Pok ta Pok: The Mayan Ball Game Lives on in the Yucatan

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Pok ta Pok, the ancient Mayan ball game, is still played in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. We saw it last week, and want to share about what we saw.

Pok ta Pok: The Mayan Ball Game Lives on in the Yucatan

Every Friday night in downtown Merida, a sporting event like no other takes place. In front of the cathedral, locals set up bleachers fans and other onlookers. Athletes wear face paint and feathers. Shamans cleanse the arena, and then the game begins.

The game known as Pok ta Pok was played in various forms across the Mesoamerica. Long before Columbus arrived, this sport was popular with both the Aztecs, the Mayans. How they played exactly is unknown, but there seems to have been many different styles of the game.

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How Was Pok ta Pok, the Mayan Ball Game Played?

The Mayan ball game differed from the Aztecs played. But in truth any recreation performed today has a lot of guesswork involved.

We heard a little about the game when we toured the Canada Pyramid and Archaeological Zone in Central Mexico near San Miguel de Allende. Our guide Alberto told us that in some regions, players may have used their hands. In other places, they may have played with their feet, like soccer. Then there were other variations of the game where players used an implement like a lacrosse stick.

Alberto also told us about some misunderstandings about the Mesoamerican game. For example, he said, many tour guides like to emphasize the role of sacrifice in the game. Some tell of the losing team being beheaded. Others talk about it sometimes being the winners who were ritually killed. Why? Because it was such an honor to meet the gods early.

There is some truth to this, our guide told us, but the story doesn’t end there. For example, rivaling Mayan kingdoms might have had their best warriors compete against each other. This was as a substitute for full-blown war. In some circumstances, he explained. it’s possible that the game acted as an omen to answer a king’s or priest’s question. If team A won, then the answer was one thing. If team B won, then the answer was something else.

Either way, Pok ta Pok and other forms of this Mayan ball game were played all over Mesoamerica.

The Mayan Ball Game in Merida: Pok ta Pok Rituals

In the version we watched near to Merida’s central square, players used only their hips to keep the ball in play. The objective is to keep the ball moving and to eventually get it through a small wooden hoop in the center of the court.

If you want to see the real hoops, they are all over the Yucatan Peninsula. You can see them in other parts of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, as well. You can learn about them at the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Merida. Other Pok ta Pok rings still remain intact at archaeological sites such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal.

The performance we saw began with music and ritual. A shaman walked the edge of the court with burning sage. Then a painted dancer lit a fire before performing to the beat of the drummers.

Then the two teams came out. Some were covered in body paint like jaguars. Others wore skulls or various plumage. I saw a few deer and jaguar heads, too, but these were probably fabricated to achieve the look.

After another ritual involving the blowing of conch shells, the game began.

Playing Pok ta Pok

The players also wore leather breeches and I now understand why. Since they can’t touch the ball with their hands or feet, there is a lot of dragging the hips along the ground at first to get the ball in motion.

Once the back-and-forth builds some momentum, the ball is bouncing. Faster and faster, it hurtles from one side of the court to the other, each bounce higher and more forceful. Eventually, there is enough momentum that the players start swiveling their hips to aim for the goal.

This is no easy task. First of all, the ball is 4 or 5 kilograms of solid rubber. Secondly, the goal isn’t that big. Maybe the size of a household standing fan. We saw one goal in gameplay and several near-misses, and each was a thrill. Very impressive.

After a break, there was a short practice round, where one player threw set-up passes for the others to try scoring on. Here there was still only a few goals. Just imagine trying to score by bouncing something that big and heavy off your hips!

Pok ta Pok Aflame

Then came the final round. Whoa. The rules suddenly changed, and now they could touch the ball with their hands.

Only one problem with that: the ball was on FIRE!

Their original scoring technique looked a cross between kung fu, a hockey hip-check and disco dancing. Now the game shifted to something akin to volleyball in hell.

The kids cheered, and so did I. All in all, a fun (and free!) few hours in Merida.

Seeing the Mayan Ball Game in Merida — Tips:

Get there early. At least 30 minutes early. That’s when we went looking for seats and there weren’t that many left over. Next time we go we’ll arrive an hour early and bring kindles or cards to pass the time.

Choose front row or up in the stands. The seating is all on one side, with standing room only on two sides. There were two rows of chairs right next to the court, Behind that was a walkway and then bleachers.

To be honest, there aren’t really any bad seats. That said, if you sit on the second row, it’s tough to get a good picture because you have people in front of you. The bleachers are higher up and at an angle so you can see the entire court better.

Where have you seen the Mayan ball game?

Have you been to the Yucatan? Do you want to see something like this? Or have you seen it performed elsewhere? If so, where?

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