THE JUDAS OF THE WESTERN HIGHLANDS

Encounter With Maximon
While investigating Guatemala’s folk-magic patron saint of thieves and whores, James Marriott made a serious mistake. Illustration by John Coulthart.

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (Jan 2004)

The first children I asked to show me the way to the house of Maximon, Guatemala’s ‘evil saint’, turned tail and fled. The next boy I approached was unable to escape, hobbled by a pair of oversized rubber boots, and pointed me in the right direction. The building wasn’t much to look out—unpainted concrete blocks with a corrugated iron roof—but once I was in I knew I’d come to the right place.

Maximon sat at one end of a dark room, the life-sized dummy of a moustachioed white man wearing a suit, sunglasses, a felt hat and a silk scarf, with a garish handkerchief over his mouth. Candles were arrayed before him, and towards the entrance, at the opposite end of the room, tarot and palm readings were taking place. Another doorway led through to a courtyard, beyond which was a shop selling cigars, magical potions, herbs, candles and anything else the devotee might need.

There was a fire in the courtyard, around which a Mayan woman with gold teeth, a ladino woman and two boys of around six hyperventilated on huge cigars, working themselves into a sweat. The Mayan woman offered to read my palm. When I foolishly declined, she shrieked with laughter and returned to the serious business of her cigar. The ladino woman didn’t even look at me—Maximon is the patron saint of thieves and prostitutes, but I couldn’t very well ask her if either of these applied—and when the nicotine-crazed boys started to run around my legs, I went back into the main room to take a seat at the back and make myself as inconspicuous as possible.

New arrivals would walk straight past the tarot readers and into the courtyard, where they consulted with the Mayan woman before puffing on cigars and preparing themselves for a consultation with the saint. They would then approach the impassive figure and speak to him, stroking his arms and laying money and other offerings in a bowl in his lap. A smartly dressed man standing by the saint appeared to be his keeper, putting offerings of cigars in his mouth and tipping aguardiente, a fiery local spirit, down his wooden throat, or gently lashing the devotees with a bundle of herbs during a limpia, or soul cleansing.

The children came in, one looking demonic as he threatened the other with a bottle, then tied his feet together with a length of twine. The keening victim tried to hide behind me, crawling into a safe position sheltered by the gringo as the increasingly demented bully giggled and made throat-slitting gestures, the pain and anguish in his victim’s face only spurring him on to greater fury. For a terrible moment I thought that I was mistaken—they weren’t children at all, but rather stunted adults, their growth arrested by heavy nicotine use—but the pitch of the victim’s whine reassured me. As the bullying grew nastier in tone, I wondered if I should intervene, but it seemed patronizing to do anything— the only attention the other adults paid was to motion to the weaker child to be quiet. Eventually the bully left the room, and his charge fled. It seemed a fitting introduction to the world of the Judas of the Western Highlands.

* * *

Nobody’s quite sure where Maximon comes from. Most sources maintain that he is a syncretic conflation of a pre-Columbian Mayan god, Mam, and the Christian Saint Simon. According to this tradition, the name derives from a combination of Simon and max, the Mayan word for tobacco; many people still refer to him as San Simon. His powerful influence has traditionally been feared by the Catholic Church, which has attempted to suppress his worship by portraying him as Judas, and at Easter in Santiago Atitlan figures of Christ and Maximon are paraded through the streets for a powerfully charged symbolic confrontation.

But their efforts have been in vain. Maximon is equally popular among the Mayan and ladino populations of Guatemala, and the plaques lining the wall of the largest Maximon shrine, at San Andres Ixtapa, are testament to the faith many have in his power: to help financial ventures, to bless journeys or to cure disease. Maximon is a worldly saint, recognizing the needs and failings of normal people; like them, he likes tobacco, alcohol and the trappings of wealth, such as leather shoes and silk scarves. He is well disposed to granting blessings in exchange for offerings of the things he likes. To visit Maximon and leave nothing is considered a serious mistake.

He has five shrines in Western Guatemala—in Zunil (the shrine described above), Santiago Atitlan, Nahual, San Pedro de la Laguna and San Andres Ixtapa, and in each he appears different. In some he is life-sized and recognisably human; in others he is little more than a bundle of clothes topped by a roughly hewn mask.

Myths of his birth vary, although most sources maintain that he was created by Guatemalan Nahuales (shamans) to combat witchcraft and evil spirits. In his first incarnation he was too powerful, his unbridled sexual energy driving him to appear as a beautiful man or woman in turn, seducing both male and female villagers before leaving them to die. The Nahuales responded by twisting his head around, breaking his legs and tying his arms down, so that they could control him, and even today the figure is rarely paraded around in public, being kept most often indoors in a large glass box. According to this interpretation Maximon means ‘he who is tied with string’.

* * *

I visited all of the Maximon shrines during my stay in Guatemala, although I didn’t feel comfortable approaching the trickster saint himself until a visit to San Andres Ixtapa, the largest shrine, near Antigua. It was easier to understand what was going on there—most visitors were ladino, and spoke Spanish—and nobody seemed to mind when I made my own requests to the saint. I even felt comfortable watching a divining session at one of the many tables facing the shrine, during which a man scattered red and white beads and crystals then rearranged them while telling a young couple what their future held. At some of the other shrines the keepers spoke only in various Mayan languages and looked askance at a gringo visitor, a tourist treating their deity as just one more stop on the well-trodden trail. At one shrine I was driven away by the choking fug of air-freshener a devotee continually sprayed over the figure. The keepers looked bemused when I began to cough, their lungs inured to chemical abuse from years of living near the capital.

Some people refused to tell me where the shrines were, pointing to someone else and telling me to ask them; and occasionally my searches took me to interesting places by mistake. A woman who worked in a museum near Antigua told me about a Maximon shrine just twenty minutes away by bus, so I went to check it out. Getting out at the end of the bus line, I asked a local where the shrine was. He looked puzzled, then asked if I wanted the witch. I agreed, assuming that here Maximon was considered witchcraft, and he told me how to get there; another couple confirmed his directions.

I knocked on the door I’d been directed to and a Mayan woman answered. She told me there was no Maximon there, and that I had the wrong house; but I persisted, sure that there was something here, and reassured her that I had no camera and wasn’t an American, hoping this would stand me in her favour. Why, I asked, did three people tell me that this was a witch’s house if there was nothing going on here? Finally she let me in, and showed me a shrine. It looked much like a normal Christian shrine to me, and when I pointed this out she took me to a back room, where the real weirdness lay. Here was a crowned saint with a death´s head: Rey Pacual. I was told later this was a syncretic mixture of Ah Pook, the Mayan death god, with imagery from Catholic saints. In front of the figure were arranged a number of brandy glasses full of water, each containing a conch shell.

She told me that she could read water; that people came to her to invoke spirits and that the answers the spirits gave could be seen in the water. We discussed the dangers of uneducated straying into the spirit world and different ways of conjuring spirits, until finally I left. On my way to the central plaza I asked a man where the artesania market was—the town was renowned for its weavings—and he told me that there wasn’t one here; it was in the next town along. I hadn’t been where I thought I was at all; I’d come to the wrong town.

* * *

Magic and religion are inextricably linked in Guatemala. The disapproval of the Catholic Church has done nothing to stop the worship of the country’s very own Baron Samedi. Christianity may have strong roots here, but it is of a kind resembling the early Christian era, during which even the blackest grimoires adopted a pious tone.

Fertility rituals can still be seen at Mayan sites throughout the country, a contemporary phenomenon that escapes the attention of tourists more interested in the dead stone of Tikal. A wizened farmer took me to one at the hilltop site of San Francisco near the Pacific coast, showing me on the way an ancient Mayan carving at which he’d made offerings, after which he was given better land. He told me that Maximon was a living god, unlike those worshiped on the hill, and took vengeance on those who visited him without leaving anything.

There were two stones on the hilltop, and I watched a woman tend a fire before one of them, limes, eggs and charred chicken feet still visible in the ashes. The procedure followed at the stones was similar to that at a Maximon shrine, with aguardiente drunk and splashed over the carvings—one a full-figure relief of a god, the other a large bald head, half-sunk in the ground—and money and flowers left on the ground. The teenaged girls who were presumably the objects of the ritual giggled and ate a picnic of takeaway chicken nearby, apparently oblivious to the events unfolding around them. When the family came to leave, I was warned that I should go with them: a decapitated body had been found nearby recently, and mara—Guatemalan youth gangs—were active in the area.

I wondered if other Mayan ritual practices were still common, and attended festivals half-hoping to catch glimpses of ecstatic bloodletting, obsidian spines passed through penis or tongue; perhaps I’d see some reptilian teenager showing off his ritual tongue bifurcation, or encounter a cone-headed child, a noble heir whose skull deformation had been engineered from birth. But this religious bloodthirstiness seemed long since to have passed from them, chicken now the only animals to feel the priest’s blade; a boom in other magical practices filled the void.

The shops surrounding the shrine at San Andres Ixtapa sold a huge variety of magical artifacts—from home exorcism kits to potions for every conceivable need, from making yourself irresistible to the opposite sex to silencing a nagging wife. Even villages lacking such an obvious focal point would feature pavement vendors hawking small paperbacks with an unvarying range of content—teach yourself karate, attract women, make money fast, learn spells.

At first the widespread belief in magic in Guatemala seemed romantically appealing to me; it was fascinating, imaginatively charged, and colorful when compared to the drabness of much of modern Europe. But the inclusion of magical texts with the street vendors’ other product soon made me think that perhaps this was a dangerous distraction for the Guatemalans: a dishonest promise of power for those who have none. Rather than trusting in Maximon, or Rey Pascual, the indigenous Maya people should be working in land reform movements, fighting the inequities of land ownership in Guatemala through political pressure – and through force, if necessary.

But belief systems such as that surrounding Maximon serve another function altogether. In a country that has seen its indigenous culture threatened by colonization, religious conversion, military dictatorships and, finally, tourism, Maximon and contemporary Mayan rituals provide a focus for something which is uniquely Guatemalan, a cultural form that if anything has grown more powerful through being suppressed. It may be a distraction in one sense; in another it is one of the strongest currents in indigenous culture.

* * *

The warnings finally got to me. Maximon wreaked revenge on those foolish enough to visit him without leaving anything. I had even asked for something—the commissioning of my third book, Tourist Trap, a grisly collection of holiday tales from hell—and had the request granted, but I’d left nothing except the gringo fee levelled at a few of the sites.

I consulted the books as to the best offering to leave for gratitude, and found that I should light three yellow candles and leave some cash. It seemed easy, and as I took the bus to San Andres Ixtapa I had a sense of having come full circle; of finally paying a debt. I lit one candle, then held it almost upside down as I used the flame to soften the base of another. A woman ran over, anguish distorting her face, and grabbed them from me. She explained that I shouldn’t use one candle to prepare another—or at least that’s what I thought she said. I took the candles back from her, grinning broadly, and again held a lit one upside down, dripping wax on the table to prepare a bed for it to stand in. The woman, who’d been watching anxiously, shrieked and again grabbed the candle from me. Now it dawned on me—lit candles should not be held upside down at a Maximon shrine.

I should have known. I’d seen the same symbol outside London’s Victorian cemeteries: an inverted torch, signifying death, the extinction of light. But I continued my ritual anyway, thanking Maximon and leaving my money in his palm and my candles forming a triangle on a nearby table. The woman who’d tried to stop me making a grievous error smiled uneasily as I left. I didn’t think much more about it until two events occurred towards the end of my trip in such rapid succession that I feared I had offended the gods. Or, more specifically, a god.

The first was when I had my backpack stolen. It could have happened to anyone, but along with my passport, airline tickets and one of the notebooks I’d been using for Tourist Trap, one of the objects stolen was a large Maximon souvenir—one meant to confer good luck.

A week later I lay in twitching agony on a hospital bed as six large parasitical worms were removed from my back. They’d been there for a while, but I’d waited until the holes in which they lived were bleeding heavily—it happened mostly after they ate—before contacting a doctor. He seemed stunned that I’d waited so long, and called a nurse over as I lay on my front to tell her, ‘Look! You can see its head coming up to breathe!’ He even gave me the worms afterward, and I kept them in a jar until they died from lack of food. The largest was about an inch long, with a ring of black bristles.

I’m not sure even now if the curse of Maximon has lifted. The odd brutal synchronicity or run of appalling luck can still be blamed on his malign influence, as can the insect hum of anxiety providing the backbone for my existence since my return from Central America. But his victims are said to die from stomach infestations, something in which I am happily lacking. And there can’t be any strict, sub-Tutankhamen curse applying for such minor misdemeanors as failing to leave an offering, then botching one. Can there?


James Marriott’s book about tourist crime, Tourist Trap (published by Virgin Books, under the penname Patrick Blackden), is out now.

One thought on “THE JUDAS OF THE WESTERN HIGHLANDS

  1. Pingback: The Unlimited Imagination of the Modern Drug Smuggler « The Aerostat

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