It’s close to midday and something’s lurking in a small adobe house in Zunil.
This is a very traditional Guatemala highland village that’s tucked into a deep valley just 9km from Quetzaltenango and known for its market, hot thermal baths and the very, very nattily dressed Mayan idol San Simon, or Maximon, with whom I have an appointment.
I’ve read a lot about Maximon and am really little better enlightened. He definitely represents a syncretic link between Catholicism and Mayan beliefs. Probably the easiest explanation to latch onto is the story that he was Mestizo, the offspring of a coupling between the Spanish conquistadores and indigenous Maya but championed the cause of the Maya people who were oppressed and abused by the Spanish colonial forces and who recognised him as a dangerous provocateur. They subsequently rallied to destroy him but in the best tradition of heroes, deities and Star Wars, his death only served to make him stronger. This power has been distilled into many forms and methods of worship but whichever brand of Maximon you follow, he remains one of the most virile and popular Gods in the Mundo Maya, a cigar-smoking, aguardiente-drinking, womanising, strong man, revered by men and women alike for his super-human powers and willingness to stand up for his people.
Just to be clear, Maximon is represented by a wooden life-size mannequin but it’s a great honour to be appointed the guardian for a year of this deity. The exciting thing is that he looks and is clothed differently, depending on the village that you visit. I pull up outside an indifferent house in an indifferent street in Zunil but before we arrive at chez Maximon, there is a shop selling everything that you need for a visit. At this stage (and in hindsight) it’s worth pointing out that any pilgrimage to Maximon seems to be about what he can do for you rather than any idea of paying tribute. The shop sells a huge range of arcane items including candles, incense, cards and toys. My guide and I buy a couple of purple candles that we are subsequently told are good for warding against enemies…
We then gingerly open the door to the Maximon room to be greeted by a most extraordinary scene. Yes, there are candles, flowers, incense, cigars, liquor and subdued lighting but at the heart of this mystical scene sits, what appears to be, the reincarnation of Michael Jackson.
I really don’t know what to do with this first impression and take a leaflet from my guide who is suitably respectful. Michael, I mean Maximon, sits at the altar surrounded by this paraphernalia and is immediately approached by a devotee who offers up a bottle of aguardiente (rough locally distilled alcohol). Maximon’s trilby hatted head is tipped back and the scarf covering his mouth is removed in order for him to drink. The liquor flows through his wooden torso into a tub under his bottom, presumably to be “recycled”. I mention the Michael thought to my guide who grins and nods. And this is the thing – Maximon seems to be an Everyman. There is no preciousness or ignorant reverence about what he represents. These days, he is a practical God who grants wishes.
A young couple enter the room and are guided by the Shaman that they have contracted to help them, to kneel in front of Maximon and kiss his hands. The shaman then leaves to buy the necessary goods from the shop next door in order for his work to be efficacious, while the couple, as instructed, weep in front of this powerful deity. My guide suggests forgiveness as the motive. It’s extraordinary that this very personal and passionate scene is played out in front of us very comfortably and without embarrassment…other than mine.
A consultation with Maximon is a practical and necessary thing. Local indigenous villagers will stop off on the way to the shops to seek his assistance and not bat an eyelid about a belief that is believed and habitual.
We grab a breath in the yard outside but a very short one. This is where the professional Shaman are working their magic in the fire pits, creating circles of sugar and building small hillocks of incense balls that are then very carefully covered in appropriately coloured candles before setting light to their creations. Smoke is a very important element of the ritual and we assist with a few Marlboro Lights.
Ritual is often divorced from fact and need, but not so here. Maximon is an honest God who wears his heart on his sleeve. Yes, there’s a lot of smoke and theatricality but he is an entertainer as well as a guide and I think that Maximon and his followers would be tickled by the Michael Jackson analogy. In modern parlance – he’s bad!