Saints, Shamans, Sacraments, and Syncretism

In the middle of virtually every Maya town and village in Mexico and Guatemala is the Catholic Church. It’s often the largest building in town, and it’s often on the highest point, reflecting the Spanish colonists’ desire to impose their religion on the natives and dominate them (spiritually and physically).

And they were very successful, with 90% of Mexicans and 50% of Guatemalans being Catholic. And nowadays to the locals, the church is often regarded as not just the house of God, but as the home of various saints, who serve as local guardians, and whose benevolence depends on the appropriate rituals and offerings, very few of which are Christian. Over the centuries, Catholicism has become ‘Mayanised’, and this fusion of Christianity and pre-Columbian beliefs is obvious as soon as you walk into any church or stumble across any ceremony.

In the Guatemalan highland town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, the sculptures that line the walls are all dressed in local clothing – so the Virgin Mary has a colourful shawl and a Maya-style handbag, and the Three Wise Men are wearing stripy trousers and straw hats. And in the lakeside village of Santiago Atitlán, on the shores of Lago de Atitlán, in the town church, there are various human figures made of corn (from which the first people were formed, according to the Maya Bible), plus a distinctly Latin-looking Jesus.

Santiago Atitlán is also one of the homes of the ‘evil’ Maya saint Maximón. The Spanish named him San Simón, the Ladinos (Mestizos) call him Maximón, and the Maya know him as Rilaj Maam. Whatever you call him, he’s a deity revered all over the Guatemalan highlands. Maximón is a folk saint, so he’s nothing to do with Christianity, but the locals devoutly believe that he can intercede in their lives. A combination of a Maya god, a Spanish conquistador, and the Biblical Judas, Guatemalan Maya regularly go to Maximón to make offerings and ask for blessings. In Santiago Atitlán, I have to ask some local kids where Maximón is living (he moves from place to place in the town every year, a custom anthropologists think was established by the Spanish to maintain the local Maya balance of power). Once at his house (which is covered in Christmas bunting – ‘tis the season, after all), there’s already a ceremony going on; but spectators can still watch. And for a small fee (or a donation of cigarettes and/or liquor), onlookers can take photos.

In front of Maximón, sitting perfectly still on a chair, is a middle-aged Maya lady; and next to her, on the floor on his knees, is an elderly man who’s speaking to Maximón in the strange, guttural sound of the local Maya language. According to one of Maximón’s caretakers, the woman has various physical ailments that Maximón will hopefully cure. After presenting Maximón with his offerings of fags and booze (including pouring rum into his ‘mouth’ and then sticking in a lit cigarette), the old man asks the woman to expose the various parts of herself that are giving her trouble (fortunately, it’s nowhere too personal). The old man takes a swig of firewater and spits it onto the offending area of the woman. When he asks her where else it hurts and she points at her face, I’m wondering if he’s going to gob a mouthful of raw alcohol in her face, but he settles for spitting it into his hand and then wiping it all over her countenance. Having made the appropriate propitiations and supplications, the lady and her family shuffle off, and the rest of the booze is poured into Maximón’s hollow wooden body (where, according to the caretaker, it disappears, thus proving that Maximón is really drinking it. Or possibly just proving that alcohol evaporates).

There are several Maximóns in several different towns throughout the highlands, although his form and function are similar in all of them. In San Andres Xecul, near Xela, Maximón wears a stars-and-stripes bandana, a stars-and-stripes tie, a cowboy hat, and a pair of Ray-Ban shades, giving him a distinctly American look. And in nearby Zunil (where he’s called San Simón), he has an enormous room to himself, overflowing with flickering candles, and packed with Maya families lining up to have their fortunes told by the local shaman / tarot card reader. The worship of Maximón makes him seem less like a benevolent saint and more like a malevolent bully who you don’t want to piss off (there are different coloured candles you can light when petitioning him, including black ones for putting the evils on your enemies). Everywhere I’ve seen Maximón, his homes seem to be popular with not only indigenous people, but stray dogs (drawn by the smell of the edible offerings perhaps?) and drunk men (who seem more interested in the liquid offerings). The cigarettes and alcohol, the flashing fairy lights draped all over the rooms, the (often terrible) music, and the gaudy atmosphere all make the whole thing seem like a spectator entertainment, but according to every Guatemalan I’ve asked, the locals take it all very seriously (even if the Catholic church frowns upon all this pagan shenanigans).

The Guatemalan press (and government) have claimed that the worship of Maximón has declined in recent decades, due to the rapid growth of evangelical Protestant churches, but I’m not sure you could measure it with any certainty. In any case, he’s a popular figure all over the country. And it’s easy to see why – the Guatemalan government seems powerless to bring an end to the poverty, corruption, and violence that plagues the country, and Jesus probably ain’t the guy to ask for a new motorcycle or to make your noisy neighbours move house. Maximón is a useful psychological conduit for many people to express a desire to better their lives (much like any religion, really). Plus, they get to pray for worldly goods (a practice not usually endorsed by Christianity), while smoking cigars and drinking rum.

And there are other unusual ceremonies going on every day in the Iglesia de Santo Tomás at Chichicastenango, north of Lake Atitlán. On the front steps of the 470-year-old church, Maya men are swinging homemade censers, made of tin cans poked with holes and filled with burning resin, and which cast a pall of sweet-smelling smoke all over the church. Inside is the continual low hum of constant murmuring, as families clear a space in the pine needle-covered floor to light candles, make offerings, and say prayers. It’s a strange, ancient, and unique hybrid of Maya and Christian worship.

The church isn’t the only scene of religious activity in Chichi – in the hills outside town, there’s a shrine to the Maya earth god, complete with sacrificial stones, a severe-looking statue that wouldn’t look out of place on Easter Island, and the smouldering remains of past offerings (including the decapitated head of an unlucky chicken). Despite being destroyed countless times over the years, the locals keep rebuilding and visiting the shrine.

The volcanoes in Guatemala and the cenotes in Mexico are other places where local Maya come to burn incense and leave offerings. An early-morning, two-hour slog up Volcán Santa María, on the outskirts of Xela, and there’s already a family on the 3,700m summit, performing a ceremony. Also near Xela is the beautiful Laguna Chicabal, in the crater of Volcán Chicabal, a place so sacred to the local Maya that it’s off limits to outsiders for weeks at a time when various ceremonies are performed. And at Chichén Itzá in Mexico, there’s the Sacred Cenote, a 30m-deep natural well that was regarded as a gateway to the underworld, where the Maya threw in everything from jade and gold to people.

Also in Mexico is the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista in San Juan Chamula, a small town in Chiapas state. Like the church in Chichi, the stone floor is covered in a thick layer of pine needles (causing me to slip and slide all over the smooth surface), and there are thousands of candles everywhere (giving the dark church an eerie orange glow, and producing copious quantities of melted wax on every flat surface). Lining the walls are statues of Catholic saints, dressed in locals clothes and adorned with mirrors (apparently to aid communication with the spirits). There’s no altar, no pews, and I can’t see any priests; just dozens of locals, surrounded by candles and chanting.

One family have a live chicken in a sack, its head poking out. After its removal, an old lady holds the chicken over the candles and waves it over them, chanting in Maya. While staring upward and murmuring, the old woman puts the chicken in her lap and quickly and efficiently snaps its neck. If the gods are appeased by offerings, this family should be fine, because in the space of half an hour, I watch them sacrifice another chicken, and polish off countless bottles of local firewater and fizzy pop – according to the church caretaker, the gassy drinks make the worshippers burp, which they believe releases toxic spirts from the body. So the low chanting is occasionally punctuated by the sound of someone belching Coca-Cola or Fanta. And in another corner, there’s no chicken, but another old woman rubbing eggs (raw or boiled, I can’t tell) over a small child’s head.

Outside the church, while enjoying my tacos (all this chicken sacrificing has clearly made me hungry), I get a look at another of the locals’ rituals. A funeral procession is passing, the coffin on the back of a slow-moving pick-up truck. The truck stops at the edge of the town square, and the mourners take the coffin up some steps to a shop next door to where I’m eating (apparently, several stops are made from the deceased’s house to the cemetery). The coffin is opened, a man dressed in a hairy, white, animal skin coat makes a speech in Maya, and more bottles of liquor and cola are passed round. Several tacos later, the coffin is closed and put back on the truck, and the vehicles and people slowly disappear out of town.

The churches of Saint John the Baptist in Chamula and Saint Thomas in Chichi are some of the only ones in Central America where this syncretism of Maya and Catholic belief systems is practiced to such an open degree. The Maya in Chamula would probably all identify as Catholics (to the point of kicking out of the town thousands of people who’ve converted to Protestant faiths, many of whom now eke out a living selling handicrafts to tourists in nearby San Cristóbal de las Casas). But they clearly practise a combination of indigenous and Spanish beliefs. Like the worship of Maximón and the use of the ceiba tree (it was sacred to the Maya and its cruciform shape was used by Spanish priests to convert the locals), this syncretism has allowed the Maya to keep their traditional beliefs intact, while still participating in the dominant religion of their colonists. The Maya’s traditions (and the rest of their culture) is one of the aspects of Mexico and Guatemala that make them such endlessly fascinating countries to visit.

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