Maximón (pronounced ma-shee-moan), a half-saint, half-deity celebrated in several parts of Guatemala, is a mix of good and evil, a combination of the pagan and Christian worlds. A bizarre jumble of Mayan gods, Pedro de Alvarado (the Spanish conquistador), and Judas Iscariot, Maximón is believed to have originated in Santiago Atitlán, Sololá. Santiago sits right on Lake Atitlan and is the cultural center of the Tz’utujil Mayan community. It is believed that Maximón first appeared in Santiago to resolve a social crisis in which adultery had corrupted the townspeople. One story says that Maximón was actually the cause of the adultery, sleeping with every woman in a village while their husbands were off working in the fields. Hearing of Maximón’s misdeeds, the men quickly returned and chopped off his arms and legs. As a result, Maximón usually takes the form of a diminutive man with no arms, a dark hat perched on his head, and a lit cigarette in his mouth. Also known by the name of San Simón or Ry Laj Man, he is venerated by indigenous people in many highland towns.
People come to pray to Maximón, bringing him offerings of money, alcohol, tobacco, or other goods in exchange for a good harvest, luck in their love life, or the cure to a disease. Unlike the pure Christian saints, Maximón is rough around the edges, and prayers to him often originate less out of reverence than fear. Different versions of Maximón/San Simón can be visited in the towns of Santiago Atitlán (Sololá), Zunil (Quetzaltenango), and San Andrés Xecul (Totonicapán). In San Andrés Itzapa (Chimaltenango), he is known as Ry Laj Man, and the altar near his shrine is often dotted with sacrificed burning chickens.
Maximón is a fascinating portal into the blend of religious beliefs present in indigenous Guatemala. In a highly spiritual country, he is a pagan idol that is both revered and despised. While Maximón stands for all things anti-religious, including liquor and tobacco, he is also said to possess the ability to answer prayers. Each year, brotherhoods called cofradías carefully guard his statue until Semana Santa, when it is removed from hiding amidst great fanfare, washed, and dressed. In Santiago Atitlán in particular, Good Friday is witness to elaborate Maximón processions that last all day long. At one point, two massive platforms carrying statues of both Maximón and Jesus Christ occupy central park, a perfect example of Guatemala’s spiritual diversity. Due to increased tourism, two separate Maximón shrines have been established in Santiago, one for locals and another for visitors. Children by the dock or in the park will lead you to the latter for a small propina. A visit to Maximón may be your strangest experience in Guatemala, but it will definitely be worth your while.
Photo Credit: Rosa Vazquez, Off the Road Travel