The first time I saw him in Guatemala, he was sitting on a chair in a native marketplace, dressed in a black suit, black shoes, and black hat. His mouth was open, shaped into a small “o.” He was appealing but also had a streak of danger about him.
“Who is he?” I asked my new Guatemalan friend.
“Maximon,” she answered, pronouncing it Mah-she-mone.
The second time, it was a hot, humid day, and I was looking for a grocery store to buy a bottle of water. He was in a shop that sold masks and textiles. He was clearly staring at me.
“I see you like him,” said the shop owner.
I nodded tentatively.
“Here,” he said, and he handed Maximon and his chair to me. You see, Maximon was less than a foot high, and he was made of wood.
“Would you like to have him?”
I opened my wallet, and then hesitated. “Maybe later,” I said.
The third time, he was sitting in a room in the home of a Maya healer named José. José was a member of a cofradia, or religious brotherhood, and Maximon occupied the place of honor on an altar, flanked by two Christ figures. He wore the same black, European garb, but he was also adorned with colorful textiles, and there were bottles of aguardiente (home-brewed alcohol) at his feet. He had a big, unlit cigar in his mouth.
“Tell me about him, please,” I asked a Guatemalan man who had come for a healing.
“He’s a god, but he likes to smoke and drink like the rest of us.”
It was hard for me to understand this. A wooden god who smokes and drinks?
“Where does he come from?” I asked the man.
“Santiago Atitlan,” he answered. And so I went there.
A Devil and a Saint
Lake Atitlan is one of the jewels of Guatemala — a spectacular expanse of deep, blue water, surrounded by three majestic, looming volcanoes: Toliman, Atitlan, and San Pedro. I took a boat to Santiago, a Maya village at an altitude over of 5,000 feet, and wandered through the hilly streets with uneven paving stones, guided by a young girl of seven or eight in well-worn clothes. She was very focused on her task of getting me to a Maximon shrine, and she didn’t speak much. After about 20 minutes, she stopped in front of a low, cement house and beckoned me to go in. I entered, and I was not alone. There, in a small room, was a life-sized Maximon, and near him was his guardian, a member of the brotherhood of the Holy Cross. He waved an incense burner made from an old coffee tin, and through the punctured holes, ribbons of copal smoke wafted out and filled the room.
On cement benches that lined the wall facing Maximon, Maya people waited patiently and whispered in their K’iche’ language. When it was their turn, they made a cash offering of quetzales (Guatemalan currency) and burned candles (different colors represent different favors that are requested). They put cigarettes in Maximon’s mouth and donated small bottles of alcohol. Some of the contents of the latter were poured into Maximon’s rigid, open mouth, and when the liquor began to dribble, the guardian lovingly mopped up the figure’s chin and neck.
A guide entered the room with a few Japanese visitors in tow, and we began to speak. He told me that Maximon is revered by Maya and many other people, and he may be the reincarnation of Maam, an ancient god of the underworld. Yes, his name could come from Maam; or perhaps it derives from “max,” which means “tobacco” in the Maya language. Alternately, it might signify “bound with string or rope.”
More people arrived, offering more candles, more to drink, more to smoke — single cigars, cigarettes, and entire boxes. The atmosphere got noisy, hazy, permeated with the smell of alcohol. The more people I questioned about Maximon, the more confused I became. He was a saint. A devil. The godfather or grandfather of the village, who protected them from evil and witches. A doctor. A trickster. A potent miracle worker and healer. An ancient Maya god syncretized with San Simon and also, perhaps, Judas Iscariot. A Maya leader who was hitched to a chair and burned by Pedro de Alvarado, the brutal Spanish conquistador who ravaged the Maya culture and people in the middle of the sixteenth century.
Maya supplicants bowed low in front of Maximon or got down on their knees, praying. They implored him for food, health, crops, a safe voyage, success at selling in the market. Red candles were lit for love, white to protect children, pink for health, and yellow for the elders. Some people spoke briefly, some for a long time. To them, Maximon was not a wooden figure — he was an intimate god they could turn to in times of need.
“Did you make a donation and request something?” a woman asked me.
“I don’t have quetzales,” I replied.
“Maximon takes dollars, too.”
I reached into my wallet, but I hesitated, as I had done in the store. I wasn’t ready to make an offering to Maximon, because I didn’t really understand him. And then a man from Guatemala City came into the room. His English was almost perfect. He was working as a guide and had a Canadian couple in tow.
I listened carefully as he told them about Maximon.
“He is a divinity but one who is very revered because he understands human vice and sin. He enjoys smoking, drinking, and carousing, just like people do.”
“Why do they worship someone like that?” asked the Canadian man.
“Because he himself is a sinner, he is able to forgive,” he answered, smiling.
It was precisely the information I had hoped for. Like every other human, I had done things wrong. Acted thoughtlessly. Missed opportunities when I could have done better. I had asked the Big One in the sky to excuse me. I had felt bad, guilty, and remorseful over the course of my life. But I had never had a chance to request absolution from a god with alcohol dribbling down his chin and rolled tobacco protruding from his mouth.
I placed money in the offering box, lit a candle, and looked at Maximon.
“I am sorry for anything I have ever done wrong,” I told him. “Can I sort of ask for global absolution instead of enumerating every petty error of the past?”
I looked up. Was it possible? I saw a twinkle in Maximon’s right eye. I somehow knew that he had forgiven me; that I could go forward with a clean slate in life.
“Enjoy your booze and cigarettes,” I told him, as I exited the room and entered the sunny outdoors, feeling like a better, lighter, happier person.
Judith Fein is a longtime contributor to Spirituality & Health. An author, filmmaker, and public speaker, her website is globaladventure.us.