The Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá (late-classic), located in the Yucatán Peninsula, hold the largest ball court in Mesoamerica. The Ball Court symbolized the underworld in the Maya cosmovision and appears in the Maya creation myth as depicted in The Popol Vuh (Book of Council). The Grand Ball Court of Chichén had multiple purposes and was an important site of sociopolitical power.
In Chichén Itzá, there are a total of 17 ball courts that received visitors from around this capital city for possible trials, matches, inaugurations, and even large celebrations. With a length of 460 feet, a width of 150 feet (including two 8-foot wide tilted walls), and a height of 25 feet, the Chichén Itzá ball court is the largest court yet discovered. On both walls are large rings, and friezes of seven characters said to represent the “teams.” The left wall includes men dressed in the same costume, possibly depicting the “home team”, while the right wall depicts men in various costumes, perhaps the “visitors.” Though experts are not sure if a “game” was actually ever played on this massive court, or even how the “game” might have been played, it is certain that many significant symbolic rituals took place here.
Each Mesoamerican city includes a ball court, sometimes to represent the accession of a new king or as a way to exhibit the city’s growth or recovery from political change. Politically, this space had to do with power that held huge ceremonies and dances to show a new king was taking over. The ball (a rubber ball, ranging from the size of a softball to a soccer ball) would sometimes be handed to the new reigning king to symbolize power and divine knowledge.
Legally, the ball court could determine the fate of transgressors. Punishment could be meted. For the Maya, there was an opportunity to battle it out on the ball court. There would be a prosecutor versus the “defense attorney” whom could be hired to play in your spot if they gave someone a better chance of winning. Priests served as arbiters and interpreted innocence or guilt based upon the outcome of the game.
Cosmos Written in Stone
In the Popol Vuh, the ball court signifies a portal to the underworld. The Maya cosmovision holds three levels: the underworld, the terrestrial world, and the heavens. The architecture of the court was usually built in an I-shaped form, with two parallel walls consisting of benches for the spectators, while the north tower was reserved for the ruler and other political elites. The North Tower represents the “heavens”, the two side parallel walls, seating the indigenous people were considered “earth”, and the ball court itself lower than the rest, the “underworld”.