Mesoamerica and the Mayan Ball Game

Mesoamerica is home to a collection of people known as the Mayans. They primarily live in the southern regions of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras at the moment. The Mayan ball pastime is well-known among historians. Soccer and this game are comparable. It was a spiritual exercise. The victors would be hailed as heroic figures. For the winners, a lavish feast was actually made. The losers, on the other side, would be put to death. They were considered offerings to the spirits. The Mayans thought that by killing the losers and offering them to the gods, the gods would grant them abundant rain, victory in battle, and other blessings. Of Cannibals is one of the essays written by Michael de Montaigne (De Montaigne 371) about native people of Brazil. He gets the information about these people from a guy he had been living with. In this essay, I will look at how Montaigne would have reacted to the Mayan ball killing game. In particular, I will use skeptical analysis and cultural relativism as that was what Montaigne was famed for. Additionally, I will use the examples contained in the Of Cannibals to try to show the cultural relativism.

Montaigne's Perspective on Cultural Practices

By the time of his writing of the essay, no one had been to the new word, and thus he entirely relied on what the guy he had been living with told him. This unending belief on what the fellow says is attributed to the fact that Montaigne sees the guy as not intelligent. According to Montaigne, the fellow is not the one to add or remove some sections of a story to justify a point (De Montaigne, 369). Montaigne examines the cultural and behavioral practices of these people. Most of their practices are strange. Having made his name due to his skepticism and relativism, Montaigne is not quick to judge these people. In fact, he goes on comparing the behaviors of the people to those of Europeans in the 16th century (Celestin 298). Also, he employs the use of his own past experiences and materials he has read before in analyzing the behavior of these people. The Mayans and the Brazil natives, in this case, have similarity. Both groups embrace the killing of their opponents. In the scenario of the Mayan, the ball game has two candidates, whereby in the end the loser is always killed. For the Brazil people, they kill their enemies and carry the dead bodies to their homes (De Montaigne 370). Eventually, they eat the carcass. Having shown the above similarity, then it is logical to say that Montaigne would have reacted to the Mayan ball game similarly as he did towards the Brazil people. This is demonstrated in the following cases in this essay.

Questioning Common Perceptions

In the essay Of Cannibals, Montaigne begins by mentioning King Phryuss invasion of Italy (De Montaigne 372). The Romans having observed the order and size of King Phyrus army set out to meet him. On seeing the Roman military, King Phyruss wonders what kind of barbarians are the Romans. The Greeks used to call other nations barbarians. He observes that the Roman army, in particular, is organized and has no element of barbarism whatsoever in it. Following this incident, Montaigne suggests that we ought to judge from the eye of reason and not from the typical report. In the eyes of the Europeans, the act of killing a loser is seen as harsh and unjust. However, this is not necessarily the case. Since according to Montaigne there is no arbitrary level of truth or reasoning. What we deem accurate is influenced by the ideas of our places of origin. Thus in no way does the Mayan ball game symbolize any form of barbarous activity. It only seems harsh and unjust because we are not accustomed to it. That is the beauty of nature.

Examining Cultural Practices

Secondly, in the case of Cannibals two things guided their moral ethics: their courage and respect by their wives. This is what drove them to war. It is little doubt that Valor in men cuts across most cultures. Men are to be the leaders of their families (Celestin 310). They have an inherent strength. In this scenario, Montaigne would have wanted to know, could it also be that the Mayan ballgame was characterized by bravery and strength? The Mayan ball game was a competitive sport, and it is little doubt that it required courage. Evidently then the game was a test of one's character, just like in the case of wrestling where one may injure or kill his opponent. Again, it is imperative to refer to the fact that among the Cannibals, one's wife was the one to search for other co-wives. The wife believed that the man would boost having many wives his bravery and confidence. The fact that in most European cultures, polygamy was loathed and the Cannibals did not loathe it highlights cultural differences that exist. Montaigne, in this case, would have tried to allude to the disparities that exist in different cultures. Just because the killing of an opponent in a Mayan ball game is harsh or unjust, that does not make it immoral. Morality is relative and depends on one's place of origin. Again, Montaigne would want to allude to the fact that, since the ceremony was done in the presence of religious priests it was right (De Montaigne 374). Divination comes from God. In fact, among the Scythians when the diviners failed in their prophecies, they were killed. The religious leaders allowing the killing of the loser in the ballgame, suggests that the murder of the losers was morally right among the Mayans. It would seem unjust, but as earlier noted, there exist cultural disparities.

Questioning the Origins and Meaning

Last but not least, we cannot tell if the Mayan ballgame was their original tradition. In the Of Cannibals, the Brazilians were not used to the killing and feeding of their enemies until when they saw Portuguese do it. Similarly, in the case of Mayan, Montaigne would want to question the origin of the sport (Celestin 313). Was it a case of imitation? We may be castigating them by that ball game when in reality the game was borrowed from the Europeans. Against Montaigne notes that one is not defeated until he submits and accepts he has been beaten. Therefore, in the case of the Mayan Montaigne would want to question if the act of killing the opponent in the ball game was meant to coerce submission from the loser.


In conclusion, through skeptical analysis and Cultural relativism, I have shown how Montaigne would have responded to the Mayan ball game. As shown in the paper Montaigne would question the behaviors of the Mayans' and compare it with some other culture. In this case, the comparison has been made to the cannibals and a small extent to the Europeans. This is because Montaigne was not the person to quickly believe any story told, he would question it extensively.


Celestin, Roger. "Montaigne and the Cannibals: Toward a Redefinition of Exoticism." Cultural Anthropology, vol. 5, no. 3, 1990, pp. 292-313.

De Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays. Kathartika, 2017, pp. 368-374.

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