In Santiago de Atitlán, Guatemala,comes face to face with a saint that most definitely doesn’t meet with the Catholic Church’s approval.
I’m led down a scrappy alleyway in Santiago de Atitlán, all cinder brick walls and grubby pavements, and we stop at a yard. Chickens are clucking around it, children are sat around looking somewhat bored and a cluster of people are jamming the doorway. They’ve come to see a ‘saint’ who is anything but saintly.
The story of Maximón (or San Simón, or El Rilaj Mam) is not one drenched in consistency. The stories about who he is or who he represents are both numerous and massively contradictory. The version I’m given is that he personifies Francisco Sojuel, who was a hero to the Tz’utujil Maya for fighting against the Spanish (who had enslaved the indigenous people of what is now Guatemala and taken their land following the conquistadors’ arrival in 1524). When Sojuel died, people kept seeing him in the mountains, and started carving wooden sculptures of him.
Other versions say he’s a pre-Columbian spirit, an incarnation of Judas Iscariot, a man who slept with all the villagers’ wives and had his limbs chopped off as punishment, or a chameleon-like being who disguised himself as a beautiful woman to trap adulterers. Trying to fathom it out will only lead to a lot of headscratching and someone telling you’ve got it completely wrong. Suffice to say the veneration of Maximón is an odd hybrid of traditional Mayan and Catholic belief.
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Inside the temporary home of Maximón – he’s moved to a different location every year – it’s a surreal sight; more hallucinatory Tarantino-esque vision of a tequila speakeasy than chapel of worship.
To one side, a shaman is kneeling on the floor, making increasingly manic incantations in the Tz’utujil language. Women are lighting rainbow-coloured candles, and stern-looking chaps are sat around the edges on chairs, doing nothing but perfecting dull-eyed possibly drunken stares.
To the left is a coffin, surrounded by tackily twinkling fairy lights – it’s supposedly Jesus in there.
But Maximón himself is in the middle, clad in two cowboy hats, with an American flag draped behind like a released bandana. He’s a stumpy wooden statue, and has a lit cigarette in his mouth. He almost always does; Maximón likes a smoke and a drink, amongst many other vices. Two flinty-faced attendants sit in bouncer-like silence either side of him, making sure their ward gets his offerings. That’s usually a few quetzal notes – more if you want to take a photo. Or booze. Maximón appreciates booze.
The purpose of these offerings, predictably, depends on who you ask. For some, he’s a saint with human vices who can bring health, good fortune and prosperity if you indulge him. For others, he’s a force for both good and bad. You can wish for luck to come your way, or bad luck to go the way of your enemy.
Whichever explanation you choose to adopt, the key realisation is that this is no joke. It may seem like a surrealist, post-Bourbon binge piece of woozy freakiness, but no-one’s laughing in there. No-one’s treating it as a bit of a laugh. Everyone may be buying into a different back story, but whichever they’ve chosen, they’ve taken it seriously.
Maximón himself? Well, he keeps chugging away on his cigarette.
This story was originally written for Roundtheworldflights.com.
All content copyright David Whitley.