Maximón: In Mayan Guatemala, One Legendary Bad-ass has Become a God

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Beloved by the Maya of western highland Guatemala, Maximón (pronounced Ma-shee-moan) is part ancient Mayan deity, part Catholic saint, part archetypal trickster. His complex character resonates with ancient religious associations between fertility, virility, the underworld, black magic, and sin. He is the patron saint of travelers and gamblers, and an associate of the devil according to the Catholic Church.

A name with many meanings

Many people identify him with the ancient Mayan underworld earth-god, Mam (or Ma’am) and may call him Rilaj Mam or “Great Grandfather.” In the local Mayan tongues “Ma” is an honorific title, similar to “Sir” or the Spanish Don, which also can also be used to address nobility or clergy. Max in the local tongues can also mean “tobacco” and ximón can mean “tied up.” Both tobacco and tying things up are major themes in ancient Mayan literature with many meanings.

A mysterious past

Many other people believe that Maximón began as a much loved local Catholic priest, Simon, who was too fond of smoking, drinking, and womanizing for Church authorities, who disowned him. According to some he was executed by hanging, and thereafter became the unofficial saint, San Simon, still condemned by the Church today. Others say he represents the infamously cruel and homicidal conquistador of Guatemala, Pedro de Alvarado. All of these identities contribute to his character as a legendary bad-ass to be feared and loved, a deity who wants you to get drunk, get laid, and get rich, but who might just steal your wife if you’re not careful.

In the shrine of Maximón at Santiago de Atitlan

In the summer of 2004, in Santiago de Atitlan, a small village on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, I am kneeling on a bare dirt floor, in a one room house, facing a raised platform just big enough to hold a chair, in which sits a rough wooden mannequin made to look like a Spanish gentleman of an earlier era. He has a fine mustachio and he is wearing a sombrero, cowboy boots, and some bandannas and colorful scarves, given to him by worshipers, as are the bottles of booze and cartons of cigarettes at his sides. He has a lit cigarette in his mouth; one of the priests changes it for him periodically, sometimes after pouring a shot of rum or Quetzalteca grain alcohol into the statue’s mouth-hole. There are burning and melted candles, incense, and flowers all around, and a little altar to my left, with Catholic religious icons, such as the Virgin Mary, as well as bundles of feathers, weavings, and other symbols of traditional Mayan religion. Several indigenous priests, shamans, or in Maya, Aj-k’in (“day-keepers”), and other friends of the shrine are hanging out in the dark recesses surrounding Maximón, smoking and drinking.

In one of the most often repeated legends, Maximón once slept with all the wives of the men of some village, and was dismembered by their husbands in retaliation. Sometimes the mannequins representing him lack legs and arms—but not the one I visited in Santiago de Atitlan. In modern times, locals constantly ask him for help with money, love, agriculture, and illness. Pilgrims visit his shrine in Santiago, which resides in a different villager’s home each year, to give him booze, money, and tobacco products, not only in exchange for specific requests, but also just to be on the safe side.

A man with many homes

Although the Catholic Church stands against him, Maximón is worshiped in many villages in this area, with famous shrines in the villages of San Andrés Itzapa and Zunil as well as in countless homes and bars. The shrine in Santiago, which moves to a new house each year, can only be found with the help of a local guide.

Although he looks a little different in every shrine, he is always portrayed as a handsome mustachioed man, often wearing a black suit in the style of a 19th century Spanish gentleman, or sometimes in the style of a contemporary Mayan man of means, with a button-down shirt and a showy belt-buckle, and either a cowboy hat or sombrero. He often has a shotgun at his side. His places of worship are filled with candles, flowers, and incense—the main ritual objects of traditional Mayan religion; each color of candle and flower represents a different blessing, such as family, health, and wealth.

Talking to Maximón

People give things to Maximón hoping that he will do something for them. During my afternoon at the shrine, I watched a wirey old Mayan farmer beg Maximón to save his wife’s life; apparently, she was very ill. He pleaded passionately for an hour, laying out a series of arguments. He reminded Maximón of how many years the couple had worked-hard, behaved piously, and regularly presented gifts to the saint. It was clear he felt that he was speaking personally with a great man capable of saving his wife.

As pilgrims filtered in through the afternoon, Maximón’s caretakers received gifts for him and placed them around the statue. Usually, when Maximón was given smokes, we all had one, and when Maximón did a shot, so did we.

Near the end of the afternoon, it became my time to kneel before Maximón and pay my respects. As I was kneeling there, I heard the voice of one of the priests say in my ear, “Maximón really likes music!” This was not unexpected. My guide and friend, a shaman, had suggested that I bring my guitar to the shrine that day. The Maya love guitar and heartfelt singing. I played three songs for Maximón, ending with “Tangled Up In Blue” by Bob Dylan. Seemed like a song that Maximón might relate to. I don’t know if he blessed me, but I did have some mighty sinful good times that year, so perhaps so.

The legacy of colonialism

The cult of Maximón is an example of post-colonial syncretic folk religion, perhaps comparable to Voudoun. Like the languages spoken by these Maya villages—Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel, Maximón’s worship represents a still vital and creative culture, with the deepest roots, and an unknown future.

My trip to Santiago de Atitlan was made possible by my participation in an ongoing language and culture revitalization effort, led by Dr. Judith Maxwell of Tulane University and her many Mayan colleagues. We went to Guatemala in order to learn Kaqchikel and to help them design a bilingual education program for their languages. Maximón is only one of many folk heroes in the world who represent the vitality of indigenous cultures facing a post-colonial heritage of language and culture loss. The strength of his cult definitely has political significance for the Mayan people in their ongoing efforts to maintain their culture and achieve greater political power on their native soil.

So next time you raise a shot, I suggest you drink to Maximón! Couldn’t hurt.

Eidt, Jack. “Maximón: The Underground Great Grandfather of Western Guatemala.” in Rituals and Traditions. Wilderutopia.com. November 23, 2012. Accessed March 2, 2016.
(http://www.wilderutopia.com/traditions/maximon-the-underground-great-grandfather-of-western-guatemala/)

References

“Maximón.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. updated February 5 2016. Accessed March 2, 2016.
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maxim%C3%B3n)

Ranier, William. “Maximon-religious syncretism in Guatemala for journal.” Academia.edu. Accessed March 2, 2016.
(http://www.academia.edu/4643591/Maximon-religious_syncretism_in_Guatemala_for_journal)

Reeves, Benjamin. “Worshipping at the Altar of Maximón, the Drunken, Devilish Mayan God Beloved in Guatemala.” Vice. December 18, 2013. Accessed March 2, 2016.
(http://www.vice.com/read/worshipping-at-the-altar-of-maximn-the-drunken-devilish-mayan-god-beloved-in-guatemala)

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