El Tajin: the South Ballcourt

Sculpture at the South Ballcourt
Sculpture at the South Ballcourt. Photo by Christopher Minster

From about 800 to 1200 A.D., the mighty city of El Tajin dominated the Gulf region in present-day Mexico. The people of El Tajin, (the name very roughly translates to "City of Storms") were great sculptors, warriors and builders, and they were also devoted players of the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame; to date, seventeen ballcourts have been found at El Tajin. The most glorious of these is the South Ballcourt, located in the older ceremonial center of the great city. This ballcourt is adorned with intricately carved relief sculptures showing fascinating scenes of life and death in the City of Storms.

The Ballgame at El Tajin

The ballgame was obviously of paramount importance at El Tajin. In addition to the seventeen ballcourts, there are numerous depictions in Tajín art of scenes of the ballgames and subsequent sacrifices. There appears to have been regional rules in effect at El Tajín: in other cities, players used stone hoops as goals, but none have been found at El Tajín, prompting archaeologists to speculate that the corners of the courts were somehow used. In some of the art related to the ballgame, players wear a heavy glove on one hand: this may have been used to hit the ball, a 'rule' which has yet to be discovered anywhere but El Tajín.

The South Ballcourt at El Tajín

The South Ballcourt, sixty meters long by ten meters wide and with large open spaces at either end, is located in the heart of the ceremonial heart of El Tajin, just around the corner from the iconic Pyramid of the Niches. Several signs point at the South Ballcourt as being the most important one at the site. Besides its privileged location, there are also several beautiful, intricate bas-relief sculptures decorating the walls of the court. In addition, when the site was excavated, hundreds of ceramic figurines representing men with large noses and phalluses were unearthed there. Most of these were broken in half, as if the figurines were somehow "sacrificed" in the same manner as some of the ballplayers.

The Sculptures of the South Ballcourt

The magnificent scenes carved in the walls of the South Ballcourt constitute some of the most important "texts" that historians have from the mysterious lords of El Tajín. There are six sculptures here, all of them carved into massive blocks which were already in place when carving began (making removing the scenes from the ballcourt impossible).

The Central Sculptures

The two central sculptures depict mythic scenes and are framed with a series of decorative panels. Atop each of the sculptures is a leering god with one head, facing the viewer, and two bodies reclining off to each side. Both scenes show a small structure of some sort with water inside of it. In the south-central sculpture, a man with the head of a fish is coming out of the water, accepting a fluid of some sort (which might be urine, semen or blood) from the member of a male figure seated on the small building. In the north-central sculpture, one figure is lying on his back, tied up. Standing over him are three figures, the central one of which is skeletal and appears to be coming out of a pot. The figure on the left is pointing his finger at the tied man. Another richly dressed figure is seated atop the small structure.

The Corner Sculptures

The four corner sculptures of the South Ballcourt show scenes  related to the ballgame itself. Like the central images, these are framed with ornate, intertwining elements. Each of the four corner sculptures includes a depiction of the God of Death, seemingly watching over the ballgame rituals. Archaeologists speculate that the four images are meant to be seen in a certain order, which shows the ritual of the ballgame. The order is southeast, northwest, southwest, northeast.

The southeast sculpture shows three figures: only the central one is standing. The one on the left is sitting low, with is feet down into the decorative "frame" of the sculpture: he holds three spears. The northwest sculpture features four figures in addition to the usual God of Death. The one on the far right is humanoid with a dog's head: this could be the God Xolotl, brother of Quetzalcoatl and patron of the ballgame. The two in the middle are richly dressed as ballplayers and appear to be speaking to one another. Between them, on the ground, is a ball and two entwined severed human arms. On the left side, a spectator sits on a building.

The southwest tableau shows five figures. The ones on the outside are carrying percussion instruments. In the center of the image, a monstrous bird-man sits atop a sacrificed man. Above, a figure flies, only his arms and legs visible. The rest of the body is made of the spirals seen in other areas of El Tajín: this figure likely represents a deity. The final, northeastern sculpture is probably the most famous one: in it, one figure holds a sacrifice down while another one cuts his throat. A fourth man looks on. A god-like figure, his legs askew, comes down from the skies to accept the sacrifice.

Importance of the South Ballcourt at El Tajín

If the people of El Tajin made codices like some of their contemporary cultures did, none have survived. Thus, any sort of "text" which can give us clues about life at El Tajín are precious. The sculptures at the South Ballcourt are among the most significant relics which survive from this lost culture because they offer some insight into the symbolic importance of the ballgame at this important site.