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Secret Base Hall of Fame: Hunahpú & Xbalanqué

For the legendary Twins, ball was life ... or death

Pelote Ball Hoop and Court at Chichen Itza Photo by Independent Picture Service/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Hunahpú and Xbalanqué are the Maya Hero Twins. Born to Xquic after a tree bearing the head of their dead father, Hun-Hunahpú, drooled on her hand, the Twins lived their early life under the watchful eyes of their grandmother and their elder half-brothers, who were mostly interested in making them go away. Circumventing various plots on their lives, the Twins survived, thrived, and turned their elder brothers into monkeys. You know, normal, heroic stuff.

Then, with the help of a rat, they found their father’s ball gear.

Hun-Hunahpú and his brother, Vucub-Hunahpú, were avid players of the Mesoamerican ballgame, which is why they were killed, and how Hun-Hunahpú wound up with his decapitated head in a tree, impregnating wandering maidens with his spittle. You see, the brothers were so loud while playing that they managed to rile up the gods of the underworld (Xibalba) with all their noise. Said gods summoned them to the underworld and ... you already know this went badly for those two, what with the tree and all, which is all you really need to.

After the Twins found their father’s gear, they became ballgame enthusiasts as well, playing long and loud and oh no, look who they’ve pissed off:

And the Lords of Xibalba, hearing them, said: “Who are they who play again over our heads and disturb us with the noise they make? Perchance Hun-Hunahpú and Vucub-Hunahpú did not die, those who wished to exalt themselves before us? Go at once and [summon them to the underworld to play against us.]”

Their grandmother, who’d warmed to the boys after they’d turned her other grandsons into monkeys (the monkeys were hilarious, so it’s ok), attempted to avert their fate by entrusting the summons to a nearby louse, who managed to get the message to the Twins anyway, via toad, snake and hawk. And so Hunahpú and Xbalanqué set off to face the trials that had taken the lives of their father and uncle.

Their predecessors had somehow failed pretty much every tests the Lords of Xibalba set for them, from burning their asses on a hot stone bench to getting thoroughly owned by the House of Gloom, which is also my new band name. Xibalbu’s trial houses are worth an aside so here’s an incomplete list:

  • The House of Gloom, Quequem-ha, which is very dark.
  • The House of Cold, Xuxulim-ha, which is icy-cold and windy.
  • The House of Fire, which contains only fire, and appears in the text without its full name.
  • The House of Jaguars, Balimi-ha, which is full of jaguars, presumably as a non-trivial problem in three-dimensional geometric packing.
  • The House of Knives, Chayim-há, which contains a lot of animated knives, grinding and slashing and
  • The House of Mirth, Há-há, no, just kidding, but shoutout to Edith Wharton’s best novel.
  • The House of Bats, Zotzi-há, in which there are some bats.

Visitors to the underworld have to spend their nights in one of these houses. Fun!

It’s important to remember that the bad folks of Xibalba, who enjoy murdering random athletes for the crime of enjoying themselves somewhere up on Earth, do not play fair. Having navigated the initial trials set for them (i.e. not burning their asses on a hot stone like their CHUMP DAD), and spending a night untroubled in the House of Gloom, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué were beginning play in the first match when they noticed that their opponents were getting ready to sacrifice them* mid-game. This was considered rude.

*In other versions of the text, the Lords of Xibalbu instead try to catch the Twins out by using a ball with a hidden blade. I think the sacrifice is funnier.

Having avoided the sneaky attempt to cut them down on the spot, the Twins won their first game. Afterwards, they were sent to the House of Knives for the night, where they avoided getting cut up by asking the knives very nicely to please consider doing something else with their time. The House of Jaguars was tamed with some spare bones, the House of Cold with a fire, and the House of Fire via unknown methods.

Perhaps running out of torture houses, the Lords of Xibalba resorted to Zotzi-há, the House of Bats. The first time I read the Twins’ story, I had never been troubled by a bat in a house, but since, I’ve had multiple night-time encounters with the damn things. It might not sound scary, but dealing with a terrified bat flying around your bedroom while trying not to wake up a sleeping newborn was honestly one of the most aggravating experiences of my life. Laugh at the House of Bats at your own peril.

Anyway, in the Zotzi-há, the brothers took the precaution of sleeping inside their own blowguns for cover. But Hunahpú made the error of emerging to check whether it was morning yet, and had his head cut off by an angry (and surprisingly violent) bat.

For normal athletes, the loss of one’s head might prove terminal. Not so the Twins. Thinking fast, Xbalanqué grabbed and handy turtle, drew some eyes on it, and stuck it onto his brother’s body, making some more tweaks to improve the disguise. When they reached the court, they found Hunahpú’s real head suspended over the court.

Xbalanqué’s plan was to play solo until he had a chance to replace the fake head with the real one, and he got his opportunity when a the ball went out of bounds into an oak grove. A rabbit, stationed in the grove for this purpose, hopped away with the ball, giving Xbalanqué time to grab the fake head, do a quick switcharoo, and restore his brother to full health.

From then on winning was easy, since the Twins were better ballgame players than the Lords of Xibalba.

Since the forces of the underworld refused to properly acknowledge defeat via ballgame, they were tricked and killed instead. With their father and uncle avenged, the Twins climbed back to the surface of the Earth, but rather than stopping, they ascended into the sky to become literally the sun and the moon, which is a pretty cool ending to the story.

The above is all loosely paraphrased from the Popol Vuh, a book which preserves the pre-Columbian myths of the Kʼicheʼ people, who formed part of the Mayan civilization. The Twins section takes up most of Part II and is, so far as I’ve seen, the lengthiest sequence devoted to sports — or at least to sports-adjacency — in any major collection of mythology. Fun, huh?

Hunahpu & Xbalanque’s Hall of Fame plaque