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Merging of Beliefs: Maximon

Our drive back to Antigua from the town of Todos Santos included a stop in Zunil, within the department of Quetzaltenango, to see Maximon (pronounced “Maa-shee-MOHN”), the post-Columbian figure representing the mischievous saint of the indigenous people and one of the strongest remnants of the native philosophy in Guatemala. There was no obvious sign that Maximon lived in Zunil, no street signs nor advertisements publicizing his presence. Our tour guide didn’t know exactly where Maximon was kept this year, just that he was located in a house within that town. After asking several people for his location, we finally found him. He stays in one house for a whole year and then on November 1st at the end of Zunil’s fiesta, he is transported to another house in the same town. The family who keeps him for the year is responsible for his well being and can make a lot of money from visitors who pay to see him, pay to take pictures of him and from the sale of Maximon dolls, drinks, candles, etc. Maximon’s effigies are found in towns around Guatemala, including Zunil, San Andres Itzapa, Nahuala and Santiago Atitlan, among others.

When I entered the darkened room in which Maximon was held, there were hundreds of burning candles around the floor, two attendants at the back of the room whose 24-hour job it is to make sure Maximon is well cared for and to break off the ashes from his cigarettes/cigars as they burn, flowers around the periphery, a box of monetary donations for him, and at last, the life-sized, wooden Maximon sitting in a big wooden chair. Two people were standing next to Maximon, one on each side of him, and in the process of giving him their offerings, were tipping his chair back so he could “drink” a cup of “aguardiente” (firewater). After they gave him the drink, they placed a lit cigarette in his mouth. In exchange for their contributions, this couple in traditional indigenous dress was asking Maximon to do favors for them. Although petitioners usually pray for "good causes", such as assistance with health, personal or community issues, can also be enlisted to get rid of evil spells or even to cast one. It is believed that his incredible powers grant followers protection from evil spirits, spells and enemies as well as luck, money, love and happiness symbolized through specifically colored candles.

Dressed in a fancy trousers and coat, leather shoes or boots, Stetson hat and silk scarves, Maximon, also known as San Simon, is thought to be part Mayan God (Mam) and part Catholic Saint. Some of his followers call him Maximon though San Simon, a combination of Simon and “max”, the Mayan word for tobacco, is also heard in communities. During the Spanish conquest when the indigenous people were made to convert to Catholicism, the belief in Maximon was born as an attempt to hold onto their own traditional beliefs and at one point, belief in Maximon was made to go underground. Although first encouraged by the Catholic Church, Maximon was eventually persecuted and very feared by the Church because of his great power. In an attempt to deal with him, the Church saw him and still sees him as Judas, the betrayer of Jesus Christ, though his influence on and reverence by the indigenous people is still very alive.

Extremely interested in the different displays of Maximon, I also visited him in San Andres Itzapa. In this town, San Simon, as he is called here, lives in a pagan chapel within a glass case that is closed at night to keep his spirit from leaving the village. Before entering the chapel, we were encouraged to buy candles depending on what we wanted to ask for, such as blue candles for work and luck, purple ones against bad thoughts or black ones against enemies or envy. Once inside, we lit our candles and placed them on tables holding hundreds of previously lit candles.

By: AmeriSpan-Sue Lavene

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