Maximon is a Guatemalan legend, saint and a bit of a scoundrel whose beginnings are shrouded in time. To some, he is the embodiment of a Mayan god, Mam and max is the Mayan word for tobacco. Shimon, or Simon, refers to Saint Simon, whose birthday is on the 28th of October, as celebrated by the Catholic Church.
With the advent of the Spanish conquest, the church was on the front lines, ostensibly saving souls but also needing inexpensive labor to build their churches. It was an early version of an extreme make-over.
The Mayans went along with the concept, having had their villages razed and crops destroyed but continued to worship the new bi-religious figure. They do so today in a few select villages and the even more secret shrines hidden from the general public. Open adoration is not encouraged among the higher class Ladinos, given the still prominent role that the Catholic Church plays in Guatemala.
Maximon is commonly dressed in 19th Century clothing: a cowboy hat, bushy mustache, sideburns, the cane of authority and a stern visage. To some, he represents a ‘˜cargo cult’ in that presents are brought to buy his favors. He grants wishes in return for gifts of money, tobacco, liquor and incense: throw in some candles, obeisance and whispered requests for aid to the love-lorn, the financially destitute and the seekers of revenge, and he’s the perfect god.
A week ago, I was invited to a friend’s house to play cards. I brought a bottle of expensive gin and a hopeful attitude. Being met at the door, I was told that the plans had changed at the last minute and that there was a small crowd gathered in the detached casita that serves as the shrine for her personal wooden god in the black suit.
Tonight the older, full-size version had been brought in to add another presence to the Psychic Hot Line. There were a dozen indigenous Guatemalans, my friend and the leader of the night’s incantations, another light-skinned Ladino in a t-shirt who was conducting the evening’s ceremonies.
Everyone was ritually smoking cigarettes, the clouds of copal incense were wafting over the doorway and the idol sat propped on a large wooden throne, held in place by a brace of red velvet pillows.
Supposedly some 400 years old, the life-size wooden pale-colored effigy was dressed in black 19th century clothes, wearing a white cowboy hat and a vacant stare. A smoldering cigarette dangled from his stiff wooden lips. A semi-circle of worshipers listened attentively as the incantations were spoken. Two bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label scotch stood in front of the altar and a handful of small green candles were passed from hand to hand. Green candles refer to wishes for financial success, red for love and yellow for protection. This was ‘˜money night’. I left the bottle of Tanqueray on the altar: one never knows.