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Sports History: Mayan Football - Pitz or Ōllamaliztli

Updated on June 12, 2018
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years of successful experience in medicine, psychology, STEM courses, and aerospace education (CAP).

Mayan football players today.
Mayan football players today. | Source

Football, War and Death in Mesoamerica

Ōllamaliztli originated somewhere is Mesoamerica, among forests of trees that produced the rubber required for the balls used in this team sport. We know only a few details of this activity, because of artifacts found among players of the sport in historic burial grounds.

Team sports are based on the art of war and the Mayan version combines both sport and war to an extreme. This one sport, also called Pitz, is most extreme, because it ends in death for the victor during games played as part of religious rituals.

The captain of the wining team is sacrificed to the tribal gods as an honor at the end of the game.

Mayan ball was difficult, very fast paced, and bloody in the end. It appeared to have elements of soccer and basketball combined, using two rubbery balls - a large heavy soccer-type ball and a handball, which had to be propelled through a stone loop high on a stone wall of the grassy playing court.

An abbreviated version of this particular sport was produced and reserved especially for children and women, and did not require bloodshed at the end of the game. Feature of both the original sport and the less violent version are present in today's descendant ball games.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A Maya Pitz CourtA modern game inside an arena.
A Maya Pitz Court
A Maya Pitz Court | Source
A modern game inside an arena.
A modern game inside an arena. | Source

History of Football in the New World

There are legends that football as we know it began with the Vikings entering the New World for conquest: Things did not go as planned and one of the indigenous people cut the head of a Viking off. The natives started kicking it around and formed a game.

These legends may or may not be based in some fact, but it is certain that the Mayans had their own blood-sacrifice version of football a few centuries ago. Surprising to us today, the sacrifice was the leader of the winning side.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Ballcourt at Tikal, Guatemala. Mayan football in Mexico required passing a ball through this hole high on the court wall. A Mayan vase depicting a ballplayer.
Ballcourt at Tikal, Guatemala. Mayan football in Mexico required passing a ball through this hole high on the court wall.
Ballcourt at Tikal, Guatemala. Mayan football in Mexico required passing a ball through this hole high on the court wall. | Source
A Mayan vase depicting a ballplayer.
A Mayan vase depicting a ballplayer. | Source

Sports are often part of a ritual connected with an indigenous religion and often contain manifestations of the characteristics of war.

The Mayan ball players wore a stone belt, shoulder pads, elbow pads, knee pads and other garments with the idea to use the stone belt and padded parts to play the game.

Elaborate wall paintings portray some players of this sport dresses in ornate gold helmets, wide gold shoulder pads, and painted animal hide hip pads.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Wall painting of a great Mayan ballcourt and four players. The personage in the center of the court may be a tribal diety. Maya ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Wall painting of a great Mayan ballcourt and four players. The personage in the center of the court may be a tribal diety.
Wall painting of a great Mayan ballcourt and four players. The personage in the center of the court may be a tribal diety. | Source
Maya ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Maya ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula. | Source

Many of the original ball courts still stand in Mexico. The ball court is T-shaped and grass extends through the opening between two stone platforms that sit in front of one another. These platforms slope downward and there are a total of six stone macaw-headed statues divided between the platforms. The walls of the courts are tall and fashioned of stone.

In order to score, players hit the ball against a macaw head. Players lost points, if the ball hit the ground instead, because the large ball would wake up the evil gods in their spiritual underworld inside the earth.

The modern version of this sport is less violent and is called "ulama" and "Pok ta Pok." It does not require human sacrifice.

Three modern players in the midst of game play.
Three modern players in the midst of game play. | Source

Sacrifice of the Winner

The King of the tribe would announce the winner after the game was over and the score confirmed. Hundreds and even thousands of people came out to the court to watch these games, especially to witness the bloody sacrifice of the winner at the end.

There would be some sort of small flat-topped pyramid in the center of the court and surrounding grounds and the King would step up to the top. He announced the winning team and captain. Then he climbed down and strode over to a spherical rock. The captain walked over and lay backwards over the rock.

The king picked up an shaped obsidian stick and slit the captain's throat. The king let the blood drain, finally cutting the captain's head completely off. The blood was offered in a special sacrifice bowl to a statue of the god of choice.

Much of the Mayan Civilization remains mysterious.
Much of the Mayan Civilization remains mysterious. | Source

© 2008 Patty Inglish MS

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    • profile image

      hulk21 

      6 years ago

      thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • profile image

      7 years ago

      weird

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      7 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Yah, according to my anthro notes, it's the winner. Makes all the more powerful when we hear about it. If you find another ending and a reference for it, I'll be glad to post it as well.

    • profile image

      Anonymous 

      7 years ago

      I was under the impression that the losing captain became the sacrifice. My preconceptions are feeling very challenged.

    • profile image

      Erick Smart 

      9 years ago

      I have read that the Mayans used football as a form of war. Though the losers did die it does seem to be a better way than by using guns.

    • Contribution profile image

      Contribution 

      10 years ago

      Interesting reading, thank you, you can´t get surprised enough about all the stupity mankind invented.

    • Cybermouse profile image

      Cybermouse 

      10 years ago from Bentonville, AR

      Fascinating hub! It's crazy to think that people actually did these things. This was one sport I had always been curious about, so thanks for...er...quenching my thirst, so to speak.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      10 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      Thanks for all the comments, and Lissie I like your article and welcomed reading it. The Mayan ball court was a chamber of horrors!

      I accepted the fact that sports are founDed out of war, nut the Mayans really went all out. I'm glad to see THAT kind of intentional; bloodletting leave the field of football.

      Hockey has a lot of fights though. :)

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      10 years ago from New Zealand

      Patti - I think I have discovered a previously unsuspected link between the Mayans and the All Blacks - read about it here ROTFL https://hubpages.com/sports/Rugby---New-Zealands-N...

    • topstuff profile image

      topstuff 

      10 years ago

      What a weird game those people played.

    • profile image

      Iðunn 

      10 years ago

      patty, nifty hub and as usual your graphics are outstanding!  I love these images!

      and only you could pique my interest in boring annoying football by combining it with the constantly fascinating mayan culture.  I believe you are the sole person to ever tempt me into reading about football.  :D

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 

      10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Patty - another great Hub! Football be damned. This is a wonderful history lesson. Cheers! Steph

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