Playing Ball With The Mayans

By Douglas Bernon
February 1, 2002
Copán Ruinas, Honduras, C.A.

It's eye-opening to wander among ancient ruins about which there's more conjecture than understanding — a reminder that hindsight and insight don't necessarily stroll hand-in-hand. All the Mayan ruins are like that: great architecture, sophisticated astronomy, and magnificent sculpture. But because we lack the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone to interpret their hieroglyphs, we're just a bunch of wild-stabbing theorists when we try to figure out what went on way back when. Even the magnificent Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copán — 72 carved stone steps with more than 2,500 glyphs — offers only marginal help. The longest hieroglyphic series found anywhere, it was built, the experts think, by a ruler named Smoke Shell to recount Copán's glorious history. That was swell, but in the 1940s, a passel of eager-beaver, gringo, university experts disassembled the entire staircase to clean the stones, and no one thought to index their original positions. When it came time to put the puzzle back together again, the glyphs were replaced willy-nilly. To translate them now is a bit like trying to learn to read when you don't know if the letters are upside down or backwards.

Photo of Honduran countryside around Copán Ruinas
The Honduran countryside around Copán Ruinas.

The Mayan people once covered the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador, the entirety of Guatemala and Belize, and the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo. Their classic period was approximately 250 to 900, by which time they had some 60 or 70 city-states. But a millennium or so ago, either all hell broke loose or the center just couldn't hold; for reasons still not well understood, the entire shebang started to crumble.

Bernadette and I loved the ruins at Chichén Itzá and Uxmal in Mexico, and Tikal in Guatemala, and were excited here in Honduras to travel inland by bus to see Copán, which is thought to have been the Mayan cultural center. Tikal was four times bigger, with nearly 100,000 people. Tulum, in Mexico, had its great view of the Caribbean, but for astronomy, hieroglyphic writing and sculpture, which glorified the earthy and underworldly powers in charge, if you were a Mayan artist, Copán was the place to strut your stuff.

Photo of Mayan city of Copán Originally the Mayan city of Copán was vast and open, and cleared of all trees. But over the centuries, the lush tropical forest has reclaimed the site.

The dean of Mayan archeologists, Sylvanus Morley, calls Copán "the Athens of the New World," because there's a great plaza that could hold thousands of people for public events, plus an Acropolis — a fine private area for political and religious pooh-bahs — stunning altars, temples, and stelae; underneath all this are rooms under rooms under rooms, called Las Sepulturas. The carvings and artifacts unearthed in these tombs have revealed oodles about how dynasties ruled and the peasantry toiled.

Located in rich alluvial bottomland, Copán was probably settled by Mayans around the time of Christ. But recorded history doesn't start there until 426, and the early story is scanty because those long-ago leaders are thought to have destroyed the monuments to the powers that preceded them or built new monuments and buildings on top of old ones. Leadership etiquette improved over time, and we have a better idea of the latter years, but no one really knows why Copán collapsed. Current speculation is that it was the result of environmentally bad habits: deforestation for housing and firewood, which led to erosion during floods, then crop failures, a drought, and disaster. As the population grew, they expanded into poor agricultural areas and became dependent on others for their supplies of food and energy. Historians guess that by 1000 or so, Copán had been pretty well abandoned, although Mayans remained in the surrounding valleys and established small villages. That's how the Spanish found them in 1576 when they came upon the magnificent ruins carved with lyrical images on every surface, and some still painted in brilliant reds, blues, and golds.

Photo of colorful walls and buildings in Copán Ruinas The brilliant original colors of the walls and buildings in the ancient city of Copán Ruinas.

Wherever we're traveling, Bernadette and I like to read up on the mythology and ruins before we get there; we also like to hire a private guide to walk us around, giving his take and answering our questions. In Copán, we hired José, a droll 22-year-old who speaks four languages fluently and studies history and public relations at the university in Tegucigalpa, the capital. Because there's no written Mayan history that anyone can read, José admitted that his explanations of life in ancient Copán, like every guide's at all Mayan sites, are based on the standard Copán-guide spiel, mixed with genuine didactic efforts culled from the histories and archeological treatises they've studied, and all of this blended with personal opinion. That being said, a good guide can bring a place alive.

Photo of Mayan antiquity Copán is rich in antiquities, preserved in a huge open-air museum on the site.

Based on what we read and heard, and being no slouch at pet theories myself, here's my take: Copán was a town where you were likely to live a whole lot longer if you were born into the priestly class, and if you got lucky now and then. Sacrifices of virgins and other unfortunates were standard operating procedure, and the priests decided which common folk would have the honor of having perfectly good tickers yanked right out of their chests. This quaint division of power illustrates perfectly the fact that, as the song says, I'd rather be a hammer than a nail.

Photo of a colorful macaw Today, dozens of colorful macaws live among the ruins.

Priests also refereed at the magnificent ball court at Copán, and speeded many a fine jock to his early demise. No one is sure how the game was played or how many people were on a team or what the substitution rules were, but it's assumed that the game was a brutal mishmash of soccer and court tennis, and that no hands could be used. The ball — speculated to be a 15-inch solid rubber orb, which had to be kept in play — was bounced off slanted walls, and couldn't touch the ground. To score, the ball had to hit one of the stone macaws mounted high up in the corners of the court—the equivalent of crossing a goal line or sinking a basket. To stand in the court today and imagine the scene is to conjure up what must have been a bloody afternoon of top Mayan athletes in peak physical condition, bashing a solid ball around with their shoulders, heads, elbows, and knees until the game was done. I like to imagine that there also were guys selling fajitas, chips, frijoles, and cervezas, and gymnasts decked out as cheerleading chickens and cucarachas dancing on the sidelines — just like pro ball in the States — but I doubt it. This was serious business, life and death.

Photo of Mayan holding a human heart over the fire in sacrifice A Mayan holding a human heart over the fire in sacrifice to please the gods.

In Chichén Itzá in Mexico, which also has a beautiful ball court, the walls of which are carved into hundreds of skulls, our guide there had speculated it was the losers who were sacrificed — a potent incentive not to dawdle. We mentioned this inconsistency to José.

"It was either the winners or the losers who were killed after the game," he said. "We're not really sure which."

"I'd certainly like to get that sorted out before I started playing," whispered Bernadette.

Photo of Mayan ball court The mysterious ball court, where games were played, and the outcome meant life or death.

At Copán, it's assumed that the games were played to please the gods and solve some problem that vexed the community. The priests decided who the best players were and awarded them post-game cardiotomies, first-class tickets on the fast train to the underworld — considered by the Mayans a much better place to be. It fascinates me that in the Mayan cosmology, one descended, not ascended to glory.

Photo of a obsidian knife found at Copán Ruinas An obsidian knife found at Copán Ruinas that was once used for sacrificial "surgeries" to remove the hearts of live victims.

In addition to being serious sports fans, the people of Copán are noteworthy for the terrific names their leaders had: 18 Rabbit; Smoke Monkey (Humo Mono); Smoke Snail (Humo Caracol); New Dawn; Moon Jaguar; Smoke Shell; and their last leader, Yax Pac, whose name sounds like an American political campaign fund for Tibetan oxen. Bernadette and I were much smitten with these names, and as the Commodore was in a particularly upbeat mood, and I was grousing about how the clergy made others do all the heavy lifting, we renamed each other Moon Chirpy 21 and Smoke Doom 2.

Photo of spikes on the bark of the mighty ceiba tree The spikes on the bark of the mighty ceiba tree.

José told us that the Mayan priests encouraged the religiously worthy to participate in agonizing purification rituals that involved mortification of the flesh. Not content with mundane hair shirts, they'd tear sharp points off the young ceiba trees (Ceiba casearia) and punctured their tongues. Moon Chirpy 21 was appalled by this practice, but I'm a culturally-aware-in-the-moment kind of guy, so to please the gods, I wandered curiously over to the closest ceiba tree, drew my machete, hacked off some of the inch-long razor points, popped them into my mouth and shredded the daylights out of my taste buds. Sometimes the price is high for participant research, and I admit this was painful, but several days later, as I noted to Chirpy, "Wunth the thwelling gothes down, ith not tho thore. An, hey, ith a lot better than being named MVP."