If you’ve gone around Guatemala, odds are that you’ve come across the effigy of a man clad in all black formal wear. Colorful garlands sometimes contrast his attire. Though his face often lacks any expression, there’s an ominous air about him. He tends to sport a wide brim hat and sits upon a simple wooden chair. Offerings in the form of alcohol, cigarettes and candles usually lay at his feet or on his lap. People know him best as Maximón.
There are different shrines to him in businesses and houses in and around La Antigua, so it is not uncommon that people come across them and, naturally, ask about who he is. And, of course, those who have a shrine always feel happy to tell the story they know behind the character. For instance, there is a “Maximón Room” at Café No Sé, a local bar. Fred Antonacci, the manager of the place, says that travelers are always curious about it. “I tell them he’s the patron saint of sin, which is why we have him in the bar”, he relates.
Though that explanation of his character is perhaps the most common one, there are other stories. It really depends on who you ask. There’s one thing that’s very clear about Maximón though: the Roman Catholic Church does not approve the shrines or the cult around him.
“That’s why people are attracted to the darker stories”, explains Sotz’ Aq’ab’al, a Kaqchikel translator whose grandfather was a shaman. “People do not want to get accurate information because they prefer the occult.” According to Sotz’, most of the stories people know about the origin of Maximón tend to be wrong, however it does have a lot to do with Catholic disapproval.
“The Inquisition also happened here with the introduction of Catholicism”, he continues. “Mayans that did not accept the religion got killed. Even more so the shamans, because they conducted the ceremonies and the rituals and all. So, they took them and they burned them. They also burned all the documents and books of our people.”
Eventually, the Mayan population of the country accepted the religion and the crown. “About 200 years after that, the new shamans created an image which called ‘Maximón’. It comes from ‘Ma’, which means ‘grandfather’. And then ‘Ximon’, that was burned and tied, which is what the Spanish did to the old shamans. That’s what it means in Kaqchikel, Tz’utujil, Quiche and Achi”, says Sotz’.
And it is precisely because it is a representation of the old shamans who were killed during the colonial period in Guatemala that people bring Maximón offerings in the form of incense, alcohol, tobacco and candles. “That’s what’s demanded of those seeking a favor of sorts”, explains the Kaqchikel translator. “It’s not really a tribute to the image or the effigy; it’s an offering to our cosmovision, mother Earth, and the supreme god. People just see the offering and the statue, but they don’t seek accurate information. So, they are told that Maximón is the god of cigarettes or the god of tobacco or the drunks or liquor or witchcraft or satanism or syncretism. Some get it, some don’t.”