History of the "ullamaliztli"

    Ullamaliztli is the Aztec word for "ballgame (4)."  Its origins can be traced as far back as 1200 BC, and was a central part of village life up until approximately the 16th century (5).  It was most popular among both the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, and many courts and other archeological relics pertaining to the game have been discovered in places such as current Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and western Honduras (6).  Ball courts were very long, ranging from anywhere between 49 and 115 feet in length (6).  They were somewhat narrow; courts have been found to have a width between 10 and 39 feet (6). These lengthy courts were demarcated by two parallel platforms on either side.  These walls were very tall.  Sometimes, the walls would bank downwards towards the playing court in order to create a type of bleacher, and other times they were sharply vertical.  In either case, these walls created viewing platforms so that massive crowds could gather to watch the event (6).  

    Although there is no agreement between historians on an exact set of rules for the game, one aspect has survived: the ball can only be played by hitting it with the hips (5).  Therefore, players wore protective gear around the loins and pelvis made of leather and wood, and as the rubber ball often weighed about 9 pounds, this was an extremely necessary precaution (5).  These courts almost always occupied a central position in the village, a ceremonial plaza, that was adjacent to the temple of the community, indicating that these games had a very significant purpose in society (1).  Every city had its own court, hundreds have been excavated, implying that these courts, which were often found to have decorative side panels on the walls, were great sources of pride for the community, and were used to impress or outdo rival cities (4).  

    However, this was no ordinary match of soccer.  This ball game was hardly a game, rather, it was a fight to the death.  The losing team was often decapitated; the winning team would be praised with intricate deer headdresses.  Death imagery permeated this game, especially in the Mayan civilization (2).  Since this game occupied a central place in elite Mesoamerican society, it often escalated into a political contest.  Prisoners of war would be dragged back into the city, and after the conquerors depleted their strength, they would be forced to play a match.  This would draw a huge crowd, since their weakness would ensure a victory for the home team, and would therefore mean an inevitable beheading, which, due to some violent tendencies of human nature, the crowds would not want to miss. 


    The vertical walls that shot up on either side of the court were often intricately decorated with relief panels.  Relief panels were stone carvings that depicted ball games, but mostly depicted the aftermath of these games.  They would have scenes of winners decapitating losers, players yielding knives, winners holding skulls above their heads, skeletons of losers strewn about the ground, and other variations on images and themes of death and decapitation (1).  There was no denying this game's association with ritualized bloodshed.  

Works Cited

1.  T. J. J. Leyenaar and Hilda Lietzmann, “Ballcourt.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 19, 2013, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T005952.

2.  Robert D. Drennan, et al. "Mesoamerica, Pre-Columbian." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 19, 2013, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T057023pg8.

3.  Phil C. Weigand. "Ixtlán del Río." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 19, 2013, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T042979

4.  Popson, Colleen P. "Extreme Sport." Archaeology 56, no. 5 (September 2003): 42. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 22, 2013).

5.  Scarborough, Vernon L., and David R. Wilcox, eds. The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1991.

6.  "Maya Civilization." In The Oxford Companion To Archaeology. : Oxford University Press, 2012. http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199735785.001.0001/acref-9780199735785-e-0272.