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Guatemala’s Saint and Sinner

“Quieres conocer a Maximón?” he asked me

“Si, por favour”

Of course I had to meet Maximón – the famous, Mayan demigod that my new friends (good friends of a good friend) had talked about during our drive from Antigua to Quetzaltenango via Zunil and Almolonga.

I followed him down the cobbled streets of Santiago Atitlan, not sure if I should be there. “No fotos”, he instructed. The “No fotos” might have changed to a conditional “Okay” for a few Quetzales, I thought later.

A revered figure in parts of Guatemalan highlands, particularly Almolonga, Zunil and Santiago Atitlán, the origins of Maximón are unknown. For some he’s their patron saint San Simón, for others the Mayan god Mam. It is also maintained that the name Maximón comes from San Simón and max (tobacco) that Maximón is known to be an enthusiast of. He is also likened with Judas of Iscariot and often replaces the infamous Apostle during Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations. (Side note: while I was in Antigua for Semana Santa, I couldn’t quite see Maximón’s presence anywhere there). What is extremely intriguing is how he carries a vile image but venerated as a Saint at the same time. Folklore has it that once while the men of the village were away toiling in the fields, Maximón slept with all their wives. Angry, the men cut off his arms and legs.

In a low, dark room, the unimpressive structure sat as if waiting for me. Surrounded by vases of flowers, glowing incense sticks and candles, one could see how they want him to look like a James Bond- black jacket, tie, fedora and a cigar hanging from the lip. Except, they failed. He was sculpted out of wood, not more than 3 feet high (remember they cut off his arms and legs?), face half blackened and clothes in tatters.

His caretakers belong to the village cofradia– devotees who in turn offer him their homes each year. I’ve read that he is regularly offered cigars and alcohol by devotees that come to ask him for blessings and protection. I guess there is an image to be maintained.

I didn’t stay there much longer. There was more to do at the textile museum close by. The image of Maximón and his followers lingered. I wondered if he ever was a real person.


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