Maximón (also known as Ri Laj Mam and San Simón) is a Mayan god and Saint who is worshipped in Guatemala.
There are different versions of the story about the Native American Saint known as Ri Laj Mam or Maximon. One of them comes from the story of Ri Laj Mam and the Sacred Tz’ite Tree. During the Spanish conquest, all Maya rituals had to be disguised behind the Catholic religion. The Elders used the Cofradias (brotherhoods) to protect and preserve their culture, costumes, spirituality and hierarchy. Amongst other sacred images, the Cofradias worshiped the Sacred Tz’ite Tree, which was hidden behind typical cloths, scarves and a mask, emulating catholic saints. Offerings of incense, candles, tobacco, maize beverages, and cacao – all sacred elements to Maya spirituality – were given to this image.
Long ago, shortly after the conquest, lived a respectable Elder known as Ri Laj Mam. This Wiseman possessed superior knowledge and power. Upset by the abuses that the Spaniards were committing against his people, Ri Laj Mam decided to encourage them to rise up against their oppressors and put an end to this situation. The Spaniards, worried about the revolution that Ri Laj Mam was starting to provoke, sent a large regiment to capture and imprison him. Ri Laj Mam, however, possessed great magic and every time he was arrested he managed to escape and continue his work. The Spaniards couldn’t believe it! Unable to keep him in custody, the captors brought in some Tlaxcaltec sorcerers. When the sorcerers were asked them to guard him through the night, Ri Laj Mam was unable to escape. The following day they took him to the park, where he was decapitated and his head was displayed to send a message and establish a precedent. But the spirit of Ri Laj Mam appeared in the four corners of the park, strongly encouraging the people to put an end to the abuses of the oppressors. It was at that moment the Elders understood that they should speak to the spirit of Ri Laj Mam and remind him of their Grandfathers’ prophecy. They had to ask Ri Laj Mam to stop because his actions would only lead to the complete annihilation of their tradition. They knew that for the moment they had to accept the situation and endure this period of darkness. The time would come in which light and wisdom would return. Ri Laj Mam understood and asked the Elders to search for a tree that would take his spirit. When they found it they cut the tree in four pieces and took them to the four corners of the country (Guatemala) so that Ri Laj Mam could continue his mission as protector of his people and the tradition. The Tz’ite was the tree that accepted the honor taking the energy of Ri Laj Mam.
Over the course of time the image of Maximon or San Simon has arisen, originating from Ri Laj Mam, which serves as its Western representation.
Long after Ri Laj Mam, by the end of the 19th century, Don Francisco Zojbel (who was also known as Ximon) dedicated his efforts to protect the people, who were suffering abuses by the hand of the governor. Don Francisco was the son of an influential Spanish father and a Maya mother. He was appointed to serve as judge. At the moment he assumed this important position he immediately began setting things right, including revoking the privileges that the governor’s friends had been given and reducing their excesses. He also returned the land back to those who had been stripped of it and protected the Maya tradition. All of his actions, of course, enraged the rich and powerful people, who tried to have Don Francisco assassinated several times, with no success. Word of these events spread and there were rumors circulating about Don Francisco Zojbel being the Ri Laj Mam who had returned to protect his people once again. After he died, effigies of him where made. It was known that during his life Don Francisco was a renowned ladies man who liked to smoke cigars and stay out late drinking. This makes him a very human saint, who understands our nature, our weaknesses and our needs. Offerings of cigars and liquor are still given to Maximon.
Where Maximón is venerated, he is represented by an effigy which resides in a different house each year. He is most visible during the annual holy week celebrations and rituals of sacrifice that are carried out to cleanse and regenerate the world Holy Week. During the rest of the year, people of the communities visit Maximón in his chosen residence, where his shrine is always attended by two or more people, called Cofrades, who serve for a full year to care for him in the Cofradia and keep the altar and sacred items in order. Shamans come daily to do rituals on behalf of their clients.
The Cofrades also receive visitors, accept offerings which are used to maintain and enact the ancient customs, celebrations, and rituals. Worshippers offer money, spirits and cigars or cigarettes, candles, incense, and prayers to gain his favor in exchange for good health, good crops, and marriage counseling, amongst other favors. Maximon almost always has a lit cigarette or cigar in its mouth, and in some places, his mouth is formed to allow the attendants to give him spirits to drink. These offerings are a way of "feeding," giving life, and gratitude to Mam.
The financial offerings that are given by other visitors are used to buy candles, provide food for the cofrades, and other members of the community who serve daily, and to carry out the massive fiestas, rituals and costumbres that happen throughout the year.
Maximón is dressed in both Traditional Mayan clothes and modern garments which are often gifted as a gratitude and thanks by those who receive healing and blessings from him. In Santiago Atitlán he is adorned with many colorful scarves, while in Zunil (where he is known as San Simón) he has a very different style, with his face obscured by dark sunglasses and a bandanna. In San Lucas Toliman San Simon lives in a very large community house where other altars are also cared for in one location.
The worship of Maximón treats him not so much as a benevolent deity as is common in other faiths, but rather as a keeper of balance that embraces both the shadow and the light. Many hold him in high regard and respect and do not wish to anger him as they believe that this will throw the world out of balance and cause harm, destruction, or other problems. Some academics also believe him to be a link between the ancient Maya Xibalbá The Underworld and Bitol heart of heaven (Corazón del Cielo). Maya belief and cosmology is continually centered in the belief of Heart of Earth and Heart of Sky. This is how the relationship with the physical and spiritual world is lived and understood. Thus, one is always at the center of the universe (in the heart of everything) and enacting prayers and ceremonies to keep this in balance. The same is true of the aspects of dark and light. These are the continual balancing of day and night being understood as the cycle of all life. Thus, both are needed and one is not bad nor good as is often believed in other traditions or religions.
His continual receiving of offerings of alcohol and cigarettes is done to honor him, feed him, and ask his favor. One must always offer first and then asks to receive. Many of other faiths wish to portray this is sinful. However, this is often derived of a Christian perspective or of those of other faiths. Indeed, these are different ways of worship from many of the conventional ideals of Christian sainthood. While there are some who believe that prayers for revenge, or success at the expense of others, are likely to be granted by Maximón, many also go to simply ask his care, give gratitude, and petition that he grant the blessings they request of him.
In the town of Santiago Atitlán, when clothing of Maximón's is washed during the week before Easter and at other times throughout the year, the water is saved and distributed as holy water to local shop keepers and others in the community, who consume or sprinkle this water in their shop doorways, to ask the blessing of good business.
While Maximon and his home in the Cofradia Santa Cruz is the most well known, there are twelve different Ceremonial Houses, or Cofradias in Santiago. Each having their own sacred purpose and function. Each of these are used and cared for daily in the homes of Tz'utujil Maya families. Countless other sacred ritual sites exist throughout the town and surrounding mountains and forests.