A Game of Life and Death

Andreas Luh finds it fascinating how pre-modern cultures defined performance and
Andreas Luh finds it fascinating how pre-modern cultures defined performance and practiced exercise culture. But he also has a soft spot for modern sport. ’There are two hearts beating in my chest. I’m also a regular at soccer matches,’ he says. © Damian Gorczany
The Maya did not strive for individual glory. They achieved top sporting performances primarily to avert the wrath of the gods and the downfall of their culture. The price they paid was often their own life.

The modern idea of competitive sport gained traction with the advent of industrialization. Still, pre-modern cultures did achieve top sporting performance, too. They often did so in the interests of the common good, however, not in order to stand out from the crowd as an individual. A ball game was at the center of life in the Mayan civilization of the Stone Age, for example. It decided wars, the fertility of the fields - and, according to Mayan beliefs, even the continued existence of the world. It often ended in bloodshed, as sports historian Professor Andreas Luh from Ruhr University Bochum, Germany, illustrates. He researches exercise practices in pre-modern cultures and talks about them in Rubin, the science magazine published by Ruhr University Bochum.

Ball game of the Maya - a divine ritual

The Maya lived under harsh geographical and climatic conditions, suffering from floods, droughts, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. They believed that their world was destroyed and recreated at cyclical intervals, and they worshipped hundreds of gods. "A veritable mania for sacrifice prevailed in order to ensure that the world would be reborn. Their exercise culture was also geared towards this idea," says Andreas Luh. "Ultimately, for the Maya, damaging the body for the gods to the point of self-sacrifice in order to sustain the community was the ultimate sporting achievement, so to speak."

A bloody fate awaits the captain

Wall paintings and frescoes show that the Maya practiced an acrobatic ball game in which a ball weighing two to four kilograms represented the sun. To make sure that the earth didn’t suffer, the ball had to be constantly in motion, but could neither be thrown nor shot. Two teams competed against each other; in times of need, the winner or the loser could even be sacrificed at the end of the game. "The captain’s heart was cut out with a knife," explains Andreas Luh. The Maya also used this ball game to determine the start of a war or the time for sowing.

"Some elements of the Mayan culture are disturbing to us," points out Andreas Luh. "But I also find some things fascinating, such as the fact that they didn’t strive for individual glory." The same applied to the ancient Egyptians. Andreas Luh has authored an anthology on the concept of achievement among the Maya, Egyptian pharaohs, Japanese sumo wrestlers and priests in the early Middle Ages, which was published in 2023.

You can find an interview with Andreas Luh in the science magazine Rubin, the "In Motion" edition.

Andreas Luh: Sportliche ’Leistung’ in kulturhistorischer Perspektive, - die Alten Ägypter, das christliche Denken im frühen Mittelalter, die Maya und die japanischen Sumotori, in: David Wiesche, Norbert Gissel (Herausgeber), Leistung aus sportpädagogischer Perspektive, Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2023, S. 71’106 , ISBN: 9783658412326