MAXIMÓN is a trickster deity from Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. His origin as a Mesoamerican merchant and lineage deity originates in the pre-classic Maya world (c. 500 bce). His cult has spread throughout the highlands of Guatemala alongside the proselytizing evangelical movement among the Maya of the highlands. His image, in various forms, can now be found throughout the republic, but this essay concentrates on the deity found in Santiago Atitlán while recognizing the many similarities between the various Maximón cults found in different highland towns. Maximón is particularly important to all those people who want more out of life than simple sustenance; he specializes in giving everything that is "extra" in this world. His cult has thus grown to satisfy the focus of material wealth that is now so important to the people who inhabit the towns and villages of the Guatemalan highlands.
Maximón is a name derived from two different origins: first, from the Catholic Simón Pedro (Ximón Pedro) the first apostle of Christ who was given the keys to heaven and the power of "binding and loosing"; second, from the Tz'utujil term meaning "Mr. Knotted," derived from ma (mister) and ximon (to have knotted). Maximón is the trickster who waits at the portal of fate, where he either captures and binds his prey or loosens the knotted one from the trap of a predator. Like Simon Peter, he is seen as the gatekeeper of all those souls who are out on the road, at the crossroads of life, or in the marketplace where happenstance can change one's luck. Maximón is the one who opens or closes the road to opportunity, creates an accidental meeting at the crossroads, or finds the needed connection in the marketplace.
Maximón is Lord of Merchants, similar to God L and God M of the ancient Maya. He is a tireless walker of roads without end; his wanderings lead him to wherever he is called, as well as to all those places where he creates problems that he alone can solve. He is the shape-shifter who alters his shape to the changing shape of the world in which he exists as trickster, and because of this his disguises are infinite.
He is versipellis, a being who changes its skin to imitate another being or an environment, a completely flexible being whose way is "no way." Maximón is ever-present in his many forms, but mostly he is known to take the form of one of the following: a young girl, the old man, the latina temptress, the poor beggar, the wealthy plantation owner, the hummingbird, the blue jay, the skunk, the donkey, the wild mountain dahlia, the "divining tree," a whirlwind, a night breeze, a earth tremor, a fly, a mosquito, a wafting scent of a cigar, or even a ripple across still water.
Like all tricksters he makes himself known to his followers through signs given on the road, where a heightened sense of insecurity is always felt. All of his disguises or changes give messages to those who follow his guidance to safe passage and profitable markets. He is lord of all those portals of opportunity where tax collectors let one pass unmolested, where obstacles are lifted, where government officials look the other way, where traps are avoided, and where doors of opportunity are flung wide open. He is lord of the crossroads where destinies accidentally come together for better or worse. He is lord of the marketplace where abundance is turned into wealth and where finding a new product or person brings about a life reversal. Maximón is guide to souls in need, both in this lifetime and at death; it is he who is the k'amal b'iey (pathfinder) who ushers us towards the direction we must be taking. Sacred history tells that Maximón was made of the "Tz'ajtel tree" (erythrina corallodendron ), a type of "divining wood" used by shamans, diviners, matchmakers, midwives, and oracles to see into the future or back into the past.
Maximón is also known as Mam or Rilaj Mam, Ancestor or Great Ancestor. Mam means both "grandfather" and "grandchild," making him a deity that replaces the ancestors with future ancestors in such a way that the lineage never dies. Mam is also known as "Year Bearer" in a Mayan world where the sun is carried on the back of humanity through ritual sacrifice. The Year Bearer carries the year, and the ritual practitioners carry the Year Bearer through rituals of sacrifice. The Year Bearer is a sacred being who occupies the four corners of the world in a quadripartite fashion. In Maya timekeeping, each year had one of four styles, each of which had a Mam from one of the four world corners. As one year ended, the Year Bearer of that year was dismembered, purified, and then put back together as another Mam, another Year Bearer. In this way years are seen as human ancestors that continuously replace one another throughout time.
Mam also signifies the five dangerous days of the Uayeb', a short, five-day month between two 360-day years, each of which is made up of eighteen months of twenty days. During this short five-day month of the Uayeb', the Mam was celebrated as one year ended and another began. Mam is thus the Lord of Middle, where years end and begin, as well as lord of endless generations of ancestors, or Mam, and their replacements, also known as Mam.
Mam has many similarities with God N, or Pawahtuun, of the classic Maya. Pawahtuun was depicted as an aged sky-bearing deity who went about dressed in a conch shell or turtle carapace, linking him to waterways, lakes, and seas of merchant people. He was an old man who loved a party, where he would indulge himself in drunkenness as well as the affections of wild young women. As a quadripartite deity he was closely associated with the Chaks, or rain deities, and may have been the rain deities' earthly counterpart. Mam, like Chak, is a deity of the four corners; as a mountain god, he personifies the stones or mountains that support the sky at each of the four corners. Mam in his most beloved form is an elderly lord of the earth, thunder, and the ancestors.
Tz'utujil tradition of Santiago Atitlán states that Mam was created by immortals known as Nawales, who were merchants and in much need of a guardian who would watch over their women while they were on the road and in the marketplaces of distant towns. As soon as Mam was brought to life by the Nawales as a replication of their perfection, he began doing what he had been ordered to. Pretty soon he was making love to all the wives of those who had created him. Eventually, Mam was dismembered and put back together in such away that he could never misuse his human body again: his head was twisted around backwards, and his arms and legs were left short. This is the image that is found today in the Cofradia of Santa Cruz in Santiago Atitlán. Like all tricksters, Mam's appetites cause his fall from prescriptive culture, and so teaches people how not to act in the world.
The present-day image of Maximón stands about four-feet tall in a brand new pair of boots. He is adorned in many silk scarves, which once may have been feathers. On his gourd skull is a wooden mask of an old man. On the backside of his head is another mask, giving Mam a 360-degree view. Upon this head of twin masks are two modern Stetson cowboy hats, signifying the duplicity inherent in this capricious being. (The Stetson hats are given as gifts to Maximón by wealthy Indian merchants, who wear them themselves to manifest their high status in the Indian world.) His body is made of pieces of divining wood that are tied together with sashes of traditional cloth and string. This ritually bundled core is adorned in traditional clothing from Santiago Atitlán and other towns from the lake region, creating a deity that looks much like it must have when the Nawales first formed it.
Mam, or Maximón, is a boundary crosser and a liminal character that lives at the threshold of this world of humans and the other world of the gods. He is the go-between and messenger that relays communication between humanity and their deities. In this middle ground between humans and gods he takes his payment in the form of offerings, including only flowers, incense, candles, liquor, tobacco, sweet-smelling waters, song, and prayers. He takes part of all that once was given only to the gods, and in this way he makes a good living by existing between and betwixt two worlds.
Carlsen, Robert S. The War for the Heart and Soul of a Highland Maya Town. Austin, Tex., 1997. Analysis of cultural continuity and change in Santiago Atitlán, including considerable discussion of the Maximón cult.
Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World. New York, 1998. A profound and creative analysis of the religious archetype of the trickster and his power to create and recreate this world.
Stanzione, Vincent J. Rituals of Sacrifice: Walking the Face of the Earth on the Sacred Path of the Sun. Albuquerque, N.Mex., 2003. An in-depth study of religion and ceremony in Santiago Atitlán, this creative and exciting study by a historian of religion focuses on the cult of Maximón and his trickster relationship with Jesus during the rituals of sacrifice at the time of Lent and Easter Week in Santiago Atitlán.
Tarn, Nathaniel. Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitlán. New York, 1998. A complicated yet comprehensive anthropological study of religious symbolism in Santiago Atitlán.
Vincent Stanzione (2005)