Not on view
Portable sculptures like this one from Classic-period Veracruz replicate in stone the yokes, hachas, and palmas, presumably made of perishable materials, worn by players of the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame. This hacha depicts the head of a ballplayer or warrior wearing a type of jaguar helmet shown elsewhere in Mesoamerica as part of an elite warrior’s full-body jaguar costume. The image, with the lower lip of the wearer concealed and the tongue of the jaguar protruding, blurs the distinction between the two, and can be read as a conflation of man and jaguar, a human appropriation of the power of the beast.
Hachas take their name from the ax-like shape of many of these portable sculptures (“hacha” is Spanish for “ax”), although their form and imagery vary widely (see MMA 1978.412.151). Those more rounded in shape most often depict human or animal heads. An interesting variation is an hacha in the form of a pair of bound hands in the museum’s collection (see MMA 1979.206.1042).
The ballgame was played both for sport and as sacred ritual throughout Mesoamerica, as evidenced by the remains of physical ballcourts, stone versions of ballplayer regalia such as this one, and painted and sculpted images of both players and the game. Narrative ballgame scenes from West Mexico and the Maya area show players returning the ball by striking it with their hips or chest. The weight and density of the solid rubber ball could easily break a bone or damage internal organs, making protective gear essential. To this end, Maya players wore chest protectors of cloth and padding. However, the vast majority of stone sculptures of ballgame gear come from Veracruz, where players are depicted with their hips protected by solid yokes, usually topped by palmas or hachas which may have provided the player’s rib cage additional protection. There is a deep notch cut into the back of this hacha just beneath the jaguar’s ears, allowing it to sit on the top surface of the yoke (see MMA 1978.412.5). Ceramic vessels from the Esquintla region of Guatemala show ballplayers wearing similar hachas attached to their protective yokes, as do the figures incised on a vessel in the museum’s collection (see MMA 1970.138.a,b).
It is unlikely that stone versions of any of this gear could have been worn while playing a game that required players to move quickly around the court, sometimes sliding to the ground to return the ball. There is no obvious way to securely attach the hacha or palma to the yoke, or the yoke to the player’s torso, and their weight would have made them more an awkward hindrance than a successful form of protection. They may have been worn only during the cycle of rituals surrounding the game, or not worn at all, but awarded as trophies to be displayed. Hacha imagery such as bound hands and disembodied heads may refer to the type of post-game decapitation ceremony depicted in the relief sculpture of El Tajín and other sites in Veracruz.
This hacha’s naturalistic rendering of tightly-fitting headgear in the form of an animal head is nothing like the towering feather headdresses worn by ballplayers and ritual participants in Maya and Classic Veracruz art. Such elaborate headdresses, like stone hachas, palmas, and yokes, could not have remained in place while playing the game. They more likely were worn as a sign of the elite wearer’s control over the game and its attendant rituals, while during the game the players themselves wore headgear similar to that shown here for protection and identification.
It is easy to understand the Mesoamerican association of the jaguar with power, both military and political. As the largest cats in the Americas, with a top speed of 50mph, jaguars are fierce predators, their bite so powerful it can pierce the skull of its prey to kill it instantly. At the royal courts of the Classic Maya, only rulers wore jaguar pelts or sat on jaguar thrones. Jaguar warriors formed the most elite military class among the Aztecs and Aztec tribute lists included jaguar pelts and full jaguar costumes. As illustrated in the Codex Mendoza, these costumes included headgear exactly like that shown in this hacha.
The association between the ballgame, warfare, and sacrifice is illustrated in the relief panels of El Tajín’s South Ballcourt. There, the cycle of ballgame-related rituals is depicted on the walls of the field where the game itself was played. In one, an elite figure is outfitted for battle, in another, musicians accompany a priest in eagle costume as he dances over a reclining figure. In what may be the final event in the earthly cycle, two figures wearing ballgame gear are shown beheading a third, similarly dressed, on a ballcourt. The two central panels take place in the underworld, where the ballgame ritual cycle is rewarded by the favor of the gods.
The conquest of an opposing team, like victory in warfare, resulted in the taking of captives and human sacrifice. The ballgame may in fact have functioned as a political tool and a substitute for warfare as a way of consolidating and expanding territory and tribute (Stern 1949). This hacha, a sculpture depicting an item of ballgame equipment in the form of a figure wearing the jaguar helmet of a warrior, claims for the game the status of warfare, and for the player, as for the warrior, the fierceness and power of the jaguar.
Patricia J. Sarro, Professor Emerita, Youngstown State University, 2018
Resources and Additional Reading
Benson, Elizabeth P. “The Lord, The Ruler, Jaguar Symbolism in the Americas,” in Icons of Power, Feline Symbolism in the Americas, Nicholas J. Saunders, ed., pp. 53-76. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
Berdan, Frances F. and Patricia Rieff Anawalt. The Essential Codex Mendoza. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997.
Goldstein, Marilyn M. Ceremonial Sculpture of Ancient Veracruz. New York: Long Island University, 1987.
Koontz, Rex. Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents: The Public Sculpture of El Tajín. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
Leyenaar, Ted J.J. Ulama, Jeu de Balle des Olmeques aux Azteques - Ballgame, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs. Lausanne: Musée Olympique, 1997.
Santley, Robert S., Michael J. Berman, and Rani T. Alexander. “The Politicization of the Mesoamerican Ballgame and Its Implications for the Interpretation of the Distribution of Ballcourts in Central America,” in The Mesoamerican Ballgame, Vernon L. Scarborough and David R. Wilcox, eds, pp. 3-24. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1991.
Scott, John F. “Dressed to Kill: Stone Regalia of the Mesoamerican Ballgame,” in The Sport of Life and Death, The Mesoamerican Ballgame, E. Michael Whittington, ed, pp. 50-63. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.
Shook, Edwin M. and Elayne Marquis. Secrets in Stone: Yokes, Hachas and Palmas from Southern Mesoamerica. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1996.
Stern, Theodore. The Rubber-Ball Game of the Americas, Monographs of the American Ethnological Society no.17. New York: J. J. Augustin, 1949.
Von Winning, Hasso and Nelly Gutiérrez Solana. La iconographía de la cerámica de Río Blanco, Veracruz. Mexico City: UNAM Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 1996.
Wilkerson, S. Jeffrey K. “And Then They Were Sacrificed: The Ritual Ballgame of Northern Mesoamerica Through Time and Space, “ in The Mesoamerican Ballgame, Vernon L. Scarborough and David R. Wilcox, eds, pp. 45-72. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1991.