Timeless Ball Games in Belize

One thing that AFAR students and ancient Maya civilizations have in common is their competitive spirit through playing ball games. Though the Maya ball game and soccer differ greatly, there is one common goal — and it is to WIN on the field of play.

On the first Tuesday night after arriving, a group of us went down the hill to a park with soccer fields, basketball courts and volleyball nets, to challenge the local Belizean soccer players. This proved to be quite the challenge, much like defeating the Death Gods of the Underworld.

In a Maya myth from the Popok Vuh, (The book of council; a sacred text of the Quiché Maya) the story of the Hero Twins is told and is a dominant myth in Maya religion. The Maya ball game was thought to disturb the Underworld and the Death Gods who lived there. In the story, it is said that the Death Gods summoned the Hero Twins to the Underworld and after surviving a number of tests, were challenged to a match against the Gods. The boys knew that the Gods intended to kill them if they won, so they let the Gods win. After each game, the Gods continued to test the boys with rooms of blades, ice, and fire so the boys finally beat the Death Gods. The boys were killed as suspected, and the Gods threw their ashes into the river. This was all part of the Hero Twin’s secret plan though, when their ashes became part of the river, the boys came back to life as catfish and were fully restored as the Hero Twins. Since they were reborn, they had God-like powers including the ability to kill things and then make them come back from the dead. The Death Gods were impressed, so they asked the boys to perform the trick on them. The twins were clever, so when they killed the Gods they didn't bring them back to life.


This was our first time going down to the fields. We weren't expecting our competition to be so good so when the game started so when they immediately began scoring goals the only thing we could do about it was to have fun. The stakes were not as high for our game, however, so when they beat us 9-1, we could laugh about it and didn't have to fear eternal doom.

That day, we were not only beat at soccer, but we lost in volleyball matches, basketball games and overall athleticism. People think we are so different from our ancestors and others who came before us, but in reality our human desire to excel at competition was here 4,000 years ago and will continue to shape our world for years to come.  

BelizeSully Young