Maximon is actually a pre-Columbian Mayan god of the underworld formerly known as Maam ("grandfather") or Rilaj Mam; his modern name is a conflation of Mam and Simon. Contemporary images do not depict the deity himself, but rather a life-sized carved wooden statue of the god dressed in early 20th century clothing. He is portrayed as a mustached man seated outdoors at a crossroads, wearing a black suit, red tie, and wide-brimmed hat. There are many such life-sized statues of him, enchrined in a number of Mayan towns.
In the small votary image from Chichimula shown here, the statue of Maximon balances a closed money bag in his lap with his left hand and holds a short flag staff with his right. This is a retouched version of an older photo in which the statue is posed with a rifle -- the rifle barrel has become the flag staff. In other images he holds gold coins in his open left hand and carries an alcalde's baton. He is usually shown in a town square, outside a church or cathedral, as befits his status as a folk-saint who, despite the local name San Simon, is "banned" from the interior of the church.
Maximon symbolizes chthonic male sexual power. As an "opener of the way," his feast day falls at the onset of the fertile rainy season, but except for that day, his devotees may guard his visage from public view, for fear that his sexuality may run rampant. Primarily a bringer of rain and fertility, he is sometimes also called "the saint of gamblers and drunkards." He brings wealth and worldly success to those who venerate him.
In older days, Mam's processional festival culminated with his being hung upon a floriated cross, which symbolized the intersection of the Milky Way and the celestial equator in the night sky. When the Catholic religion was introduced to the region, this "crucifixion" of Maximon on the flowery stellar tree-cross was viewed as sacriligious, for the Catholic priests believed that only Jesus and his disciple Simon Peter could legitimately be depicted as crucified. Because it was forbidden to identify Maximon with Jesus, devout Mayans who wished to syncretize the veneration of Mam with Catholicism identified him with Simon Peter, calling him Maximon -- Mam-Simon -- but hard-core Catholics who opposed the Mayan religion and wished to obliterate it utterly tried to identify the Rilej Mam with Judas Iscariot, who hung himself from a tree for betraying Jesus, and thus to bring shame and calumny to his name.
In contemporary Guatemalan Mayan villages Maximon's temples are generally simple cinder-block buildings, each maintained by a local "Cofradia San Simon" Cofradia means "brotherhood" and it is related to the English word "confraternity." In Guatemala, a cofradia is a religious organization in which men and women assume certain duties. The idea was introduced by the Catholic priests, but while there are "official" cofradias for Catholic saints, the "Cofradia San Simon" is obviously outside the church's jurisdiction.
Within the cofradia building, the enthroned Maximon is sometimes draped with offerings of neckties, scarves, and bandannas. These are laid on him, over his black suit of clothing, to absorb power, and are later distributed to congregants to wear. When Maximon is venerated out-of-doors, a circle of sugar crossed with two lines of sugar may be used to create a temporary altar crossroads symbolizing the intersection of the Milky Way and the celestial equator and the band of the ecliptic, the heavenly crucifixion-point of Mam. This replaces the ancient, and still controversial, floriated cross on which he was formerly hung.
Offerings to Maximon include tobacco, copal negro incense resin, sausage-tree fruits, alcohol, Coca Cola, money, and a tropical plant with orange-red berries. The offerings of cigarettes, cigars, and sausage-tree fruits relate symbolically to the large phallus of Maximon; copal negro is the ancient Mayan sacred incense offered to all of the gods of the Mayan pantheon. Perfume dedicated to Maximon may be scented with orange blossoms or blended citrus odors.
The area around Lake Atitlan and the town of Panajachel, Guatemala, is generally considered to be the place where the modern veneration of Maximon began. On his feast day, which occurs at Easter, the procession of Maximon follows the procession carrying a representation of the coffin of Jesus. Maximon is carried through the streets on a palanquin by a team of men, who ceremonially tread a temporary processional road made down the center of the street. In older times the pathway was made of flower blossons, arrayed in simple geometric designs, and his statue was hung from the sacred Mayan sky-tree-cross at the end of the processional ceremony, but in modern times, coloured sawdust (the kind used for making incense powders) is used to "sand-paint" the designs in the street, and the procession ends at his own temple building, where he may be given cigarettes or cigars to smoke. As the statue carriers process, they take several steps forward, then a step back, slowing themselves down and rubbing out the sacred designs with their shufflng feet.
In Antigua, Guatemala, the veneration of Maximon includes lighting candles and fires, as well as feeding the statue with cigars and liquor, and making offerings of money and copal negro incense resin.
In San Andreas Itzapa, Guatemala, the old image of the rifle-toting Maximon has been revised to show him carrying the Guatemalan national flag.
In Zunil, Guatemala, Maximon wears sunglasses. Colourful scarves are laid on his statue, and his throne is surrounded with flowers and offerings of alcohol. The scarves are later taken off the statue and distributed to be worn as talismanic objects.
In the town of Santiago, Guatemala, the relationship between Maximon and Jesus is more complex. Because zealous Catholics in this town once destroyed his statue, Maximon processes the day before Jesus. Along the way, Maximon stops at the Catholic church to visit Jesus and challenges him to come out and do "battle," despite the fact that they are friends. The final stop of the procession is made at the town hall rather than at the church, which reflects the history of unfriendly Catholic priests in this town, and the substitution of the alcalde's (mayor's) baton for the rifle in Maximon statues in Santiago indicates a long-ago truce and an acknowledgement of the role played by local municipal government.
The conflict between Native Mayan religion and Catholic teachings is obvious in local accounts such as the this one from Santiago: "On Wednesday of Holy Week he leaves the Brotherhood and goes to the municipal building. There they let him rest for a good while and from there they take him to his chapel, as it is the custom. When they arrive there they tie him up on a pole and decorate him with the leaves of the plant that is called T'ney Mam. When they tie him up on this pole they say he's Judas, who wants to kill himself for having betrayed Jesus Christ. But this is not true."
The former conflict with the Catholic church is described thus in Santiago: "Our grandfathers tell us that a long time ago there was a priest who wanted to finish with the Rilaj Mam. He threw him on the floor; he shot him with a revolver and then chopped him into little bits with a machete. This could not destroy him. Today people arrive daily with the Ajq'iij, some asking for help for others, some asking for money. The men ask for a wife and the women ask for a good husband. This is the life of the Rilaj Mam, Don Pedro, San Simon. We, the Mayan priests, name him now 'The Doctor, The Angel, The Lightning Bolt That Strikes, The Underground One, the Extra Terrestrial, and The Astrologist.' We also call him 'The Great Grandfather Mam, Great Grandfather Pedro.' Oh Father, oh Mother! Holy are your words, holy are your experiences, Father. This is all."
Related pages of interest:
- Catholic Patron Saints for various occupations and conditions
- Gods and Saints as Lucky Figures
- The Relationship between Luck, Protection, Religion, and Magic
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