The ball game was widely played throughout Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, and the American Southwest. Sometimes it was played for fun, as a competitive entertainment accompanied by gambling. In other cases, it served as an institutionalized elite ritual. The game then became a reenactment of warfare, a metaphor for the movement of heavenly bodies, and a justification for rulership. To the Maya, it was a metaphor of life, death, and regeneration, as mythical heroes and gods perished and were reborn while playing the ball game in the Underworld.
Players of the ball game used yokes to protect their waists from the impact produced by solid rubber balls. Yokes used during play were probably made of wood, leather, or cotton padding. Stone yokes were too cumbersome to be worn and probably had a ceremonial use. Only a few have been excavated archaeologically from tombs, where they were deposited as funerary offerings. Early Veracruz stone yokes had closed ends different from the open U shape of this later one, and they tended to be undecorated. Many were later recarved, sometimes with elaborate iconography.
This ceremonial yoke is carved with thirteen carefully polished bulbous projections, perhaps mimicking the bulge of the padding in a functional yoke. This number may be significant, as the Maya creation story recounted in the Popol Vuh identifies thirteen lords of the Underworld. The carved sections can also recall the external surface of a squash. Squash is native to the Americas, and in the Popol Vuh, it is associated with the ball game and decapitation. The father of the Hero Twins is said to have lost a game against the Death Gods. They hung his head from a calabash tree as a warning to others not to challenge or offend them. The Hero Twins themselves played ball against the Death Gods, who decapitated one of them and continued playing the ball game with his head. His twin recovered the head, replacing it with a squash carved to look like it. The trick was not discovered by the Gods until the squash smashed on the stone walls of the ball court.
Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 19, cat. 89.
Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Published by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 204-205.
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, September 1960 to April 1962.
Purchased from John A. Stokes Jr., New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1960.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1960-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.