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Santiago Atitlan is a village which has a very close relationship with Maximon, a Mayan folk saint. A special cofradia exists in town to watch over the effigy. The wives of the cofradia members make and clean his clothes. Each year the effigy is displayed in the private house of one of the cofradia brothers. They take care of Maximon and make sure that he is never lacking for tobacco or booze, often spending a great deal of their personal money to ensure his well-being. The public is allowed to view him for a small fee.

There are different accounts of the origins of Maximon, a folk saint who embodies the melding of Catholic saints and pre-Colombian gods. I found two books to be very helpful with untangling the various versions of the story: Guatemala's Folk Saints by Jim Pieper and The Lake Atitlan Reference Guide by Richard Morgan Szybist.

One origin story dates back to the time of the Spanish conquest. Mayan rulers at the time were imprisoned and eventually killed after giving up their riches to the colonizers. The rulers told their people to create effigies of them and to initiate ancestor worship so as not to forget their traditional ways. These effigies was made of reeds and tied into a bundle. They were dubbed "Axmon K'in", or "tied up reeds" in the local dialect. The word "Maxmon" translates to "Noble man made by tying", so the name "Maximon" is probably a corruption of that. (Guatemala's Folk Saints, page 55)

Another origin story is that Maximon was created by the Nawales (divine spirits who served as role models for all of humanity) as a personification of the spirit god Mam, the Ancient One. The Nawal men were afraid that their women would be unfaithful, so they carved Maximon from a tree to watch over them. The women wrapped their hair ribbons around Maximon's body and dressed him in the finest clothing. But Maximon himself was not trustworthy, and seduced the Nawal women while the men were away. Upon returning home to find their women newly pregnant, the enraged men punished Maximon by emasculating and dismembering him. Without the distraction of a sex drive, Maximon gained other powers, including the ability to heal the sick. (The Lake Atitlan Reference Guide, page 122).

Over time, effigies of Maximon have evolved from bundles of reeds to wooden carvings, often wearing masks. Maximon is viewed as a communicator and facilitator, willing to petition God with all requests. People leave him offerings which appeal to his vices, including cigarettes, cigars, aguardiente liquor, and cash. He has a certain worldly appeal to those who suffer from vices themselves, and he can intercede on their behalf with God.

As time went on, Maximon became intertwined with San Simon. San Simon looks more like a traditional Spanish Catholic saint, with light skin and European features. Effigies of San Simon are usually made of wood. They are usually seated in a chair and holding a staff, which symbolize authority.

It is unclear whether San Simon evolved as a folk saint when the Spanish Catholics forbade the worship of Maximon. Transferring their allegiance to him could have been a covert way of worshipping their ancestors in a way which was inoffensive to colonial Catholicism.

Effigies of both Maximon and San Simon usually have carved mouths which often are filled with a lit cigarette. As Maximon / San Simon smokes the tobacco, it is believed that the smoke carries worshipper's prayers heavenward.

In addition to the fluidity between the identities of Maximon and San Simon, both also take on the identity of Judas Iscariot during the Easter season. We had seen his participation in a Semana Santa (Holy Week) procession during our first visit in 2004. On the Wednesday before Easter, his clothes are washed in the lake by local women. He then is carried through town in a procession. On Good Friday, they hang Maximon / Judas across from the church for his betrayal of Christ. The effigy is no longer allowed inside the Church of St. James the Apostle, but as we saw, there is a depiction of him on the altar carvings.

Craig and Steph
Created on
Monday 2 July 2018
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