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Latin America Monica Dispatch

A Mayan god who smokes cigars
01 February 1999

Before our team meeting, I met a number of "gringos," or people from English-speaking countries, in Panajachel, a tourist town on the shores of Lago de Atitlán (Lake Atitlán). The word "gringo" originated in Mexico. People used to yell at the American soldiers in their green uniforms, "Green! Go (away)!" Now, the term is used freely throughout Latin America to refer to foreigners.

Monica, a volcano, a lake, and a
“gringa”
Caption

I befriended a few "gringos" and we took a boat to Santiago Atitlán, a town across the lake from Panajachel. The Tzutuhil Maya in Santiago are different from the Cakchiquel Maya in Concepción, the town where I am staying. One of the things that is unique about Santiago is the Mayan god, Maximón. Maximón travels from house to house each year. He is paraded through the streets every Holy Week. I visited the house where he currently resides, past the main drag where vendors sell huipiles (embroidered tunics) and up the side streets near the Santiago mercado.

Colorful huipiles
Colorful huipiles

When I entered, I bowed quietly and sat on a bench outside of a circle of men, who kneeled or sat around a sculpture of Maximón. Lemons and a ham hung from the ceiling, amidst paper cutouts of different colors: green, blue, red, and yellow. A man came in and threw a garbage bag of what looked like pine needles onto the floor.


Maximon, partaking of his cigars and
beer
Maximon, partaking of his cigars and
beer

In front of the god, candles burned. Beer, tobacco, and assorted bottles were arranged inside the circle. Maximón seemed to be smoking because the people had put a lit cigar in his mouth. He was wearing a dark, woolen suit, lots of scarves, and a black fedora. A basket for money donations stood in front of him.

Two people were praying: an older man, sitting, and an older woman, kneeling. Both had their heads bowed reverently and had their shoes off. The person in charge of the ceremony took the suit off Maximón, rubbed it three times on the older woman's head, and placed it on top of her torso. He then took some of the scarves from Maximón and placed them on her head.


While the woman kneeled, obscured by scarves and the suit, he took a bottle of some liquid, drank a mouthful, and spewed it in a fine mist around the woman's head. He did this three times to her back, and again to her front. He then threw droplets of the liquid at the people who were watching. I closed my eyes because the liquid burned like eucalyptus oil.

After a brief period, the man murmured something in the woman's ear, lit some incense in a little holder, and took the scarves and suit off of her. He passed each piece of clothing through the incense smoke and then returned it to Maximón or put it in a chest near the door. Afterwards, the woman stood up, and told Maximón all of her problems. The rest of the group prepared for the next person's turn.

Outside the window, I was able to take a few pictures but I did not want to interrupt the ceremony.

Monica

 
 
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