A shrine to Maximón in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. All photos by the author
Depending on who you ask, Maximón is Satan, a Catholic saint, or a relic of the pre-colonial Mayan religion. Everyone can agree on what he looks like, at least: He’s a dapper, mustachioed gentleman in a black suit and sombrero. You'll never mistake him because he's always smoking a cigarette or large cigar, and his houses of worship are filled with burning candles, bottles of rum or Quetzalteca grain alcohol, and other offerings from his supplicants.
“He's friends with the saints,” an elderly Maya man named Pablo said of Maximón as we wound our way through a series of dark, narrow, smoky allies on our way to the deity's house in the lakeside town of Santiago Atitlan, in southern Guatemala.
Santiago Atitlan is where the worship of Maximón (pronounced Ma-shi-mon in Mayan dialects) takes its most ancient and indigenous form. There he is rarely if ever referred to San Simon, which is what many Catholics call him. The deity’s statue is looked after by a group of men who take turns housing it; every year a different private house is converted into a sanctuary for Maximón.
Since Maximón is both a remnant of an old faith and a figure venerated by many Catholics, his altars are crowded with all kinds of conflicting imagery – icons of the Virgin Mary, but also taxidermied animals hanging from the low ceiling. The priests who speak to him in the Tz'utujil Maya dialect remain constantly drunk off of Quetzalteca (a necessary part of the process) and the air is choked with cigar and cigarette smoke.
The day I visited Santiago Atitlan, two shamans, completely in the bag and dressed in traditional indigenous clothing, knelt on either side of a man who was “sick in the head” according to Pablo. They gesticulated wildly amid the small bottles of Quetzalteca scattered on the floor, beseeching their god to heal the supplicant.
Scenes like that are why the Catholic Church has a pretty low opinion of Maximón. “He's the devil,” a priest named Hugo Estrada recently told the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre.
Abelardo Ruiz Perez, a leader of the Archdiocese of Solala, an area near Santiago Atitlan that’s home to many indigenous people, said, “Maximón is a phenomenon of the gravest religious corruption… Only God may know the destruction of souls and bodies.”
The Church officially considers prayers to Maximón to be witchcraft, and wild, grisly urban legends about his congregants circulate among the Christian community – even though many of Maximón’s fans are Catholics who consider him to be a saint (or, as Pablo has it, at least in the saints’ social circle).
Worshippers in front of a statue of Maximón in San Andrés Itzapa.
The worship of Maximón is thought to have begun around the time of the Spanish conquest, and since then it has grown in Central America as Catholicism took root. Maximón's designation as a Catholic saint by many of his worshipers is a classic case of religious mixing; San Simon has allowed many Maya to keep traditional ceremonies and medicines intact while still participating in the dominant religion of the colonists. Not incidentally, the worship of Maximón gives people a way to pray for worldly goods (a practice not usually endorsed by Christianity) while smoking cigars and drinking rum.
Admittedly, prayers to Maximón can seem pretty demonic. The Oracion del Puro (“Prayer of Purity” or “Prayer of the Cigar”), which is thought to grant personal protection, begins with an ominous invocation: “I conjure you pure, in the name of Satan, Luzbel and Lucifer… Dogs bark, cats howl, children cry and thus as you conquered the heart of your father and of your mother, thus you had conquered the heart of [the subject's name] for me, so that I will go singing through all regions until the seventh region.”
Mostly, though, Maximón is less of a devil than a transactional god. Oracion de las Siete Velas (“The Oration of the Seven Candles”), an important text for Maximón's followers, lists all the different things they can ask him for. Green candles are associated with Wednesdays and the planet Mercury and bring “hope; mastery over a loved person; a good outcome in a business negotiation, employment or the lottery; the cure for a vice or bad influences; and to exile bad things.” Black candles, on the other hand, are associated with Saturdays and Jupiter and are burned to “confound an enemy, doubters, enviers and betrayers and to remove a bad neighbour and murmuring tongues.”
Shamans burn offerings to Maximón outside of his temple in San Andrés Itzapa.
The worship of Maximón differs greatly from person to person and from place to place. San Andrés Itzapa, a town not far away from Santiago Atitlan, is deeply infatuated with the god, but instead of households shrines, residents have constructed a massive temple to Maximón at the opposite end of town from the Catholic church.
It’s one of the most popular shrines to Maximón in the region – people travel from all around Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Belize to burn offerings to him. Out front, shamans set fire to piles of flowers, corn and candles in public sacrifices every day. There is a nearby cantina where pilgrims can buy different coloured candles, bottles of Quetzalteca and cigars. A sign delivers a message from Maximón: at this shrine, negativity is not allowed. “I entreat that you do not come to me with a fist of candles to seek evil against your brothers, because the damage that you ask for them will be given to you,” it says. “Don't waste my time coming dressed like a sheep if inside you are a wolf.”
The pilgrims line up on one side of the temple’s main room and slowly move up to the altar, where they leave rum, bread, Quetzalteca, cigars or money. The walls are decorated with Christmas bunting (‘tis the season, after all), and multicoloured candles cover rows of simple metal tables. When I visited, a mariachi band was performing hymns to Maximón or San Simon – the names are interchangeable here.
Inside the temple in San Andrés Itzapa.
Those whose prayers have been answered purchase embossed plaques to be hung in the temple. These plaques usually include the names of the supplicants, where they are from, and what they asked for. They commemorate all kinds of favours: help in love, good health or success in business. “Thank you for the money,” tends to be popular, as does, “Thank you, San Simon, for the new motorcycle.”
Anecdotally, the Guatemalan press has claimed that the worship of Maximón has declined in recent decades due to the rapid growth of evangelical churches, but this is difficult to measure with any certainty. In any case, he’s still a powerful figure in Santiago Atitlan and San Andrés Itzapa. It’s easy to see why: The Guatemalan government seems powerless to bring an end to the poverty, corruption, and violence that has plagued the country, and Jesus isn’t the guy to ask for a new motorcycle. Maximón is a useful psychological conduit for many people who want to express a desire to better their lives.
That said, the whole black magic aspect helps as well. One resident of Santiago Atitlan, Marcos Lopez, explained to Prensa Libre why many are afraid to get rid of their personal statues of Maximón: “True or not, here it is thought that if you cease to worship, it can bring misfortune. Others believe that nothing will happen. To be secure, it is better to leave him in peace.”