Mesoamerican Ballgame

David Bowles
5 min readJun 23

Because of two works-in-progress, I’ve been thinking about the different iterations of the “Mesoamerican Ballgame” (a relatively unhelpful and broad category that throws together several millennia of differently played sports that share a similar field and ball).

Here are some linguistic facts about the variety played in Anahuac during the 1400s (the region we retroactively call the “Aztec Empire”):

The basic word to know is “olli,” which primarily means “rubber,” but also “rubber ball.” It’s the source of the Spanish word “hule,” which … yeah, also means “rubber.”

Like we say “play ball” today, the word “olli” could also stand in for the sport itself. “Quimotequitia in olli” = “He indulges in the ball game.”

But the normal verb for “to play ball” is “ollama,” formed by combining “olli” and the verb “tlama,” meaning “to chase after and catch something.” It gives rise to the most common word for a ballplayer: “ollamani.” It’s also the source of the name for the modern version of the game, ulama.

Also from the verb comes the specific name of a ball made for this game: “ollamaloni,” which consists of the passive form (ollamalo, “the ball game is played”) and the -oni prefix meaning “capable of.” In other words, “what the ball game can be played with.”

To play ball AGAINST someone is “ollamia.” The noun form of the verb is “ollamaliztli” (ball play, playing ball). But more often than either “olli” or “ollamaliztli,” the “Aztecs” (pre-Invasion Nahuas) called the game “tlachtli.”

Now, this word SOUNDS like it comes from “tlachiya” or “to spectate, to watch something.” So when a Nahuatl speaker hears “tlachtli,” it might suggest something like “spectacle.” Though it certainly was a show, that’s not the actual etymology of “tlachtli,” which is just an older word for ballgame, with cognates in other Uto-Aztecan languages, like Hopi “tatatsi.”

People would crowd the stands and make massive bets on their favorite teams. A nobleman might become a pauper after a tough game. A commoner might find himself rich.

Now “tlachtli” is sometime used to refer to the actual field on which the game is played. HOWEVER, that’s more properly “tlachco” or “the place of the ballgame.” You see, -co is a “locative”—it creates place names (think Mexico, for example, which comes from Nahuatl “Mexihco,” place of “Mexihtli,” another name for the god Huitzilopochtli, and by extension one of his followers). The tlachco was also known as the “ollamaloyan” (-yan is another locative): “place where ball is played.”

What was the tlachco like? Long and narrow. Over centuries and distance, there were lots of variation in size, but generally the field is three to five times as long as wide, with two “end zones” on opposite extremes, making a serif-capital-I shape. The space is surrounded by stone structures (walls, etc.) as in these images from Wikipedia. Set into each side wall was a ring.

You might think that the obvious point of the game was to get the ball through the hoop. But such a feat was very rare and tended to remembered and talked about for years. Why? Because offense players could only use their HIPS to put the ball through the hoop—and the freaking hoop was set three or more meters off the ground.

Instead, the game mainly was like volleyball or tennis: the object was to keep the ball in movement. The field was divided by a line down the middle, and each lateral side belonged to a team.

The idea was to make your opponent knock the ball over the wall of the tlachco, hit the opposite wall, or otherwise halt its momentum. These fouls put the ball out of bounds, shifting offense to the other team. Players in control of the ball couldn’t touch it with their hands. Though we don’t know all the rules, it’s clear that they mainly had to use their hips, and in different versions could move the ball along with knees, elbows, buttocks, etc.

I keep mentioning offense, implying defense. I don’t know the particulars, but looking at the words that survived, I can seethat an “ollamani” (player) could apparently be either an “ollanqui” (from the verb “ollama”) or an “olpixqui” (literally “ball guardian” or perhaps “catcher”). These suggest offense / defense roles.

That possibility feels reinforced by what the Florentine Codex says about the ollamani—“itlahuicallo in olli, mayehuatl, nelpiloni, quecehuatl” … “their equipment is the ball, leather gloves, a girdle [wide belt that covered the abdomen] and leather hip guards.”

Why leather gloves? I imagine the olpixqui (ball-catcher) wearing them for some defense purpose that we don’t know. Perhaps stopping the ball from hitting a wall or entering the ring? Perhaps for throwing it back into play once it’s out-of-bounds? Not sure. But likely the rules and positions varied.

I wonder about protection. In addition to the hip guards and belts, there appear to have been knee pads and so forth. Perhaps leather gloves were used to stop the ball from striking unprotected body parts, because there are reports of players DYING when struck in the head. Such mortality was due to the fact that the solid rubber balls measured about six inches in diameter and weighed more than a pound.

By the way, though points accumulated through other feats, putting a ball through the hoop won the game, no matter how poorly a team might be doing. In fact, it was such a once-in-a-blue-moon kind of thing that the player who scored that “goal” literally won ALL THE STUFF that was being bet on the game that day. Everybody else lost.

Hunahpu bounces off his hip while his twin Xbalanque and their mother Lady Blood look on. From my upcoming graphic novel THE HERO TWINS AND THE MAGIC OF SONG, based on part of the Maya codex POPOL VUH. Art by Charlene Bowles.

There was a downside to accomplishing that miracle, however. It was so rare that people would look upon the player in question with suspicion, wondering what sort of things he might have been doing to have such supple, strong hips … ahem.

Nahuatl sources used for this article:
Primeros Memoriales
Florentine Codex,
Book 8.

David Bowles

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. VP of the Texas Institute of Letters.