire motif of the structures that make up the Great Ballcourt are all related to the moment of this fourth creation

The ball court plays a significant part in Maya mythology. One of the most famous stories is of the Hero Twins. Click here to read that tale.

The imagery found on the structures show two critical moments in the cities history. What happened to the Itzá at the moment of creation and the founding of their city, and what transpired during the time of conquest that gave the Itzá their right to rule.

Most key cities in Mesoamerica had a ballcourt as part of their ceremonial center. Other examples in this Website are shown in Uxmal and Coba

-- Chris Reeves