Maximon is an idol venerated by the Tzutuhil Mayans of Santiago Atitlan.  He is about 4 feet tall, dressed in numerous pairs of pants, shirts, scarves, and a huge hat; and the mask which is his face puffs on an inevitable cigar.

 It is said that long ago in Santiago there lived a dozen shamans (ajkunes) who commanded the thunder and lightening.  Six of them were older married men, and six were young and single.  The six single ajkunes schemed to overpower their six elders by bewitching and seducing their wives.  When the older ajkunes discovered the plot, they decided to take preemptive vengeance on the upstarts and guard their wives with a magical being. Deep in the forest they found an enormous pito tree; constantly praying over it and incensing it, they felled it and carved from its trunk a figure of Judas Iscariot (the patron saint of traitors). As the image took form it also came to life, and by the time it was completed it could talk to its creators.

 The six older ajkunes used spells to transform Maximon into a woman; and they gave him the appearance (one at a time) of each of their six adulterous wives, and sent him in turn to each of the six young traitorous ajkunes.  The disguised Maximon flirted and teased these young ajkunes, at length driving them berserk with lust and despair, until the young ajkunes finally surrendered their power to their elders.

 From that time on Maximon became the scourge of all adulterers in Santiago. It is said that Maximon appears to lecherous men as a beautiful, seductive ladina woman; and at the moment of sexual consummation he resumes his usual form and laughs in the adulterer’s face, and drives him crazy or kills him. It is also said that Maximon is motivated not so much by concern for public morality as he is by jealousy:  he seeks to keep the women of Santiago pure for his own personal use.

 Maximon, speaking through his attendant ajkunes, is sought out by all the peoples who live around Lake Atitlan to cure diseases, remove curses, divine for the future, bless crops, win lawsuits, etc. He is believed to be at one and the same time a manifestation of Judas Iscariot, Pedro de Alvarado, Saint Michael Archangel, the apostle Peter, and Mam (an ancient Mayan deity) – though he is most closely associated with San Simon, a popular deity invoked throughout Guatemala for witchcraft purposes.  Maximon definitely has a political aspect as well:  he personifies Francisco Sojuel, a hero of the Tzutuhil people in their resistance against the Spanish.  After Sojuel died his spirit was perpetuated in Maximon in order to fight the conquerors with magic. This is why he is arrayed in ladino clothing:  to fool the ladinos.  His power is invoked in any dispute with a ladino or with the government; and it is said that it is precisely because of Maximon’s power and influence that some of the bloodiest fights and massacres of the recent guerrilla war occurred in Santiago Atitlan.

 The Catholic Church has, at various times, sought to eradicate the cult of Maximon. In 1914 a bishop who had tried to set Maximon on fire was run out of Santiago.  During Holy Week of 1950 Father Godofriedo Recinos, the priest of Solola, came to say mass in Santiago with the secret intention of destroying Maximon.  With the aid of a group of native catechists he had trained, he tried to set Maximon afire, but he was thwarted by Maximon’s guardian ajkune, Nicolas Chiviliu. Recinos fired three shots at Maximon, but missed each shot.  “Either that pagan idol goes, or I go!” he challenged.

 “Go, Father.” replied Chiviliu.

 Six weeks later Father Recinos returned to Santiago with two other priests. With the help of the catechists they snuck into the cofraternity where Maximon was kept, chopped off Maximon’s head with a machete, grabbed the mask of Maximon, and sped away from the village in a motor launch.

 The people of Santiago were enraged.  The catechists tried to calm them down, saying that the pope himself had sent for Maximon to ask his blessing. But the people were not appeased:  Chiviliu and the other ajkunes of Maximon maintained that after this desecration Maximon would no longer speak to or help humans. Nonetheless they made a new mask for Maximon, and petitioned the president of Guatemala for permission to resume their cult. 

 Father Recinos was defeated.  On his next visit to Santiago he offered to say mass if someone would offer him food and lodging; but he was met with stony silence. As he left he shook his fist at Maximon.  “That is the work of the devil!”  he cried.

 “Father,” replied Chiviliu, “we are sons of the devil.”

 It is said that Maximon cursed the catechists who had helped Recinos: they bickered among themselves, their group fell apart, their marriages dissolved, and some became alcoholics.  The severest curse was reserved for the catechist leader, a young painter who had previously earned his living selling paintings of Maximon to tourists – all of his children were born crippled.

 The stolen mask of Maximon was sold to a French anthropologist who donated it to the Museum of Man in Paris, where it resided for the next twenty-seven years.  An effort was made by the people of Santiago to secure the return of the mask, but the museum rejected their appeal, arguing that they couldn’t return exhibits or else they soon wouldn’t have a museum.  But eventually the museum agreed to a compromise: they would return Maximon’s mask if the people of Santiago would send a replica. This was done, and in 1978 Maximon returned to his home village.

 He can be seen there on Holy Wednesday, Thursday, and Good Friday, when he is ceremoniously put together, lovingly dressed and fondled by the ajkunes, plied with cigars and liquor, and then hung by the neck from the rafters of the cofraternity of Santa Cruz.


Notes: Much of the foregoing information is taken from Los Escandalos de Maximon by E. Michael Mendelson, Tip. Nac. 1965;  and Guatemala Indigena by Instituto Indigenista Nacional, p.113. The exchanges between Recinos and Chiviliu are probably apocryphal; but they are quoted verbatim from Time Magazine, Latin American edition, for April 2, 1951, p.25.

Bob Makransky’s Astrology Corner © 2001

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