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Mayan Football: Pitz or Ōllamaliztli

Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.

Mayan football players today.

Mayan football players today.

Football, War, and Death in Mesoamerica

Ōllamaliztli originated somewhere in 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 religious ritual games.

The winning team captain 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 it did not require bloodshed at the end of the game. Features of both the original sport and the less violent version are present in today's descendant ball games.

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 on some facts, 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.

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.

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.

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To score, players hit the ball against a macaw head. If the ball hit the ground instead, players lost points 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.

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 a 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.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2008 Patty Inglish MS


hulk21 on February 02, 2012:

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

a on May 18, 2011:


Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 02, 2011:

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.

Anonymous on February 02, 2011:

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

Erick Smart on June 12, 2009:

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 on February 18, 2008:

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

Cybermouse from Bentonville, AR on February 18, 2008:

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 my thirst, so to speak.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 18, 2008:

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. :)

Elisabeth Sowerbutts from New Zealand on February 18, 2008:

Patti - I think I have discovered a previously unsuspected link between the Mayans and the All Blacks - read about it here ROTFL

topstuff on February 17, 2008:

What a weird game those people played.

Iðunn on February 17, 2008:

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

Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on February 17, 2008:

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

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