A cowboy shaman in hand-tooled leather boots and dazzling silver belt buckle is lying prostrate in a dark room at the rear of a small family compound in central Guatemala, wailing and crying in the midst of a deeply spiritual experience that is being casually observed by a ring of tourists.
It’s a spooky, surreal scene, dimly lit by a cluster of candles melting into the concrete floor and a few neon halos amid a crowd of brilliantly coloured bunting festooned through the rafters. While the tourists gawk, the shaman is making a desperate, emotional plea for a miracle, and because Western medicine has failed his relative’s health, he’s placing his faith in a small timber idol – the Maximon – whose origins can be traced to the core of pagan Mayan beliefs.
The presence of the Maximon in this modest family home in the village of Santiago Atitlan, beside Lake Atitlan in central Guatemala, is a great honour. After all, he is deemed the spiritual protector of Santiago Atitlan. But he isn’t an easy idol to comprehend. He is both divine and devilish, fiend and friend, a communicator to Ajaw, the supreme Mayan god, but also a trickster that may double cross whoever presents an offering. So some supplicants appeal for miracles, some hope to extract revenge on foes, some for riches, often at the expense of detested rivals. The stoic Maximon gives nothing away; maybe he’ll help, maybe not, though his elusiveness hasn’t diminished his popularity.
The Maximon now takes the image of a cowboy – big hat and cigar, leather boots, and many knotted silk ties (they represent wisdom) surrounding a carved timber face that has recently been upgraded. The original frail mask, said to be over 600 years old, is kept in a locked cupboard. The current idol is surrounded by offerings of rum, flowers and money.
It’s quite a spectacle, which will be maintained by this family until next Easter, when a ballot among the villagers will decide in which house the Maximon will reside for the following year. And despite deep mystery surrounding the Maximon legend, which changes with each person you speak to, visitors are always welcome – because tourists bring money. It’s a costly enterprise to host the Maximon, ensuring the idol is constantly guarded, plus lavish decorations and electricity (which isn’t cheap), so payments are made to compensate the host family. Up to 100 daily visitors each pay 50 quetzals (about $9) for the privilege of meeting the idol (it costs an extra 10 quetzal to take a photograph, which multiplies if you’re snap happy). True believers and shaman tend to visit at dawn and at sunset.
Maximon is not the only deity in the room. Wherever the idol appears in Santiago Atitlan, there is also a life-size figure of the sleeping Jesus nearby, a creepy wax-skinned corpse-like manikin in a coffin illuminated with strings of flashing party lights. There are more of this family’s Catholic icons in the room, also strewn with knotted ties, including a distraught Jesus with an iron rod impaled through his shoulder and an anxious Jesus having his heart pecked by a raven – bizarre and gruesome scenes that I can’t recall from the New Testament.
These are truce offerings that acknowledge the dominant Catholic faith in the region, which tolerates the ongoing idol worship but seethes that it can’t be defeated. Maximon has been a focus of pagan worship since the ancient Tzutuhiles tribe settled by the shores of Lake Atitlan, centuries before Franciscans brought Christianity to the region in the late 1500s.
And while Mayan shamanism is now practised by only 10 per cent of the population, most local Mayans haven’t entirely let go of the old ways. The town’s Catholic cathedral, built on the foundation of a Mayan temple, has a Maximon image carved in the giant wooden altarpiece that was finished in the 1980s. While it caused a giant stir, the carving has not been changed.
The Maximon idol is even brought to a building in the cathedral plaza during each Easter week as it awaits its next homestay. Most practising Catholics in Santiago Atitlan won’t denounce the Maximon idol or its influence. Indeed, many hedge their bets, coming to visit in disguise and pay their respect.
This strange co-existence of faiths can be observed throughout rural Guatemala. In a Catholic cemetery in Chichicastenango, shaman burn offerings in huge fire pits beside consecrated graves. Oh, and there’s an ice cream vendor pushing his cart around the cemetery, ringing his bell to alert the devout to his sweet treats.
Here, the trappings of faith are carried more lightly and less preciously than Westerners feel comfortable with, yet the tenor of belief has no less fervent intensity.