By Guest Lecturer Sandy Cares
Visitors to Central America stroll among stunning Mayan ruins that stir the imagination about a lost civilization’s great past. But what would it feel like to be an ancient Maya and actually sit in the stands of a ball court and watch a game?
One of the biggest draws to the Mayan ruins has to be the ball court. This is where the ceremonial game of Pok-Ta-Pok, similar to a cross between modern-day basketball and volleyball, was played to the death. There is still considerable controversy over whether the winners or losers were sacrificed.
Players outfitted themselves with protective gear like bone collars, cuffs and belts. The hard rubber ball weighed about ten pounds and had a human skull, a sacrificed victim from a prior game no doubt, at its core.
They hit the ball with any part of their body, except their hands or feet. The goal was to get the ball through an ornately carved stone ring protruding from the ball court wall. Walls of some ball courts were vertical and others inclined. A variant is at Lamanai in Belize, where goal markers on the ground were used instead of suspended stone rings.
When I was touring the Maya world while on Riviera, we had the rare opportunity to attend a spine-tingling re-enactment of a Mayan Pok-Ta-Pok game in Cozumel. New to the line-up of cultural offerings, this riveting re-enactment was played out with all the attendant flair and ritualistic solemnity that gave the Maya their reputation as celebrated ball players, warriors and dancers. Tattooed women opened the ceremony by parading about in stunning feathered headdresses proffering bowls exuding exotic wafts of incense, all while a musician sang in a fevered pitch to ancient rhythms he pounded out on traditional drums.
The ball players poured onto the court decked in exotic bird feathers and lifelike animal masks. Shiny metal wristlets glinted in the scorching Mexican sun as bone necklaces and jaguar pelts flashed and swirled above their quick-stepping legs. Anklets of nuts and seeds added percussive rattling to their every move. They smacked the ball back and forth, scoring every so often to the wild and unrestrained cheers of guests completely swept up in the excitement.
By the end of the fevered demonstration, spectators genuinely felt they had gone back in time to experience an authentic Mayan ceremonial ballgame!
I hope to see you in the Caribbean this fall or winter – join me on one of the sailings below: