THE CULT OF MAXIMÓN
By Erika Mendoza / Photos by Ricardo Mata, Diego Molina, Johan Willens, Ojodigital.com
Although of unknown origin, Maximón could possibly be the reincarnation of a Maya god, Mam, who also was represented as a wooden doll dressed in human garb, and symbolically offered food. His effigies are found in several Guatemalan towns, such as Nahualá and San Jorge La Laguna, and he is especially famed in Zunil, San Andrés Itzapa and Santiago Atitlán.
Each Maximón is constructed in a different way, and uniquely clothed, but all are objects of profound veneration.
With the superimposition of Catholicism on previous beliefs during the 16th and 17th centuries, Mam evolved into Saint Simon. However, most of his followers now call him Maximón (pronounced maa-shee-MOHn), a combination of Simon and max, the Maya word for tobacco; for this reason he is always represented with a large cigar between his lips.
Throughout the year Maximón dwells in the home of a member of the brotherhood of the Holy Cross, the principal indigenous authority of Santiago Atitlán. During this time he may receive visitors from all over the country, who come seeking favors and advice, and leave Maximón both monetary and in-kind gifts.
It is considered a serious omission to visit him and leave him nothing.
During Guatemala's Holy Week-celebrated starting on the Sunday following the full moon of the spring equinox, every March 21st-homage is paid to Maximón in Santiago Atitlán.
On the Monday of Holy Week the icon will be carried to the shore of Lake Atitlán, where his clothes will be washed on two specific boulders, as they are once a month throughout the year. The rinsing water will be bottled and given away, as the faithful consider it to be a very special present and an antidote to sadness, fear and witchcraft...
The next day, the attendant who will dress, carry and tend Maximón for the rest of the year will go to collect his clothes. All the members of the indigenous authority will meet at the seat of the council to witness the dressing of the effigy-a ceremony accompanied by countless swigs of liquor and two or three packs of cigarettes.
The icon is re-dressed in attire typical of highland Guatemala and Europe along with numerous silk scarves, a couple of felt hats on his wooden head and a gigantic cigar in his mouth.
The "dressing" of Maximón is synonymous with the "making" of the icon, for although Maximón has a heart of wood, his body here in Santiago Atitlán is nothing but layer upon layer of clothing and silk scarves. Resplendent in his new outfit, he is venerated and presented with gifts.
Until a few years ago, as a part of the Easter celebration in Santiago Atitlán, the Maximón icon used to be hanged from a crossbeam of the atrium of the church; such conduct was eventually prohibited, and the effigy is now placed in a small blue and cream-colored chapel from which the other sacred images have been previously removed.
Here he will remain until after 3 p.m. on Good Friday, when he will be carried out on the shoulders of his faithful keeper to participate in the traditional processions that characterize Holy Week in Guatemala.
His solitary passage will be accompanied by the sound of a giant rattle (a cogged wooden wheel on which a small, fixed piece of wood jumps from tooth to tooth as the handle is turned, to create a deafening racket). The crowd will part to let him through. Around his chapel will be a veritable sea of straw hats-Maximón is venerated above all by the menfolk-while he and his scarves float through the throng to the head of the procession that will formally make its way through the village. His position in the procession will be between Christ and Mary, and all heads will turn to watch him take his place in the courtyard.
After the march, Maximón will be carried to the home of a member of the indigenous council, where he will remain until the following Holy Week.
An encounter with Maximón
Contributor Lola Reid traveled to Guatemala in search of Maximón, the icon most highly venerated by the country's Maya inhabitants. In the following chronicle, Lola recounts what was, in her own words, an inspirational encounter.
Surrounded by the slate-blue spires of four volcanic peaks, I meander along the streets of Santiago Atitlán, a highland village in Guatemala. I approach a small and unusually decorated cement home perched at the crest of a hill, its position giving it the appearance of a temple at the summit of an ancient Maya pyramid. A two-foot-wide border of mulberry paint decorates the lower half of the wall; the upper portion is brilliant puce green. These outrageous colors compete for attention with several garlands of multi-colored plastic flags featuring cutwork patterns of the Day of the Dead (November 2) skeletons dancing, eating and laughing.
Inside the house, two statues of crucified dark-skinned Christians flank a dead white Christ interred within a glass coffin. Red and green Christmas lights flash alternately to provide an eerie illumination on the pallid face. Slouched along a wooden bench flanking the wall, eight men of the indigenous council chatter amicably among themselves in Tzutujil Maya and, with me, in Spanish. The flickering flames of more than seventy candles create menacing shadows in the gloom. My nose and throat are assaulted by an intense stench, a blend of alcohol, beer, burning candlewax, incense, cigarettes and cigars. The fading light of the setting sun enshrouds our world in blackness.
Three men climb a ladder, disappearing through a trap-door set into the ceiling. Minutes later, a three-foot-tall wooden Maximón is placed reverently upon a woven reed mat, a symbol of nobility to the ancient Maya. His rigid mouth firmly clenches an unlit cigar. [Worshippers present cigarettes and cigars in homage to the icon's name, a combination of Simon and max, the Maya word for tobacco]. The leader cleanses himself with a smoke bath of incense burning in a censer created from a coffee can with wire coathanger handles, then offers the cleansing to the men and me.
Kneeling in front of the effigy, the leader commences the ceremony in Latin learned from Catholic masses, before switching to the more familiar Tzutujil. He refers to quartz crystals, white seeds, playing cards, red seeds of the Tzetzé bush and the Tzolkín, a three-thousand-year-old Count of Days, to divine the future.
For nearly fifty minutes, the leader and another man kneel on the hard floor. The droning Tzutujil and the incessant swinging of the incense burner mesmerize me. Smoke permeates the room, its eventual dissipation interpreted as consumption by the gods and ancestors. After the ceremony, the leader proudly informs me that he has studied as a daykeeper for fifteen years and visits this shrine every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
A traditional Tzutujil couple with four children and a grandmother arrive. After the presentation of candles, alcohol and incense, the young mother sits in a straight-backed wooden chair facing Maximón. Her bare feet rest inside a man's patent leather dress shoes far too large for her tiny feet. Maximón's uppermost hat is placed upon her head, the long scarves attached to the hat-brim draping over her shoulders. Her husband kneels beside her on the floor. The three older children sit placidly with their grandmother, who cradles a baby. Several times during the two-hour appeal, the prayer-leader turns the hat so that the scarves obscure the mother's face. Occasionally, he places a long cape over the father's head, covering his shoulders. Near the end of the ceremony, the grandmother and the four children crouch on the floor beside the man and woman.
After the family departs, it is explained that the woman's eyesight is gradually diminishing. Local doctors believe her vision could be saved by an operation in Guatemala City, but they prefer to appeal to Maximón with his legendary curative powers. Eager for a drink after the lengthy ceremony, the men present the icon and the rest of us with more liquor. We toast Maximón, then each other. I thank the men for their hospitality, and we say goodbye with a handshake.