Captains of the Team

Stephen Houston (Brown University) and David Stuart (University of Texas, Austin)


Sporting events are much in mind these days, as we watch the end of the Tokyo Olympics. There is exhaustive training that leads to heartbreak or a medal and coveted position on the podium. But it is the team events that crowd with social drama, including athletes who languish on the bench and others, the captains, who toss the coin, lead the charge, and argue with referees. Not surprisingly — there is much money and prestige involved — scholars of sports give occasional thought to who might be chosen captain. The tasks are heavy, and selection cannot be undertaken lightly (Cotterill and Cheetham 2016), yet bonds of affection and kinship, a mistaken evaluation of someone for leadership, tend to operate more often than not (Fransen et al. 2019). The wrong person is put in charge, bungles things, and is kept there only by social pressures. Yet prowess comes into play as well. Leadership might be bestowed, as in soccer, on stars who manage better than others to dribble around opponents and land a shot, or, in the sports that involve horses, bring a team of them past the finish mark. Many dead Romans are forgotten, but not so Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who, in the early 2nd century AD, raced his chariot to many victories and a fortune greater than that of many Roman senators (Bell 2014:498; Struck 2010). A cunning and aggressive competitor, Diocles might lead from the beginning of the race (occupavit et vicit), dart around in the final moments (eripuit et vicit) or accelerate from far behind to swift victory (successit et vicit; Devitt 2019:186 fn.488).

For Maya ballplay, there is growing awareness of how big rubber balls might be — very big, as pointed out by Michael Coe (2003) — and the various acts by which they were thrown, yahlaj or possibly tz’ohnaj(?) being two such motions (see Beliaev and Houston 2020:fn.1; Stuart 1997; for an alternative reading of the second as jatz’naj, see Taube and Zender 2009:202–203, fig. 7.24; Zender 2004). There may even be an expression for the kneeling that takes place when a player is about to strike a ball, as on the Colonia La Esperanza marker from Chiapas, Mexico (Figure 1, Kowalski 1989:22fn.1). The text reads u-BAAH ta-OCH-K’AHK’ ta-ke-hi-na?, u baah ta ochk’ahk’ ta kehiin?, “his image/body in [the act] of fire-entering, in [the act] of… That final element recalls colonial Tzoztil, kejan ba, “bow, kneel” and kejel, “to be kneeling,” along with kehi, “kneel,” kehleh, “kneeling,” and kehuh, “genuflect” in present-day Tzotzil (Laughlin 1975:171; 1988, I:22); for its part, Tzetal has kejaj, “kneel,” and kejel, “kneeling” (Berlin and Kaufman 1997:35). The ballplayer is both dedicating the marker (or its court[?]) through the ritual of och-k’ahk’, “fire-entering” (Stuart 1998:387–389), and referring to the kneeling shown on the stone.

Figure 1 Colonia La Esperanza Ballcourt Marker (right, cropped photograph by Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons; close-up, lower center, photograph by Stephen Houston).

An important essay by Karl Taube and Marc Zender (2009) details the many acts of violence that took place in Maya ballcourts. An equally useful essay by Christophe Helmke and colleagues (2018) studies the equipment for the game. As scholars have long noted, a divide appears to exist in such gear. To one side are perishable originals, including the apparent “yoke” (yugo) or hip-protector found by chance as a cavity left by decay in the fine matrix of Burial 195 — this was the probable tomb of “Animal Skull” (K’inich Wawa’n[?] Ahk Bahlam) at Tikal, Guatemala (Guillemin 1968; Moholy-Nagy, with Coe 2008:66, fig. 231b, #12U-106/27; its plaster and gesso would lighten weight but presumably also flake and crack under vigorous use). Then there are the skeuomorphs, the imperishable versions in stone of which several have been found at Maya sites (Cruz Romero 2012; Shook and Marquis 1996:27–59). The “yuguitos” or “small yugos,” for example, appear to reproduce the knee pads worn by players while kneeling. If used, however, they would quite smash, in patellar agony, the body part they were supposed to protect (Helmke et al. 2018:12–13, fig. 6). There is a proposal that stones were worn but in slower ritual movement, in evocations of actual ballplay but without its actual, herky-jerky violence (for debates on wearability, see Alegría 1951:349; Clune 1963; Ekholm 1946, 1961). Gordon Ekholm notes that, despite their 18 to 27 kilo weight, many yokes might be worn around the hips provided the user were “not an exceptionally large person and still retains a certain athletic slimness… [of] non-civilized peoples” (Ekholm 1946:596). The most fetching illustration of this comes from an article by Stephan De Borhegyi, which shows a suitably slim man and woman — the author and his wife, Suzanne? — decked out in such gear (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Stone yokes and manopolas (saps) in use, in photographs from 1948 (a) and 1959 (b); equipment from El Baúl, Guatemala (De Borhegyi 1964:fig. 1).

Looking at all ballgear is beyond the reach of a blog. But a glyphically embellished find from the site of Bolonk’in, not far from Chilón, Chiapas, raises the question of what to call the yoke (Figure 3, Shesheña and Lee Whiting 2004; the image, although missing a few glyphs, such as a 7 Imix day sign, is beautifully redrawn in Helmke et al. 2018:fig. 5). The shell glyphs on the yoke were inlaid (Shesheña and Lee Whiting 2004:fig. 1) and leave little doubt, as others have explained, that this is a name-tagged object belonging to the subordinate of a ruler of Tonina, Mexico (Helmke et al. 2018:11–12). The key element is the first glyph block in the text below. On the basis of a recent decipherment, it must read u-ya’-tuun, not u-tun-‘a or some other possibility (see Grube 2020:fig. 7). A proposal by Stuart, YA’ or ya’, is securely tied to concepts of “pain” in some readings, and this meaning seems valid in many contexts (Beliaev and Houston 2020; see also Grube 2020). But Maya glyphs also employ homophones. That principle of substitution may operate here.

Figure 3. Text of shells on a yugo reputed to be from Bolonk’in, Chiapas, Mexico; u-[YA’]- ‘a-TUUN-ni ya-ja-K’UH-na ya-AJAW-TE’ pi-tzi-la K’INICH-CHAPAAT-BAAKNAL-CHAHK (drawing by Christopher Helmke [Helmke et al. 2018:fig. 5).

A perusal of Mayan dictionaries reveals an entry of *jol ya’ for “cadera” or hip in Ch’ol (Aulie and Aulie 1998:121; see also b’äkel ya’ “cadera” in Hopkins et al. 2010:15). The use of “head” (jol) to preface body parts, or rather, parts of body parts, occurs in Ch’orti’ as well: jor-b’aker, “hip,” and jor-pik, “waistband area of a skirt” (Hull 2016:178). The term ya’ for “hip” is probably also documented as ‘o’il, “hip” in Tzotzil, a language with well-attested variance between /a/ and /o/ phonemes (Laughlin 1975:452), and in Ch’ol terms for “thigh,” i ya’ (Warkentin and Scott 1980:116), and a,”muscle/thigh” in Ch’olti’ (Robertson et al. 2010:331). Thus, the term on the yoke is not “pain” but “hip”—indeed, a “hip-stone,” as shown in De Borhegyi’s playful image.

The reading opens many possibilities. An issue with reading ya’ as “pain” is that objects were clearly involved in a number of texts. There were things taken or received, ch’am, or, in one instance, name-tagged to a long-decayed backing (Beliaev and Houston 2020:figs. 4c, d). The exquisite shells from Piedras Negras offer a test-case of this. Found by Héctor Escobedo in the first days of a multi-year project with Houston, these proved eventually to come from the tomb of a ruler at the city, Itzam K’an Ahk, a.k.a. “Ruler 4” in the ordering of Tatiana Proskouriakoff (Figure 4, Escobedo 2004:279). Further study of these shells led to the realization that they mentioned Yopaat Bahlam, the “missing” king of Yaxchilan who was recorded on Panel 3 at Piedras Negras (Martin and Grube 2008:149; Martin 2020:134). The date in the first glyph is likely, Jan. 3, AD 747, one of the few calendrical records for a lord otherwise erased from Yaxchilan’s official history. But it is the name tag that is relevant here, for it displays ya’ with its prefixed (and purely iconic) obsidian blade, along with a subfixed ‘a to reinforce the reading.

Figure 4. Shells from Burial 13, Structure O-13, Piedras Negras; glyph to lower right from Panel 3:J2 (drawings by Stephen Houston, photograph from the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archive, use courtesy of Jeremy Sabloff).

In the same tomb is the mosaic, also in Spondylus shell, of a ballplayer pieced together by Zac Hruby, the lithicist for the Piedras Negras Project (Figure 5). It seems plausible that the glyphs pertain to this image, and that the shells once fitted either into a perished tableau of ballplaying or, as seen enduringly in the Bolonk’in piece, a long-disappeared yoke. The ya’ simply referred to “hip” but also to the “yoke” that simulated and protected this body part. (In English, by a similar convention,”girdle” refers to the pelvis but also to an item of clothing encircling the waist.) Yopaat Bahlam came to visit Piedras Negras — did he also play there or provide a piece of ballgame gear to the local king? Or was it won as a trophy in play? It was certainly valued enough to be included in his host’s tomb.

Figure 5. Mosaic ballplayer in Spondylus shell, Burial 13, Piedras Negras, along with relevant glyphs, T’AB[yi]-YA’-‘a (photograph to left, Jorge Pérez de Lara, to right, Kenneth Garrett).

Dos Pilas, Guatemala, also has ya’ spellings that cue a concrete, portable object and affirm a link to ballplay (Figure 6). The earliest known monumental inscription at the city, Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Center, refers to a ch’am “take, receive” event with a probable yoke at 4 Muluk 2 Mak, Oct. 29, AD 643. At this juncture, the local Lord, Balaj Chan K’awiil, was 18 years old and, a few years before, at, had been involved in some bloody event, perhaps ‘i-LOK'[yi] ti-ta-ji, taaj being a well-known term for “obsidian.” That is, he was surely mature enough for rough activity. The text referring to the yoke is partly eroded, but the reference is followed by a title string associated with “ballplay,” ba-TE’ pi-tzi (cf. Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 4, Step IV:K1–L1). This is unlikely to be a coincidence. The other allusion to “receiving/taking a yoke” appears on Dos Pilas Hieroglyphic Stairway 1. Although an unfinished text, especially its upper riser (which may date later), the stairway adjoins this reference to a scene of ballplayers in full gear. They are evidently in some ritual in which gear is being broken out or balls unwrapped.[1] As at Piedras Negras, the juxtaposition of text and image is unlikely to have arisen by chance.

Figure 6 . Ya’ as “yoke” on two texts from Dos Pilas, one with ballplayer title (bate’ pitz), the other with ballplayer scene (top image, PARI; bottom, drawing by Stephen Houston, image from PARI).

In sum, there is evidence that YA’ functioned as a homophonic sign. In a few examples it also occurs as a title, usually of subordinate lords, even princes at court. YA’ is prefixed by BAAH or ba, doubtless for baah, “head, first.” Similar constructions occur in Maya texts, where that prefix creates a title by attaching itself to the name of an object, a flint (took’), shield (pakal), staff (te’) or throne (tz’am, Houston 2014:27–28, fig. 17). The title implies habitual service; the adjective “head” or “first” denotes salience in those duties. They apply to people in principal charge of — or most skilled at — the care or use of an object at dynastic courts. Examples in Figure 7 attest to a similar pattern with yokes. Young princes of royal houses appear to be the “Head Yoke” or “Head [Person of the] Yoke.”[2] The ballcourt ring from Oxkintok refers to the local ruler in the company of “youths” (ch’oktaak) and may then give two names in succession, concluding with baah (or ba) ya’, the “head yoke” or “head person of the yoke. The very setting points to an overt association with ballplay. The other examples hint that they too were given distinction in this sport. Perhaps the Baah Ya’ were victorious athletes or, as leaders, “captains of the team.”


Figure 7. “Head Yoke” as a title of princes and subordinates: Oxkintok Ballcourt Ring (left, position pZ1, García-Gallo 1992:fig. 2); Yaxchilan-area panel (upper right, photograph by Stephen Houston); and carver or owner’s tag on stone mace (photography courtesy of Justin Kerr [for shape of artifact, see Robicsek and Hales 1981:fig. 38).

[1] Dressing scenes in Maya imagery tend to be anticipatory, not about packing up afterwards; see Bonampak Room 1 and K2695, in which royalty is being prepared for dance.

[2] Marc Zender (personal communication from 2018) wonders whether there might be an implicit agentive ‘a or aj in such spellings. That is a real possibility, as hinted at in Figure 7, BAAH-‘a~AJ[YA’] by one reading. But it would not shift the general meaning here.



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