by Vera Ermilina
Being a melting pot of the Spanish and local indigenous cultures, Central America is a perfect region to learn about ancient, pre-Columbian religious traditions, and also about the ways these traditions are being influenced and transformed by Christianity and Western culture in general. In this post, I would like to share some of the mysterious and weird rituals I’ve witnessed during my travels in Mexico and Guatemala
On a previous trip in 2012, I was spending a few days in one of the many backpacker havens in Mexico – the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas. On one of those days I took a horse riding tour to a nearby village, San Juan Chamula, which is located just about 10 km from San Cristobal and is populated by the Tzotzil people that belong to the Maya ethnic group.
The centre of Chamula, and the main reason for my visit, was the pretty little church of San Juan. From the outside it doesn’t look very different from the hundreds of other colonial churches spread across Latin America. However, this impression changes entirely once you step inside. The place is decorated with flowers, palm tree leaves and long pieces of fabric, and the floor is covered with pine needles. While technically Catholic, San Juan doesn’t have the typical rows of benches, altar or confessionals; pretty much the only elements of Christianity evident are the figures of Catholic saints standing on the tables along the walls. There are no priests either: the rituals are performed by groups of locals themselves, or by the shamans. The worshippers sit on the floor surrounded by colourful candles and mumbling incantations in Tzotzil. Apart from the candles, another important element of all the rituals is….. Coca-Cola or, less frequently, Fanta, Sprite or sparkling water. That’s right, people come to the church with bottles full of fizzy drinks and sprinkle them around in order to make their prayers heard by God (or gods, I haven’t quite figured that part out!). Sometimes their rituals also involve a chicken or two – birds get sacrificed right in the church, in the circle of candles and soda bottles. Not something you would often see in Notre-Dame de Paris or York Minster!
Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures from San Juan, and those you can find on the Internet are most likely to be of poor quality or taken from strange angles. This fact is easily explained: it’s forbidden to take pictures inside the church and, as I was told, if you are noticed with your camera out, there won’t be a polite request to put it away – instead, the camera will simply be taken from you, or broken. Vendors outside the church do, however, sell postcards of the San Juan interior and portraits of the local people, along with other souvenirs.
This year, on our current trip, we witnessed similar rituals in Guatemala. There, we familiarised ourselves with two local Mayan saints/gods that are often perceived as one due to the similarity of their names: San Simon and Maximon (pronounced as “Mah-shi-mon”). However, as was explained to us in the shrine of the latter, those two are completely different characters.
Wooden idols of both of these saints frequently change location and are normally hidden in rather unnoticeable spots – therefore, in order to find them, you need to ask some of the locals for help. To be fair though, we did manage to find Maximon in Santiago using Google maps – thanks to some big-hearted traveller who had marked its current position.
San Simon looks like a love child of the Godfather, an American cowboy and Pinocchio. As our guide explained to us, this is like a collective image of the white man as the Maya used to see him. When Spanish colonists were trying to eradicate the “pagan” indigenous religions, somebody recommended to the locals that they create a saint who resembled a foreigner – worshipping it could be taken as a sign of respect towards the conquerors.
As for Maximon, he is a pre-Hispanic Mayan god – at least, according to his current cofrade – attendant. His name means “tied up” for a couple of reasons; during festive processions, he is tied to a pole and carried around the streets. Also, the idol of Maximon is all covered in numerous ties that have been presented to him by his worshipers. His original name is not Maximon though – it’s Rilaj Mam, which means “The Grandfather”.
Both gods receive cigars and alcohol as offerings, both are surrounded by colourful candles, and both are taken care of by their own cofradías. Shamans are often involved in rituals in which eggs, fruit and cookies are burned as offerings to the gods; live chickens get sacrificed as well. Generally speaking, San Simon and Maximon have very similar functions: worshippers ask them for health, prosperity, luck in love, etc.
We also learnt about an interesting ritual that takes place when Maximon is asked to protect those going on long journeys. The worshipper is obliged to share a cigarette and a portion of strong alcohol (normally, rum or moonshine) with the god. Alcohol is actually poured into the idol’s mouth by a shaman. Afterwards, the worshipper takes the butt of the cigarette he shared with Maximon on his or her travels, and lights it again when they need The Grandfather’s assistance. Shortly before we arrived at the shrine, such a ceremony had been held for a group of Guatemalans who had just been deported from the USA – they had paid a visit to Maximon hoping for better luck next time.
The most astonishing part of it is that these beliefs somehow peacefully co-exist with the Catholic faith: statues of Jesus Christ and Mother Mary are kept together with the idol of Maximon, and the cofradías take care of them and treat them with just as much respect as The Grandfather himself.
Such a mishmash of completely different religious traditions seems incredible, but on the other hand, when we are decorating our Christmas trees, most of us aren’t thinking about how ancient Celts used to do the same while celebrating Winter Solstice day; we rarely make the connection between hunting for eggs at Easter and the Sumerian goddess of fertility - Ishtar. The Mayan rituals described here are just another example of how different religions, when melded together, give rise to completely new customs and rituals.