Dozens of eyes peer into a room tucked into Santiago Atitlán’s quiet backstreets, the small space packed to overflowing with visitors who come to give offerings and greet the Maya deity Maximón. At the center, a wooden carved effigy of the deity lies on a straw mat. Resting at his feet, a small platter is filled with Quetzales notes, a symbol of Maximón’s belovedness within the indigenous community of Santiago.
It’s Tuesday of Semana Santa, or the Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday. For those who participate in the Maya-Catholic religious syncretism pervasive in many majority indigenous communities like Santiago, the week is also Maximón’s busiest time of the year. On Wednesday, the cofradía, a group of indigenous religious community leaders, will carry Maximón to the church in preparation for Good Friday celebrations, a tradition that visibly demonstrates this fusion of indigenous and Catholic ritual.
But who is Maximon? Also known to the Tzutijil Maya as the Rilaj Mam, or “great grandfather,” Maximon goes by a variety of different names that reflect his controversial and somewhat provocative nature. Often referred to by Catholics as “Saint Simon,” a figure with ties to Satan, Maximon is believed by some to represent Judas, the disciple who betrayed Christ. Others believe him to be a manifestation of the Maya god “Mam” disguised as a Spanish saint in order to survive the Spanish Inquisition.
Travellers know Maximón as a god of vices; his effigies are typically depicted with a cigarette in their mouth and given offerings of money and Quetzalteca, a liquor made from fermented cane sugar. Boyfriend or girlfriend trouble? Hoping to do harm to an enemy? Tour guides of Guatemala will tell you that Maximón is the one to ask. For the Tz’utujil Maya, however, the Rilaj Mam can offer much more if you provide the right offerings to gain his favor, from good health to high crop yields.
Each year, Maximón lives in a different home chosen by the cofradía. The annual host is elected carefully —the family must have the capacity to accommodate Maximón and his ongoing local and foreign visitors as well as the resources that many of Maximón’s ceremonies require. During Semana Santa, this home will see the most visitors of the entire year and the host must be able to accommodate the full band, the refreshment and liquor needs of the cofradía, and the many foreign tourists and locals who will stop to pay a visit.
Events begin late on Monday night when members of the cofradía, the elected religious community leaders of the Maya-Catholic fusion, perform a ritual to wash Maximón’s clothes and prepare him for his grand procession to the town’s main square on Wednesday.
On Tuesday night, doors to Maximón’s room are closed as leaders of the cofradía carefully dress and adorn Maximon in his clean clothes and shiny new ties. Eager visitors press against the wooden doors of the room, seeking either a peek or a cellphone photo of Maximón A full instrumental band blasts music from five feet away, further augmented by the wall of speakers outside the doors to Maximón’s room. Plastic cups of beer and shots of Quetzalteca circulate endlessly —the cofradía will remain awake all night as visitors arrive to give offerings of money and pray to the effigy.
The following morning, after a long night of vigilance, Maximón’s dedicated guardians begin a procession of almost three hours that will bring the effigy from his current home to a small chapel beside Santiago’s main church. Elaborate and long, the procession is imbued with symbolism and tradition, from baskets of ribbon-wrapped bananas to the ceremonial drum and flute that lead the way, an intrivate. A member of the cofradía carries Maximón on his shoulders the entire way, pausing every hundred feet or so to perform a slow, rocking circular dance to the tune of a full band of trumpets and saxophones behind him.
Arriving in front of the Municipality offices in Santiago’s main square to an attentive crowd of hundreds of local community members and dozens of tourists and their tour guides, the procession lets Maximón rest for two hours before continuing on up the steep, colonial stone steps to the chapel where he will rest until Good Friday.
In the chapel, Maximón is tied up to a pole. Some link this tradition to Maximón’s ties to Judas, Jesus’s betrayer, while others will say that Maximón’s name also means “the tied one” and relate this ritual to Maximón’s creation story. Either way, above everyone’s heads, Maximón’s height provides easy access for visitors to photograph and see the effigy in spite of the crowds. For the next two days, a steady stream will arrive before Good Friday. The week will culminate in this procession featuring both Jesus’s death and Maximón, a final demonstration of the fusion of Maya with Catholic in this year’s Easter celebration at Santiago Atitlán.