Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Maximon, el Rey de Muerte and el Rey de Sol

I took the boat today across Lake Atitlan to the village of Santiago de Atitlan in search of the figure of Maximon, the cigar-chomping hard drinking wooden doll that is the subject of Nathaniel Tarn´s book A Scandal in the House of Birds. Maximon is a purely syncretist figure. He represents Judas, but he is also associated with the traditional Mayan Lords of Death. The Church made many efforts to eradicate him from Mayan worship, but obviously without success. In Tarn´s book the Mayans were rarely openly defiant about keeping Maximon. Rather, they would tell the Church not to worry, they were rid of him. Then Maximon would be leading the next parade.

The ride across Lago de Atitlan is stunning. There are enormous volcanoes stretching into the clouds all around, and little villages stuck to the side of the green hills that surround the lake. The vegetation is still mostly evergreen but mixed with some tropical plants like banana trees.

I thought Maximon would be hard to find, but he was not at all. I was trying to decide who to ask while I was busy shooing away the tuk-tuk drivers surrounding me trying to give me a ride. Then it occurred to me that one of the drivers might know. I was afraid I'd be taken for an expensive wild goose chase, but the driver I asked just gestured up the road. I wasn´t sure where he was pointing, but I started walking that way, and a man came and asked if I was looking for Maximon. His name was Alex, he was a cakchiquel man who looked about my age but was actually younger, as I found out later.

He walked me down a small street, then led me up a small alley. I already knew that Maximon moves around from house to house, so I followed him.

Maximon was up this alley.

Admittance was two quetzales. Maximon was in a dark room hung with colorful paper and illuminated only by candles. He is mostly a decorated mask with a cigar clothed in nothing but a bunch of silk ties. I wasn´t sure if I could get a picture, but Maximon is an entrepreneurial fellow, and you can take pictures of him for ten quetzales more. His hands hold trays where you put the money. In fact you´re supposed to also leave him cigarettes and liquor, but I wasn´t prepared that way.


Off to the right of Maximon is a casket that represents Jesus. To the left is a statue of Jesus carrying the cross. That is the only two figures that they went out of their way to show me. But there is another figure on the left.

Casket of Jesus

The statue on the left was recessed into the darkness. He had a metal mask and was dressed in a robe. There was a cigarette sticking between his toes. I asked who he was, and Alex said in a somewhat embarassed tone, ¨Ah, ese es El Rey de Muerte,¨ or the King of Death.

¨De Xibalba?¨ I asked, but no one answered.

El Rey de Muerte

Then Alex offered to give me a tour of the Church and the rest of the town for Q100. I agreed, because I was grateful to him for showing me Maximon and because he seemed to know his way around. I´m sure I could have haggled him down to Q50, but I am glad I didn´t, because of what I saw later.

The church, much like the one in San Mateo, is about 500 years old, and has a peaked roof instead of an arch in the Mayan style, but is much bigger. The walls are lined with statues of different saints. Alex insisted it was okay to take pictures in the church as well.

Some of the Milagros on the walls of the church

In the back of the church were several large triangular altars illustrated with statues of Jesus, Mary and more saints. In the lower-right hand corner was a seated figure with a brightly decorated face. Alex informed me that that was El Rey de Sol, the King of the Sun. On the side of the altar a man was climbing. Alex told me that he was going up to talk to the man at the top, El Rey de Ciel, or King of the Sky. I suppose if I´d pressed Alex he´d have told me El Rey de Ciel was the same as God, and maybe El Rey de Sol is as well. But the real answer probably isn´t so simple. Anyway, I didn´t press.

I wasn´t sure what else Alex would show me, but I was willing at this point to see whatever he had to show me. So he offered to take me to ¨El Parque de Paz,¨ or Peace Park.

What I saw at Parque de Paz was much deeper than anything I saw at El Maximon´s or the church. Enough that it needs another post.

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