When first we entered the main plaza of the Mayan ruins at Copan, Honduras, I was immediately attracted to a stone dome. It was a sculpture among others- a stellae (tall carved pillar) and a large turtle sculpture. It was gray volcanic stone, shaped like a slightly flattened sphere, with a depression on the top with two swirling cuts incised from it and curving to the outermost edge of the form. Intrigued, I went to read the sign to learn the significance of such an enigmatic object. It was a sacrificial alter, the depression for the head and the cut curving courses for the blood to flow away. It was for the thrice-yearly sacrifice of the very best ball player. And, we read, it was an honor to be so sacrificed.
We saw the ball court. Smaller here than the famous Mayan ball courts in Chitzen-Itza, and apparently each site had different rules of the game. But here we tried to imagine two teams of five each, in a narrow corridor-shaped court hemmed in by angled stone walls, passing an eight pound raw rubber ball, trying to hit stone carved jaguar heads high above them. Ferocious, it must have been.
My first thought was somewhat irreverent- how do they expect to enhance the sport if they kill off the best athletes? My second thought was more serious; wondering, how would someone put their utmost effort into play, knowing the consequences of excellence?
But as we learned more we-perhaps- understood more. The ball game thrice yearly was a fight between good and evil. The game represented, or perhaps coerced, the natural patterns to continue to play themselves out. For the sun to continue to pass around creating day and night and the years. For the moon to continue its 28 day cycle. For the agricultural cycles to continue- germination, growing, flowering, fruiting, seeding- whether it be corn, peppers, squash, cacao, melons. Wet season, dry; growing season, harvest. What could be more honorable, than to strive to provide this for your people?
I have spoken to ancestors of these people. Mayans are here; driving trucks, teaching college, running businesses, researching medical cures, raising families. They are like you and like me. They once sacrificed athletes on this stone for reasons that were true and powerful to them. It is difficult to understand, but I am closer.