Down the winding, narrow streets of the Tz’utujil Mayan town of Santiago Atitlán sits the house of Cofradía, or brotherhood, of the Rilaj Mam, more commonly known as the house of Maximón, or the Great Tied Up One.
Each day, tourists and locals alike make their way from the docks to see the meter tall figure that wears the traditional clothing of the town, and is wrapped in men’s ties. In total there are 36 ties that represent the 36 days that the ancestors took to form the Rilaj Mam. Yet the Rilaj Mam is more than just a tourist attraction. The Rilaj Mam is the protector of the Tz’utujil Maya of Santiago Atitlán, on the south end of the magnificent Lake Atitlán.
The residents of the indigenous community, and people from across the country, come to the Rilaj Mam for curing of illnesses, assistance with business, life, and love. They bring with them offerings of candles, incense, cigars, and liquor. During the ceremony, the spiritual guide utilizes these items to request that the Rilaj Mam intercede for the followers come to the Rilaj Mam.
On candles, each color has its own special significance: white for peace, red is for life, green for nature and hope, blue is for protection for work, yellow represents the sun and is for protection for health, purple is for the protections of one’s feelings, pink represents love, light blue is for studies and protection of money, and finally black is for protection during the night. These 9 colors together also represent the 9 months of gestation of a child.
The Rilaj Mam is not a god, but rather a protector and intermediary between people and the creator of life. According to oral tradition, he is the honored grandfather of the community that encircles the territory. He is the manifestation of an ancient energy that has existed from the beginning of time.
“He already existed when the Spanish arrived here in territory Tz’utujil,” said Juan Manuel Mendoza, a spiritual guide, or Aj Q’ij, and member of one of the cofradías in Santiago Atitlán. “He existed before the Earth had form. It was the council of ancestors that analyzed his energy, and decided what form the spirit should take. He is our connection to the creator former, and the heart of the sky, and the heart of the Earth.“
The image of the Rilaj Mam is made of Palo de Pito, or the Coral Tree, which was chosen by the ancient ancestor in a ceremony as the carrier of the spirit of the Rilaj Mam. The wood from this special tree is used to form the body and mask of Maximón.
It is difficult to count exactly how many people actually are followers of the Rilaj Mam. There are no official numbers, but Mendoza estimates that nearly 75 percent of the community of Santiago can be considered followers of this ancient energy.
According to Juan Manuel, and the other Aj Q’ij of Santiago, the Rilaj Mam should not be confused with San Simon, or the other Maximóns that appear in other communities across Guatemala.
“Many people have confused San Simon with Maximón,” says Mendoza. “For example, San Simon is seated down. There is only one Rilaj Mam, or Maximón. Maximón is itself a Tz’utujil word. He is not in other communities.”
This Rilaj Mam is not the only one in Santiago Atitlán. There exists a second private Rilaj Mam that serves the community. He might be a second, but according to his keeper, he is the manifestation of the same ancient energy.
“The Rilaj Mam is the descendent of our Mayan ancestors,” says Nicolas Tziná, a Mayan curer in Santiago Atitlán, and keeper of one of the Ri Laj Mams of the town. “He has been passed down from generation to generation. He is our protector, our defender.”
Unlike the one that most tourists visit, which changes houses every year on October 28, the Rilaj Mam that resides in Tziná’s home is his own. He has kept the Rilaj Mam in his house for 17 years.
The Rilaj Mam may have always existed, but since the Spanish invasion in 1524, this manifestation of the Mayan spirit has come under constant attack. The critics, and those that wish to erase the Mayan spirituality, accuse the followers of the Rilaj Mam of practicing black magic and witchcraft.
“Many people do not believe in the Rilaj Mam, but these politics come from the religions, especially the Catholic and Evangelical Christian religions. People say that he does bad things, but I can say that he does not practice bad things.”
According to the spiritual guides, this outlook is based on hatred for the Mayan faith. “There is hatred for us by the evangelical sects,” says Mendoza. “They are seeking to dominate us.” These accusations and hatred have brought with them a threat to the lives of the members of the cofradías, and their followers as well.
And the threat is real. In September 2016, Gaspar Chiyal Ajuchan, a former member of the Cofradía of the Rilaj Mam, was assassinated in one of the communities within the municipality of Santiago Atitlán. The exact motivations of the assassination are unknown.
“We do not know why they killed him,” says Mendoza. “Only he knows who killed him and why they killed him. For all we know, he could have been trying to teach the child of some evangelical here in the community.” There has yet to be an investigation into the murder.
Despite these threats, the power of the Ri Laj Mam permeates from the territory Tz’utujil, and every day hundreds come to see the protector of the people.