The Mesoamerican Ball Game’s Symbolic Complexity

The existence of the ball game in ancient mesoamerican civilizations served as an integral part of their culture that had physical, symbolic, and political influences. This widespread tradition was invented sometime in the preclassical period from 2500-100 BCE and does not originate with any one group (Cartwright 2013). Archaeologists have discovered over 1500 ball courts in Mesoamerica and have gathered knowledge about past iterations of the game through the surviving courts, game artifacts, and imagery depictions (Earley 2017). Variations of the game with different rules appeared across different cultures and time periods. Most consistently feature courts near sacred ceremonial centers such as temples and funerary shrines, suggesting significance beyond just sport. Most iterations of the game involve players aiming to shoot a solid rubber ball made from native rubber-producing plants through an elevated ring attached to a stone wall without using their hands or feet. Surviving sculptures show players poised to use their hips to hit the ball and wearing many layers of protective padding around their midsection to protect against the heavy rubber (Earley 2017).

Image 1. Mesoamerican ball game wall and goal in Chichen Itza. Photograph by Luis Miguel Bugallo Sainchez.

The game carried a heavy symbolic meaning and was often used as a vessel for human sacrifice. The mesoamerican ball game originates in a mayan creation myth in which a pair of brothers are tricked into playing the game with the gods of Xibalba(the underworld) and are subsequently decapitated (Cartwright 2013). Painted ceramic artifacts depict kings re-enacting the mythological game dressed as gods. Often the captain or the entirety of the losing team would be sacrificed as offerings to the gods. Relief panels in the game court wall from Chichen Itza depict a kneeling loser whose decapitated head sprouts vegetation and serpents (Cartwright 2013). This imagery signifies the believed nourishing and regenerative effects that sacrificial blood would bring. The mythological associations to the underworld are a representation of the battle between both day and night and life and death. The ball in constant motion is a representation of the sun’s movement across the sky and its passage through the hoop, representing the underworld, signifies the suns rising at the next dawn (Cartwright 2013). Victors of the games were regarded as warriors and would be rewarded with stone trophies. These consisted of hacha which were representations of human heads with handles and palma which were trophies designed to be worn on the costumes of players (Cartwright 2013). Stone versions of these artifacts were often placed in graves, showing the believed importance of these objects that needed to be carried on as belongings into the next life.

Image 2. Figurine of ancient ball player wearing protective padded belt. Photograph by Salazar Chávez.

The ball game aided in the political development of emerging mesoamerican societies. A social game could strengthen alliances between regions and ramp up trade. Emerging political leaders could flaunt their wealth through the ceremonious event and subsequent feasts. Social hierarchies could be implemented through socially ranked courtside viewing (Wade 2020). The games not only fostered a sense of community but expressed the power of political and religious leaders looking to establish a new inequality.


Cartwright, Mark. “The Ball Game of Mesoamerica.” World History Encyclopedia, September 16, 2013.

Earley, Caitlin. “The Mesoamerican Ballgame.” The Met, June 2017.

Wade, Lizzie. “3400-Year-Old Ballgame Court Unearthed in Mountains of Mexico.” Science, March 13, 2020.

Further Readings

Cabinets of Curiosities and the Desire to Collect

Cabinets of curiosities were a phenomenon of the European elite throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that sought to understand and summarize the expanding world. This craze involved the aristocracy dedicating a space in their interior towards the collection of rare items. These rooms were heavily decorated and filled with drawers and sections containing objects that often didn’t contain a unifying link beyond their ability to produce awe and intrigue (“What is a…” n.d.). Collections greatly differed and were known under different names, often being called wunderkammer, meaning wonders or miracles of the world (“What is a…” n.d.).

Image 1. A painting of objects contained in a cabinet of curiosity

The origin of these rooms of collection is due to the nature of both the time period and the European elite. Collection is a human trait and has become embedded in current culture through the presence of modern museums. What specifically stemmed this desire towards collection during the era of the Renaissance was the emphasis on exploration and discovery. This period of time included a vast increase in travel and a shift of focus away from the Mediterranean. When exploring the uncertainty of the corners of the world, there was a need to classify, organize, and familiarize the influx of knowledge and materials that were being discovered (Yaya 2008). The cabinets acted as a way to frame the unfamiliar information in a comfortable and digestible way. This behavior was able to satisfy the Europeans’ object of wonder and curiosity for the “exotic”. The possession of the rare and exotic allowed someone to reconstruct the understanding of the world by assembling their own “microcosm” of the universe (Yaya 2008). 

Image 2. An illustration of a group of elite admiring and discussing a collection of animal artifacts.

A central feature of the cabinet of curiosities was the social aspect as they were designed for the accessibility of visitors. The intention of the collections was for others to be able to come and discuss what the owner had curated. While the collections were partly for personal intrigue and classification of knowledge, they were also a show of social prestige. The collections showed that one was an intellectual and educated man of taste (Arnold 2012). The grand size of collections and the exotic nature of the exhibits were signs that the owner was both wealthy and well traveled. The philosophical speculation acted as entertainment for the nobility that was intellectually stimulating (Arnold 2012). Somebody who could engage in knowledgeable conversation was well informed and by association, those who were invited to come witness the attractions were also considered men of taste. Scholars and nobility sought to amuse themselves with discussion and debate above gossip and cards, hobbies of the less educated. The curation of collections was for the socially ambitious and the most prestigious of collections could even entice visitors from all across Europe, even including royalty. The cabinets of curiosities are a representation of our desire to understand the past through what has been left behind.


Arnold, J. 2012. “The WWW cabinet of Curiosities: A Serendipitous Research Tool. Journal of Education and Learning, 1, no.2.

“What is a Cabinet of Curiosities?” Contemporary Issues in Archaeological Theory, Brown University.

Yaya, Isabel. 2008. “Wonders of America: The Curiosity Cabinet as a Site of Representation and Knowledge.” Journal of the History of Collections 20, no.2: 173-88

Further Readings

What Is a Wunderkammer? Best Cabinets of Curiosities