Maximón or San Simón: the Mayan folk saint who drinks, smokes and offers protection

Maximón is a master shape shifter, reconciling religious traditions and offering guidance to indigenous Mayans who venerate him in Guatemala. He is also a heavy drinker and smoker.

Maximón, also known as San Simón, is an important Mayan folk saint in Guatemala represented by a dressed up wooden effigy sitting on a chair who, unlike other saints, smokes cigars and drinks alcohol. Today Maximón is actively worshipped as part of what we could refer to as “folk Catholicism“, especially in the highlands of Guatemala. His visitors travel from near and far to come see him and ask for protection, money, to be cured or even find a husband. Maximón receives everyone – men and women, villagers and urban dwellers, prostitutes and entrepreneurs – who come with many offerings including tobacco, liquor, money and tortillas (his favourites).

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Maximón is a Mayan folk saint who's fond of smoking cigars and likes money © Sarine Arslanian
Maximón is a Mayan folk saint who is fond of smoking cigars and likes money © Sarine Arslanian

Maximón, the Mayan saint venerated in Guatemala

Mayan priests have made this figure their own. Every year, he travels from one house to another in the place in which he resides, especially in the Guatemalan highlands he originates from, that is in Santiago Atitlán. Maximón evolves with the times by changing his look to fit the situation he finds himself in.

He has as many names as he has faces. One modern interpretation of his name is that it derives from “Ma’am”, the Mayan underworld deity known as the great grandfather or protector of the community, and Simón after the apostle Simon Peter. The names are divided clearly into two groups; names of Mayan deities, and Catholic or Spanish ones. Maximón is a great example of the syncretisation that has taken place since the Spanish conquest of the Guatemalan highlands in 1524. Indigenous populations have blended traditional elements of pre-Colombian culture with aspects of Catholicism to help preserve their own religion. It is in the context of this new religion that the folk saint exists, even though often at its fringes.

He is also venerated abroad as the cult goes beyond Guatemala’s borders. Given that many Guatemalans have migrated to Mexico as well as the USA and Canada due to difficult economic and political conditions in their home country, they’ve brought the worship of the saint with them. These countries have seen sacred spaces open up such as the San Simón Indigenous Spiritual Temple in New York, and others in California and Florida, to welcome Maximón, known to bring prosperity and facilitate business and travel.

Santiago Atitlán; the birthplace of Maximón © Sarine Arslanian
Santiago Atitlán, the birthplace of Maximón © Sarine Arslanian

San Simón and his many roles

He has many other roles too. He makes people’s dreams come true. He challenges believers. He heals. He helps overcome obstacles. He stands against injustice. He dances the night away. He brings wealth and success. Fertility and prosperity. He wins the heart of women and protects from infidelity. In fact, he is the lord of sexuality standing for all unresolved matters of a moral nature.

Legend says that one day he was caught sleeping with the wives of the village men who had supposedly gone to work. Furious, they cut his legs and arms off. So Maximón also makes mistakes, which makes it easier for people to relate to him. Sometimes when he brings justice to a person, it is even at the expense of another. Thus, he sits at a crossroads between being both a deity and a trickster, a friend and a fiend.

Maximón drinks and smokes together with shamans, keepers and visitors while offering them protection © Sarine Arslanian
Maximón drinks and smokes together with shamans, keepers and visitors while offering them protection © Sarine Arslanian

Maximón is more than just a saint. He represents the resilience of Mayan people in the light of their struggles against oppression, a symbol of hope and transformation.

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