At the heart of symbolism

The Mayan ball game


Story of the twin brothers

Mesoamerica mapMesoamerica gathers regions sharing the same cultural characters. Marked by the Mayan civilization, it stretched over a territory as big as France divided onto five modern states (Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Western parts of El Salvador and Honduras).

Mayan land is inhabited by gods as attested by the constructions of its occupants. Their divine character is reflected in the temples rising to the sky as well as the game courts stretching on earth. Paintings on containers and ceramics, carvings on stone monuments and retranscribed testimonies have helped to lift the veil on the progress of the ball game among Mayas.

The majority of ball game courts were built between the third and the ninth century our era. Shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards in Maya's land, most of the game courts were located on the highlands of Guatemala, among the Quiche. The key to understanding the role of the ball game is located in the texts assembled in the “Popol Vuh” (The Book of Councel). This book, written in a symbolic language, recounts the myth and the history of the genesis of the Quiche people, the most important group of Guatemala. Although this document dates back to the Spanish colonization, it remains faithful to the spirit of the Mayan people.

The two twin brothers

The first part of the “Popol Vuh” is about two twin brothers, Hun Hunahpu (Supreme Master Magician) and Vukub Hunahpu (Principal Master Magician) who were playing ball at the entrance of the underground world. Disturbed by the noise, the Lords of the place invited them to play together. Abused, both brothers lost their lives after having suffered a number of tests, including the ball game. Hun Hunahpu (Supreme Master Magician) was beheaded and his head suspended in a tree which should not be approached. One day, the daughter of one of the Lords of the underground world was passing by the tree. Attracted by its fruit, she came closer to pick some. The head took advantage of the situation by spitting in her hand and making her pregnant with his saliva.

Fearing the wrath of her father, the young girl fled the underground world and joined the mother of the twins who had been left for dead. She gave birth to twins, Hunahpu (Master Magician) and Xbalanque (Little Sorcerer). The latter found the equipment of the ball game of their father and uncle and began to play, just as loudly, before the entrance of the underground world. They were, in their turn, invited to come and show their art of playing to the Lords of darkness. Alerted, they managed to foil the traps set by the Lords of the underground world, even the one where Hunahpu (Master Magician) was beheaded by the Bat of Death 1. His head was placed on the ball game court.

The Lords of the underground world decided to use the head as a ball to confront Xbalanque (Little Sorcerer). The latter turned to a subterfuge consisting in taking as a ball a jumping rabbit. While the Lords were running after the rabbit, Xbalanque (Little Sorcerer) made a copy of his brother's head with the help of the Heaven Powers. His opponents came back and found the ball. They started playing again and became equal. When Xbalanque (Little Sorcerer) struck the copy at the right time, it smashed into pieces like a pottery and the Lords had to withdraw.

The twin brothers did not succumb during all the trials, Hun Hunahpu (Supreme Master Magician) having revived meanwhile. Nevertheless, they sacrificed themselves on the altar of the world of darkness 2 and their remains were thrown into the river. The remains were gathered together in the river bed and the twins came back to life. They decided to avenge their father and uncle for all evils they had to suffer. They dressed up as beggars and used all kinds of spells, the fame of which came to the ears of the Lords of the underground world. After having played hard to get, they went to their home. They impressed the Lords by sacrificing an animal, then a person and raising them from the dead. The Lords asked a beggar to kill his acolyte and to bring him back to life. The other beggar did the same. The prodigy accomplished, the Lords asked to be killed and brought back to life. The Lords were killed and their bodies abandoned to the underground world. The twins revived their father and uncle and went to Heaven where one became the Sun and the other the Moon 3.

1 back The beheading means the separation of the head, the manifestation of the spirit, from the rest of the body, the manifestation of the material. It is not a matter of physical death, but of Death to a being's state to be re-born in a higher one. This symbolic step is essential to get out of the underground world and reach the celestial world. Hunahpu (Master Magician) is dead in the eyes of the Lords of the underground world only, for they know no other world than the terrestrial world.

2 back Here, it is a question of sacrifice of the beings who accept to descend into the underground world, the world of the dead to be re-born in the celestial world.

3 back As in many traditions, it is a matter here of a cosmological sacrifice or a disintegration of the being followed by a reintegration into something huger, the cosmic order. While sacrificing himself, the Primeval being gives his life and makes sacred (from the Latin sacrum facere) the astral bodies and entire Cosmos.

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