The Mesoamerican ball game famously provides the central mode of conflict between Xib’alb’a and the two sets of brothers in the Popl Wuj. Although the exact rules and purpose of the game are unknown, it is clear that it held significance far beyond that of a simply recreational activity. Whittington asserts that, due to the game’s prevalence in the Popol Wuj, “this story of creation and activities of the gods and humanity becomes inseparable from the ballgame.” As the game is both a physical space and a practice shared by humans and Xibalbans, it seems to hold a deep ceremonial role in Mesoamerican cosmovisions.
Athletic prowess is symbolically passed down to the Hero Twins from their fathers through the physical objects used to play the game: yokes (b'ate), kilts or hides (tz’u’m), armguards (pach' q'ab'), panaches of feather (yachwach), headbands (wach sot), and the ball itself (kik’ or cha’j). These are collectively called their “implements” (chokonisan) or “equipment” (etz’ab’al), which Christenson translates as "finery" (2007: 106).
The game itself is strongly connected to the practices of bloodletting and sacrifice; this is clear in the toponym Pusb’al Cha’j (“Place of Ballgame Sacrifice”). The meaning of the place maps on to the modern words pusunik (to sacrifice), pus (to cut into pieces or wound) along with the word cha’j (ball or ball game). From archaeological evidence, we know that the actual ball game played by the ancient Maya “had the potential to end in sacrifice” and, as Mary Miller suggests, is depicted as “the ultimate place of transition” between life and death in the Popol Wuj.
One epithet used in reference to a ball may point to the game’s religious or sacrificial role. After felling the message-bearing falcon, the twins agree to heal his eye from their shot before receiving his message; they cover the wound with a piece of rubber taken from their game ball. They then name this bit of rubber: "Lotz Kik' xub'i'naj kumal," which Christenson (2004: 121) translates as "Lotz Kik’ it was named by them."
It is worth noting that Tedlock and Xiloj translate the expression differently. Their translation reads “Blood of Sacrifice.” In his notes, Tedlock defines lotz as “to puncture, let blood” and kik’ as either “blood” or “resin.” The Christenson dictionary offers a different translation of lotz, “to smear,” but similarly defines kik’ as rubber or a rubber ball. Additionally, mutations of kik’ such as silob’ -kik’el and cha’ -kik’el are defined by Christenson as “to move blood” and “to speak blood,” respectively – both are alternatively defined as “means of receiving a supernatural message.”
It is not difficult to understand how rubber – and the sticky resin from which it is made – might be practically and lexically intertwined with blood, the sap drained from human bodies rather than trees. Although Christenson and Tedlock offer different interpretations of lotz, they are conceptually linked in the realm of sacrificial bloodletting: letting blood and smearing some substance are not too semantically distant.
In combination with the double-meaning of kik’, the epithet Lotz Kik’ evokes more images of blood beyond that of the falcon’s wounded eye. The falcon, carrying a message intended for Junajpu and Xb’alanke from the Lords of Xib’alb’a, establishes a connection between Xib’alb’a and uwach ulew – perhaps not coincidentally on the ball court. Connections which can be drawn between blood, sap, rubber, the ball itself, the ball game, and, finally, the practice of sacrificial bloodletting seem fitting, as the ball game is characterized throughout the Popol Vuj as the vehicle through which Xibalbans interact with earth-dwellers.
Tedlock points to another relevant distinction; he says that cha’j is used for the ball in Xib’alb’a while kik’ refers only to the ball of Juajpu and Xb’alanke. Perhaps the wordplay surrponding the many meanings of kik' solidifies a semantic connection for the Maya, allowing kik’ to be used to refer to balls and, more distantly, to humans’ interaction with the supernatural through sacrifice or ball game challenges.
The ball in Xib’alb’a further differs from a normal ball in that is appears to the boys to be a skull – previously described as being coated with crushed bone; Tedlock says that what is played off as “mere decoration” by the Lords is actually a fundamental and sinister difference. Reference to this bone-ball as kik’, the word for “ball,” is easily associated with blood and death, and it seems fitting for this particular object, even though cha’j is typically used for Xibalban game balls. The connection between blood and sap us not unique to the treatment of the game ball; not unlike a ball, sap from a tree was formed into a round shape to fool the Xibalban Lords into false appeasement through Ixkik’s supposed death: "K'ate puch xuwon rib' / K'olok'ik xuxik. (Then also congealed/ round it became)."
The sticky, dark sap was formed into a round shape – the positional root k’ol -- to mimick the human heart. Tedlock does not include a note on why he translates the verb xuwon as “congealed.” However, as the passage discusses round things, it might be assumed to hold a connection with won, a positional root meaning “round” which has connotations of pity and abandonment. Perhaps this description of the false heart metaphorically ties into the realities of Ixkik’s life; how her father shunned her and how her mother-in-law nearly does the same. The heart is also referred to in an elegant phrase: "U k'exel u kik'el (her blood’s substitute)."
Since kik’el is what is described as substituted, it must refer to Ixkik’s blood and not to the sap which replaced it. Kik’, therefore, is not merely sap that is “like blood;” the phrasing goes so far as to characterize it as the blood itself, the blood that would have been flowing through Ixkik’’s veins and comprising her extracted heart. As a daughter of Xib’alb’a whose name is simply kik’ with a prefix (i)x meaning “female” or “moon,” it is significant that Ixkik’’s blood shares the same label as the sap of a tree.
Furthermore, the Lords of Xib’alb’a are quite pleased with the aroma produced from the sacrificial burning of the supposed heart. Blood sacrifices being an important practice in the Maya world connecting humans to deities, the ability of the sap to fool the Lords in sacrifice may point to the significance of rubber as a material which allows humans to interact with and appease supernatural entities.