Explore O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press offerings on Amazon.
Subscribe to the O:JA&L YouTube channel.
Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.

Paul Perilli


Colored drawing of one of the four figures on a Maya cylindrical vase, now in the Dallas Museum of Art

A friend once told me I couldn’t watch a ball bounce twice without wanting to get in a game. He was right. I played everything, and obsessively: baseball, basketball, hockey, softball, golf, volleyball. I bowled, shot archery, and played a lot of pool. I like athletics and games of skill. I like competition. Yet, while traveling in Mexico it was hard to see myself on Chichén Itzá’s Great Ball Court playing pitz, the Mayan version of a game that evolved from similar games dating back as far as the 14th Century BC.

It was hot as a furnace the afternoon I checked out the rectangular plot of dusty, trampled earth that sits diagonally across from Chichén Itzá’s most recognized attraction, the pyramid shaped El Castillo. Considered to be the largest and most famous ball court in all of the ancient Latin American cultures, the Great Ball Court’s main function was to host pitz, a game whose goal was to propel a solid rubber ball through stone rings set six meters up the sloping walls on either side of the court. The size of the teams varied. Five to six and a captain may have been the number of players at Chichén Itzá, all wearing the specialized gear of the day: loincloth, leather pads strapped around torsos, knees, and arms, sandals tied to calves and ankles, personalized animal headdresses.

The ball weighed from one to two kilos and was hit with the shoulders, legs, chest, and hips, but not with the head, hands, or feet. It had to be continuously kept in the air and in bounds. Standing under the rings, twenty feet over my head, it seemed impossible for a human to be able to propel a two to four pound object that high without using their hands. I would later learn points were scored when the opposing team made an error, such as when a player let it hit the ground or knocked it out of bounds. The first team to reach a certain number of points won (nine with a difference of at least two points is one number I read). A ball put through a ring resulted in an immediate victory, which, it turned out, was rare.

As pitz progressed over time the games were used to settle political, social, and personal disputes. The stakes came to include human sacrifice. In fact, scenes showing players holding decapitated heads are depicted in the decorative relief panels on the court’s walls. One view has it the captain of the winning team was the victim and that it was an honor, the logic being the Mayans were sending the best of the best to the gods. Another interpretation suggests it was the captain of the losing side. Whichever it was, decapitation is associated with the game and falls in line with the Mayan mindset of sacrificing people as a blood offering to the gods, thought to be a potent source of nourishment for them. It’s a detail that makes the bluster surrounding the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry seem rather benign.

Had I lived back then I’m certain I would have been attracted to pitz. Apparently, it was the only sport in town. But in this time and place I prefer to play pickup basketball on my local court, a game I know I’ll be going home at the end of with my head still attached to my body.


About the writer:
Paul Perilli lives in Brooklyn, New York. His latest work has appeared in The Transnational, Numero Cinq, Thema, Overland (False Documents issue contest selection), Aethlon, Jerry Jazz Musician (contest winner), and many other places. His recent fiction appears in The Write Launch, Zin Daily, Fairlight Books, and The Fictional Cafe. He also has essays forthcoming in Rabble Review and Adelaide Literary Magazine, and fiction in Otoliths.

Image: Colored drawing of one of the four figures on a Maya cylindrical vase, now in the Dallas Museum of Art.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.