The inhabitants of the Place of Reeds have the normal Mesoamerican pastimes. Games and sports, and the gambling the comes with them. In terms of sports they favoured anything that tested skill and endurance.
A form of the ballgame was played all through Mesoamerica (Miller & Taube, 1993; Wikipedia: Mesoamerican Ballgame). The ballgame is likely to have originated in the low lying rubber producing areas of Mexico before 1400 BC. By 1000 BC it had reached Central Mexico and was throughout Mesoamerica by 300 BC. A version is still played today. The hip-ball game was the most common type although variations also existed where the ball was struck by a wooden stick, racquets, bats and batons, handstones, and the forearm, perhaps in combination
The “Hip-ball” Ballgame
The most common ballgame was the hip-ball game (Wikipedia: Mesoamerican Ballgame). Little is known of the rules. Modern-day ulama resembles a net-less volleyball with each team confined to one half of the court hitting the ball back and forth using only the hips until one team fails to return it or the ball leaves the court (Wikipedia: Mesoamerican Ballgame). Earlier point scoring varied by region and period but known examples include:
- A player lost points if they:
- let the ball bounce more than twice before returning it to the other team,
- let the ball go outside the boundaries of the court
- tried and failed to pass the ball through one of the stone rings
- A player gained points if
- the ball hit the opposite end wall
- hit the stone ring but didn’t go through
- put the ball through a ring
- A player won the game immediately if they
- put the ball through a ring
The hip-ball itself was made of rubber (Wikipedia: Mesoamerican Ballgame). It was roughly 20 cm in diameter and weighed between 3 and 4 kg. This made it about the size of a modern volleyball but 15 times heavier. Not surprisingly the players typically suffered bad bruising and could die if hit in the wrong place.
The loincloth was the universal uniform but not surprisingly players wore protective padding in areas (upper arm, thigh, and hips) used to hit the ball (Wikipedia: Mesoamerican Ballgame). The basic protection was pads on the hips. Some players wore a “yoke”, i.e. girdle, to protect the hips, and upright rods of various shapes inserted into the yoke to give some protection to the chest. Helmets and knee pads could also be wore. In some areas players wore a knee pad only on the right.
The game was played in a long and narrow court with, typically, a 4:1 ratio (Wikipedia: Mesoamerican Ballgame). The game was played along the length of the court. Social games would have been played on adhoc fields but important or ritual games were played in a masonry court. These had sloping, horizontal and/or vertical walls. Originally the courts had open ends but over time they became an “I” shape, with the end zones being used for player to rest or forming up. After 1000 AD the Maya added a stone ring to the centre of the long side walls. The ring became standard through Mesoamerica. Sending the ball through the rings scored points or gained immediate victory. Given some Mayan examples have the stone ring 6 metres above the floor scoring a “goal” must have been rare.
The game was played by even sized team with 2-4 players a side (Miller and Taube; Wikipedia: Mesoamerican Ballgame). It was possible for two players to play three, and other ratios were possible. In the large ball court at Chichen Itza there is a relief showing seven players a side. The number of players probably depended on the size of the ball court and the context.
The ballgame was played by amateurs and professions, for sport and as part of religious ritual (Miller & Taube, 1993). The outcome was the subject of considerable gambling. Goals and court boundaries were marked by posts with round stones on top.
Generally it is men and gods that played the ballgame; there is only one depiction – in the Maya area – of woman playing the game (Miller & Taube, 1993). The game’s association with war may explain the gender bias (Wikipedia: Mesoamerican Ballgame).
The ritual ballgame was associated with sacrifice (Miller & Taube, 1993). The ball itself probably represents a skull or head, and some players were decapitated after a ritual game. Although Miller and Taube say the winning captain decapitated the losing captain it is not actually clear who sacrificed whom.
A version only depicted in Central Mexico, including at Teotihuacan, has the players using a bat resembling a field hockey stick to hit the ball (Miller & Taube, 1993). In fact Teotihuacan is the only major centre in Mesoamerica that lacks a masonry ball court (Wikipedia: Mesoamerican Ballgame). There are depictions of ball courts but none have been found yet. It is likely that the hockey version of the game dominated the traditional “hip” ballgame in Teotihuacan and the area under Teotihuacan influence (e.g. Matacapan or Tikal in the Mayan lands). Given the mural evidence the hip-ball game was still played in these areas but possibly just as a social game. Unlike the hip-ball players the hockey players at Teotihuacan wore skirts. The hockey field had large stone monuments at both ends. The ball was slightly larger and heavier than a modern baseball.
Patolli was the big board game of Mesoamerica and was pervasive throughout the area (Wikipedia: Patolli). It has been around long enough that the Teotihuacanos played it (The Patolli Game Board). The name of the game is from the word for small red beans used to play the game. Patolli was very common in the Aztec Empire (Ancient Aztec games). Players were often seen walking the streets with their patolli mats ready for another game. Both commoners and nobles in the Aztec empire played it.
Patolli had strong religious aspect starting with the pre-game invocation of Macuilxochitl (Wikipedia: Patolli). Macuilxochitl, deity of music, dance, gambling and games, called God of the Five Flowers, and was the patron god of Patolli. Another name for Macuilxochitl was Xochipilli (Ancient Aztec games). Players offered incense, prayers and food to Macuilxochitl, and the patolli, ensure success. During the game, if a toss of the patolli resulted in no holes (all blank sides) showing, the player had to give Macuilxochitl one item from their stake – they placed the item in the space above the game board reserved for these items. The winner of the round got these items as a gift from Macuilxochitl.
Patolli is a race/war game between two or four players (The Patolli Game Board; Wikipedia: Patolli). It is played on a board, actually a kind of table rock, in the form of a cross (Aztec Fun & Games). Each player had six jade markers to move around the board and five red beans (the patolli). Each bean was marked with a hole on one side so a bean could have a score of one (hole showing) or zero (blank). So a throw of the five beans resulted in a score between zero (no holes) and five (all five holes showing). The aim was to get as many of your markers as possible onto, then around the board and off the board without forfeiting them to your opponent. The score of a player’s patolli throw determined how many spaces they could advance one of their markers. A player had to score a one (i.e. only one bean of the five had the hole showing) to enter a marker within one of the four squares located at the juncture of the cross pattern; in the same turn they could advance another marker, already on the board, by one space. All markers on the board moved clockwise around the board. A score of five on the patolli was counted as a 10, i.e. a marker could move 10 spaces. A player had to sacrifice two markers if one of their markers landed on one of the 16 squared marked with a triangle (presumably a knife symbol). These squares were those in the middle of each arm of the cross. If a player’s marker landed on a square with a semi-circle – those at the ends of each arm – their opponent had to forfeit one marker to them; the moving player then gets another throw of the patolli. If a player’s marker lands on an enemy marker positioned in the cross roads then the opponent had to forfeit the marker landed upon.
Patolli was the focus of intense gambling (Wikipedia: Patolli). Before a game the players check out what the other player had available to gamble. Each player had to put up the same number of item. The most common number of items was six, one for each of the six jade markers each player used in the game. When a player successfully completed a circuit around the board with one of their markers, the opponent had to surrender one item from their stake. Players could bet anything but common items were blankets, clothing, plants (e.g. Maguey), precious stones, gold adornments, slaves and food. In rare cases players could something more significant, e.g. their homes, family or freedom.
The Aztecs also gambled when playing Totoloque (Ancient Aztec games). The players sought to hit a target with gold pellets. Apparently Cortés and Moctezuma II played totoloque together.
Mesoamericans like gambling. The Ball Game, Patolli and Totoloque were all the subject of intense betting.
Dancing was big (Aztec Fun & Games) for both religious reasons and for fun. Up to 5,000 people might form up in a circle and dance to the drums and rattles. In the Aztec Empire each circle comprised dancers of a similar age and social class. So the elders from high social classes were in the small inner circle whereas the younger members and those from lower classes were further out.
Religious dances were choreographed and practiced sos the dancers could execute every step perfectly (Aztec Fun & Games). However there were also more informal dances for their own enjoyment and for personal or family events.
The Voladores de Papantla, the Sun Dance, was a particularly spectacular Aztec dance (Aztec Fun & Games). The dancers climbed a high pole or mast where they tied themselves to long cords wound around the pole. The dancers then jump off the pole, with the cords unwinding to make the dancer look like flying birds. This required both courage and dexterity.
Poor Aztecs hunted to increase their food supply or to trade, but the wealthy hunted for fun (Aztec Fun & Games).
The Aztecs has archery competitions and rowing contests on Texcoco Lake (Aztec Fun & Games).
Oratory and Poetry
Aztecs were good speakers and were happy to offer advice, prayers, speeches and poems (Aztec Fun & Games).
Miller, M., & Taube, K. (1993). An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames & Hudson.
Wikipedia: Mesoamerican Ballgame