“What’s she praying for?” I ask.
A young woman kneels before Maximón, her vestments — a cowboy hat trailing a silk shawl — mirror the evil saint’s own attire. She’s veiled in black tulle netting; he’s cloaked in a smoky mantle of incense.
“She has a serious sickness,” says my guide, Vicente, casting his eyes to the floor, “This is why she prays.” The woman solemnly chants as Maximón stares through her. She offers a bottle of moonshine too, dabbing drool from the saint’s chin with a handkerchief — it does, after all, smell strong enough to strip varnish.
I’m in Santiago Atitlán, a town in western Guatemala on the edge of Lago de Atitlán in the highlands of the Sierra Madre. Encircled by volcanoes, this caldera lake is the deepest in Central America. There are no roads around it, so I arrived on one of the many boats that ply these limpid waters, connecting the various Mayan communities that nestle on its mountainous shores.
An uphill tuk tuk ride through town ended inauspiciously outside a small, cement building in a residential back alley. This is the current home of Maximón’s wooden effigy: the legendary evil saint of the Mayans moves between the various houses of his devotees each year during Holy Week festivities. Inside, the room is hung with tattered taxidermy, fairy lights, and depictions of the Virgin Mary, the shrine littered with flowers, rum bottles and crucifixes, and the air thick with smoke and candle soot.
Maximón’s origins are equally hazy. Thought to have been created during the Spanish conquest of the Maya, Maximón is variously portrayed as a Franciscan friar who harassed local women; a man paid by travelling fisherman to protect the virtue of their wives but who seized the opportunity to seduce them all; and a Mayan elder executed for starting a rebellion against the Spanish, only to return from death to continue fighting.
Maximón is certainly many things to many people. He’s a figure of Mayan ancestor veneration, a Mam; he’s a Catholic Saint; he’s the Devil in disguise. Like Satan, he has many names: Rij Laj, Rilej Mam, El Gran Abueloa, San Simón, Don Ximon, Judas Iscariot.
Spanish missionaries colonising Guatemala attempted to syncretise the ancient Mayan Mam with Saint Simon, but instead of the deity’s identity becoming engulfed by the apostle’s, they inadvertently created a sinner-saint hybrid. Further attempts to equate him to Judas and Satan only served to enhance his reputation, making him the kind of saint you could worship for material gain, romantic success, and acts of revenge.
“How old is this effigy of Maximon?” I ask Vicente as I study the immaculate idol through the curtain of smoke. Vicente grins sheepishly.
“It’s in very good condition,” I add with a cocked eyebrow as I follow him from the building.
“He is new,” Vicente admits as we climb back in to our waiting vehicle. “The last one was recently stolen.”
“So this is a copy of the original?” I ask.
At this he fails to stifle a mischievous chuckle, and exchanges a conspiratorial glance with our tuk tuk driver.
“What am I missing, Vicente?” I ask with mock severity.
Vicente throws an elbow over the back of his seat and looks me in the eyes for the first time since we entered Maximon’s lair. He levels with me: the ephigy is a fake. A copy of a copy. “The real Maximon is only for locals. He never moves. No travellers see him. All visitors are taken to this one, which moves each year to spread tourist dollars around.”
As much as my pride is bruised by this deception, it occurs to me that the wooden trickster might have claimed more than one victim today.
“Does that sick woman know? Has she seen a proper doctor?”
Vicente’s eyes dart around nervously before he confides, “She’s not dying. She’s there all day.” He forces an awkward smile: “She’s just acting.”