Small town beneath a forested hillside
Culture & tradition,  Guatemala,  Street photography

Meeting Maximón, the idol of Santiago Atitlàn

The small boys who meet the boats arriving in Santiago on the shores of Lake Atitlàn know that the visiting tourists are here to see one thing above all others. They want to meet Maximón. It’s a good idea to accept the children’s offer as this intriguing Mayan idol (part saint, part devil) doesn’t have a permanent home in the town. Instead he is hosted by a local family, moving to a new house every few years. 

Of course your young guide will expect a tip, but if you negotiate it won’t cost you too much and will mean a lot to them. It also gives you a chance to chat to them as you walk through the town. Our young guide, David, was trilingual and spoke a few words of his Maya language, Tz’utujil, for us. He led us through the back streets to Maximón’s current home, a few minutes’ walk from the dock.

Street with colourful old buildings and tuk tuk
The main street through the town

Visiting Maximón

It is a great honour among local families to act as Maximón’s host, and also a great responsibility.  He has his own room and is watched over day and night. During the day he receives visitors, who light candles at his feet and offer him money, cigarettes and alcohol. At night he is ‘put to bed’ – winched up into a private space above where he can rest.

Maximón is believed to be a form of the pre-Columbian Maya god Mam, blended with influences from Catholicism; he is sometimes equated with the Catholic San Simeon. He is also linked to Judas Iscariot, probably because the Spanish conquerors, fearing Maximón’s influence over the people, chose this way of trying to turn them against him. Nowadays he takes the role of Judas in the Holy Week procession, before moving to his new home for the coming year. But the traditional Maya religion recognises him as the incarnation of the ancient Mayan god of sexuality. One legend tells that one day while the village men were away working in the fields, Maximón slept with all of their wives. When they returned, they were so angry they cut off his arms and legs. This is thought to be why most effigies of Maximón are short, often without arms.

He does not live up to Christian notions of sainthood, but instead is rather a bully; he is as likely to grant prayers for revenge as for anything else. Offerings are made less in worship and more in fear of what he might do if not so honoured.

It is expected that any tourists who visit Maximón will make the customary offering of a drink, a cigarette or some money. We handed over what seemed an appropriate sum, plus a bit extra as is expected if you take photos. We then made our farewells to both the idol and his human guardians, and left.

Santiago’s market

There is more to Santiago than Maximón however. There’s a bustling market great for photography, although I found mixed reactions to my camera. A few people seemed happy to pose, others needed to be caught unawares, and one man tried to charge me for taking a picture of some brightly coloured beans that weren’t even on his own stall!

Most of the women wear the traditional local costume of huipiles, a colourful loose blouse which is gathered into the skirt. Traditionally every village has its own distinctive design of huipile. Here in Santiago they are distinguished by heavy floral embroidery around the neckline. But we also spotted a few women who were obviously visiting from another village as their costume were noticeably different: the blue stripes of San Antonio Palopó, and a red from further afield.

Even more distinctive is the traditional Santiago woman’s headdress. A band of cloth is coiled around itself to form a huge saucer shape in red or deep orange. It is mostly the older women who still wear this, whereas the huipile is worn by young and old alike.

Unusually the men here also often wear their traditional costume, consisting of trousers cut off below the knee, pale cream in colour and with purple vertical stripes. For ‘best’ the trousers may also be embroidered with brightly coloured birds. Shirts are more conventional in style, and the headgear of choice is a cowboy hat, either of leather or straw.

Perhaps understandably people going about their daily lives don’t necessarily want to be photographed, but it would be a rare tourist who didn’t want to capture such striking attire. I found that if I was discreet with my camera I could get some good shots. And one woman was easily persuaded to pose for me once I had made a small purchase from the crafts she was selling (a small, beaded quetzal on a key ring which still hangs in our kitchen among other travel mementos).

The Parque Central

Beyond the market we came to Santiago’s main square, called (like such squares in most Spanish colonial towns throughout Latin America) the Parque Central. Today this is a peaceful spot. A few old men dose on the benches, wearing their traditional short stripy trousers. Children play, tourists pause to eat lunch, and women sell handicrafts or bananas.

But on 2 December 1990 it would have been a very different scene; it was here that local people (men, women, and children) gathered in their thousands to march to the nearby garrison to demand an end to harassment by soldiers stationed there. They had been spurred to action by an event earlier that day. Several soldiers from the garrison had been in town drinking and had got out of control. When they started harassing local women, some villagers threw stones at them. The soldiers pulled their weapons and fired, killing one of the villagers.

When the group from the town arrived at the gates of the garrison they were met with gunfire. Eleven were killed and 40 injured. The incident caused a national outcry against the government and drew international condemnation. The government was forced to act against the military and withdrew them from the town. Today the martyrs are commemorated by a monument in the church; a Peace Park on the sight of the massacre, and an annual ceremony on the anniversary.

In the Parque Central

Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol

This large church, dedicated to Saint James the Apostle, dominates the far side of the Parque Central, set back from it on the far side of an open space. It was built between 1572 and 1581, and has been restored and reconstructed several times after significant earthquake damage. It has three altarpieces representing the three volcanoes that tower over the village.

Interior of a church with fabric hangings
Inside the church

There is also an interesting pulpit which shows how the Roman Catholicism introduced by the conquering Spanish absorbed some of the local traditions. You can see the quetzal sporting a halo, and above it the ears of corn (corn was sacred to the Maya).

Detail of carved wooden pulpit
The pulpit

Along both sides of the church there are wooden carvings of saints, each dressed in a fabric tunic. These are made by local women and are changed each year.

On the wall either side of the main door are some marble plaques that repay close reading. The one on the left as you enter tells the history of the village: its settlement by the Tz’utujil Maya from about 900 BC onwards; conquest by the Spanish in 1524; the building of the first church in 1541 and of this replacement.

Historical plaque

Two on the right-hand side tell the story of the ‘Martyrs of Santiago’:

Historical plaque
Historical plaque

The priest mentioned on the plaque came from Oklahoma, and churches there have contributed to the memorial and supported this church.

In Santiago Atitlàn the ancient Mayan beliefs, local devotion to Maximón and present-day Christianity are all intertwined.

I visited Guatemala in 2010


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