In the Western world where Christianity is the prevailing religious influence, we often associate heavy consumption of alcohol with sinfulness. In fact, Ephesians 5:18 says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” Likewise, Galatians 19–21 says, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: … drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” It’s this kind of thinking that has led most people in the Western world to associate a sense of sinfulness with drinking alcohol. So, it may come as a surprise that certain religious groups in Guatemala worship a deity named Maximon who loves drinking liquor, and he wants you to drink with him.
Not only does Maximon enjoy drinking Quetzalteca, the Guatemalan version of aguardiente that comes in strange flavors from tamarind to hibiscus, he also loves smoking cigars and cigarettes. He’s also believed to be quite fond of tortillas, gambling, and, of course, money. Yes, to our Western sensibilities, the lore surrounding Maximon is every bit as odd as it sounds. I recently got the opportunity to visit the statue of Maximon myself, and the experience was nothing less than mind-blowing.
I first heard of Maximon from my taxi driver on my way from Antigua, Guatemala, to San Pedro La Laguna, a small town on the edge of Lake Atitlan. Not long after arriving there, I received a text from a friend who had traveled through Guatemala years earlier saying that I had to visit Maximon. So, it was decided. A few days later, I hopped on a boat over to the small town of Santiago (where Maximon lives) and visited the statue.
Despite the hype around Maximon, he was rather difficult to find. First, you have to make your way to the lakeside town of Santiago. From where the boat arrives, you have to walk to the house where Maximon is being held. However, Maximon is passed from house to house within the community every 8 months, so you’ll have to ask the locals which specific home he’s in when you visit.
We walked past the house with Maximon twice without noticing it until a shopkeeper finally told us that it was a greenhouse on the left. There was no sign on the house, no decorations on the outside, nothing to indicate that this was the right place except for a tour guide leading a few other tourists inside.
When we got into the house, the scene was a bit weird. There were several tourists sitting around the periphery of the living room, appearing slightly uncomfortable. In the center of the room, the statue of Maximon, which is probably about 40 to 50 inches tall, sat adorned in colorful scarves with money stuffed in between them and the traditional Mayan style of dress. In his mouth rested an unlit cigar. At his feet were several lit candles, a bottle of Quetzalteca, and a glass of Gallo beer.
However, the most intriguing thing in the room was a group of three local guys, one of which was the owner of the home, sitting to the right-hand side of Maximon. All three of them were what we might call “hammered” in Western society. They had numerous empty 40-ounce beer bottles at their feet, they could barely open their eyes, and they were slumped over to the point where it looked like they might fall out of their chairs at any moment. The three men alternated between gaily dancing about the room and crying into each other’s arms, wailing for forgiveness for their past sins. It was one hell of a spectacle.
Eventually, after one of the larger tour groups filed out of the house, one of the men in the room began to offer us glasses of beer. We politely obliged. Eventually, we got to talk to the owners of the home toward the end of our stay in la casa de Maximon. They said that the statue would stay at the home for 8 months until it was passed to another home in the community. Did that mean that these men would be getting blind drunk for 8 months straight? Is that what Maximon demands of his hosts?
The History of Maximon
In Santiago, the home base of Maximon, there are three main religious groups: the Catholics of the Charismatic Renewal, the Pentecostal Protestants, and those who blend Catholicism with the ancient Mayan religion of the region. Maximon is a deity belonging to the third group. In fact, when we went to see Maximon, there were many Catholic shrines scattered about the room alongside the shrine to Maximon.
The origin stories of this fascinating deity are numerous; however, many believe that the modern effigy of Maximon was created by a Mayan priest near the end of the 19th century. Maximon is the result of a phenomenon known as religious syncretism, which involves the blending of several different religious belief systems. He’s believed to incorporate traits of several different mythological and historical figures, including Saint Peter (one of the apostles of the Holy Bible), Judas Iscariot (the apostle of the Holy Bible who betrayed Jesus), Pedro de Alvarado (a ruthless Spanish conquistador responsible for the deaths of innumerable Mayan people), and Mam (a male deity from Mayan lore).
The effigy of Maximon is made from a piece of wood known as the “palo de pito” with a mask attached to the head. Some say that there is an idol made of gold or precious stone contained within the body of Maximon. Originally, the body and head of Maximon were kept dismembered and in storage all year except for Holy Week (Semana Santa), which is held in the beginning of April. However, nowadays, Maximon remains on display all year.
The Role of Maximon
The role of Maximon is similar to the role of most other folk deities from votive religions. You can ask Maximon for pretty much anything that you want, he has the power to make people fall in love, to bring you great fortune, or to ensure a great harvest. However, if you want Maximon to fulfill your wishes, you need to offer him gifts in the form of booze, smokes, cash, or tortillas. I’ve also heard that he accepts offerings of marijuana, which is still highly illegal in the nation of Guatemala.
To appease Maximon, his followers will tilt the effigy backward and pour aguardiente down his mouth and then wipe his face with one of his many scarves. They’ll also light his cigars and cigarettes for him. It is said that Maximon uses the smoke to heal the people of the community who he favors and to send madness to the members of the community who have been bad (such as adulterers or thieves). Strangely enough, while Maximon does not condone adultery among others, it’s believed that he slept with many married women in the community.
Maximon is a complex and dualistic character. He’s both a saint and a sinner, a friend and a fiend. He’s the protector of travelers and merchants, father of prayers, and owner of madness. In order to communicate with him, you need to get on his level, which means you need to get piss-drunk and light up a cigarette. Other towns in Guatemala and Mexico now have similar effigies; however, if you want to see the original Maximon, you need to travel to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.